Time for South Texas Photography!

Green Jay in South Texas

Now that summer’s pretty much here it’s time for South Texas photography! The hotter it is the more active the wildlife grow and the better shots you’ll get.

The desolate landscape of the South Texas Brush Country doesn’t look like much, but the biodiversity makes it one of North America’s best places for wildlife photography. It definitely ranks high on my list!

Scientists classify South Texas as a “semi-arid, sub-tropical” region. The result? Lots of wildlife! That includes a large number of bird species living at the far northern edges of their ranges.

Many — e.g. Kiskadee, Green Jay, Audubon’s Oriole, Couch’s Kingbird — are known as “South Texas Specialties.” Spring migration dramatically boosts the number of photogenic subjects that fly your way. By the end of April the summer breeders, such as Painted Buntings, Varied Buntings, and Scissor-tailed Flycatchers have arrived. By now — late-May — tons more species are here.

As I noted above, the best photography occurs when the animals grow hot and thirsty and flock to water to drink and cool off. Painted Buntings, in particular, really like their baths! This makes late-May and June prime photography time in the South Texas Brush Country.

But prepare yourself for the heat! When the animals are hot and thirsty so are you! If heat troubles you, going to South Texas in April to early-May works also, but keep in mind that temps still run very warm.

South Texas is blessed with several parks and preserves for birds and other wildlife. However, if your goal is photography rather than observation, I highly recommend heading to a private ranch set up for photography. These private lands have photo blinds designed specifically for photography. They take into account factors like light direction, backgrounds, interesting perches, and water features. You’ll see birds and animals within feet of you, going about their lives in full view of your lens.

Many photo ranches even have specially created raptor blinds, where interaction between Harris’s Hawks, Crested Caracaras and Turkey Vultures, for example, provides great fodder for your glass.

You can take part in a photo tour at one of these South Texas photo ranches, or pay photo ranches a day rate — either way, your money helps support private land owners who support biodiversity, while also getting a superior photography experience.

Bottom line: in my opinion, South Texas photo ranches offer one of the best opportunities in the United States today for the wildlife photographer.

However, a caveat if you’re considering the day rate: Keep in mind that not all photo ranches open their gates to individuals. And those that do are often booked over a year in advance to tour operators for the months of April through June.

If you decide to photograph on South Texas’ public lands, I recommend checking out some of the nine World Birding Centers. At the centers, you’ll also get to learn about the local avian species. (You’ll see other critters as well — e.g. American alligators, nine-banded armadillos, etc.–depending upon where you go.) But keep in mind that these places aren’t designed for photographers. Instead, they’re primarily created for viewing birds. Backgrounds, set-ups, and lighting will be inferior — though, that doesn’t mean you won’t get some keepers and enjoy the wildlife!

[This article originally appeared in a NANPA (North American Nature Photographers Association) newsletter in 2014. If you’re not a member of NANPA check them out ~ it’s a great group!]

Join me next May for my South Texas Birds in Focus Photo Tour. The tour will bring you to two great photo ranches. More info: http://exploreinfocus.com/joinme/south-texas-birds-photo-tour-2018/

Javelinas fighting in South Texas Photography

The Bluebonnets of Texas

Sandyland bluebonnets and Drummond's phlox

Sandyland bluebonnets and Drummond’s phlox

Historian Jack Maguire once wrote about the bluebonnets of Texas that “the bluebonnet is to Texas what the shamrock is to Ireland, the cherry blossom to Japan, the lily to France, the rose to England and the tulip to Holland.”

But did you know that Texas actually has SIX DIFFERENT SPECIES of native bluebonnets? And all six are considered the Texas State Flower.

Originally, it was just the sandyland bluebonnet (see #5 below), which the Texas Legislature made the Official State Flower in 1901. However, in , 1971 all six bluebonnets of Texas were officially designated the state flower.

All six belong to the “lupus” genus and so, outside of Texas, they’re often called “lupines.”

The Latin word “lupus” means wolf. The plants were so named because they are often found in rocky and poor soils which led early observers to believe that the plants robbed the soil of nutrients.

But the truth is that bluebonnets are legumes and, as legumes, have a bacteria at their root nodules that actually enriches the soil. You’ll often see them growing in poor soils because they can improve their own living conditions, along with those of other plants growing nearby.

The six bluebonnets of Texas are:

Annual lupine

Annual lupine

1) Annual lupine (Lupinus concinnus) ~
These are on the small side (plants and blooms, both) and you’ll find them on the lower, sandy slopes of the Franklin Mountains. The blossoms are more purple than blue and the leaves tend to be rather hairy, but neat looking! (Annual; Blooms: February-April)

2) Big Bend bluebonnet (Lupinus havardii) ~
Also known as the Chisos bluebonnet, these are some tall bluebonnets — 3 to 4 feet tall, in fact! The actual flower averages about 8 inches long and sometimes reaches a foot. They’re also a really dark blue compared with others. (Annual; Blooms: Mid-February–April)

3) Perennial bluebonnet (Lupinus perennis) ~
This plant is very rare in Texas. In fact, until it was recently collected in the Big Thicket, the last time anyone had seen one was in 1931! It’s lacier and softer in tone than other Bluebonnets in the state. In the eastern states, where this version of the flower is more common, they call it sundial bluebonnet. Your chance of seeing one is super low, but who knows what you’ll find in those thick Big Thicket woods. (Perennial; Blooms: March–May)

4) Dune bluebonnet (Lupinus plattensis) ~
These are extremely rare in Texas, but if you do find one it will be in the extreme northwestern portions of the Panhandle. Its name comes from the dune communities of the Platte River where it was first found. It tends to be on the purplish side without the white caps we typically associate with bluebonnets. The plant can reach 2-feet tall. (Perennial; Blooms: April–June)

Sandyland bluebonnets

Sandyland bluebonnets

5) Sandyland bluebonnet (Lupinus subcarnosus) ~
The blue petals on sandyland bluebonnets are spaced sparsely. This is the native bluebonnet in the Post Oak Savannah where Red Belly Ranch is located. Most of our soil is clay so we don’t have a lot of sandylands. Sandyland bluebonnets and Texas bluebonnets (see below) are the only two of the six types that are endemic to Texas— that is to say that it’s the only kind of bluebonnets you cannot find anywhere else naturally. In 1901,sandyland bluebonnets were designated our state flower and until 1971 held the honor solo. (Annual; Blooms: Mid-February–April)

 

6) Texas bluebonnet (Lupinus texensis) ~
When you think “bluebonnet” chances are an image of this flower is what comes to mind. This is what you’re most likely to see growing alongside highways. That familiar Christmas tree form with the nice snow-capped top has grown famous worldwide as the bluebonnet of Texas. Texas bluebonnets and sandyland bluebonnets are the only two endemic bluebonnets; unless someone planted them, you wouldn’t find them naturally growing in another state. Easiest of all to grow. (Annual; Blooms: Mid-February-late-April)

Texas bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush

Texas bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush

7 Tips for Snow Photography

7 Tips for Snow Photography, by Jeff Parker

February often brings winter’s biggest storms so I figured now made a good time to post these “7 Tips for Snow Photography.”

I kept them simple, but feel free to shoot me an email if you want more details.

1) Watch the contrast.

Dark objects in a snowy scene make getting a good exposure a challenge. In fact, it might not be possible on a bright, sunny day. You’ll either have to let the darks block up with no detail or wait for the light to moderate.

2) Overexpose.

Yes, you read that correctly! It may seem counter-intuitive; however, it’s necessary because your light meter wants to make everything medium gray, but YOU want the snow in your pictures to be beautiful white…which brings us to Tip #3…

3) Take charge!

You have to take control of your camera. If left to its own devices the snow that shows up in your image won’t be bright enough. I generally work in Manual mode and set my exposure so that it reads about 2 stops overexposed when the frame is filled with snow. If using one of the other modes adjust your Exposure Compensation to +2. Take a test shot and check that histogram. A snowy scene should have data almost to the right edge of the histogram.

4) Play with shutter speed.

If shooting in falling snow, try different shutter speeds. A fast shutter speed like 1/500sec. will “freeze” the snow into flakes. A slower shutter speed, less than 1/100sec will cause the falling snow to appear as streaks. Of course if you change the shutter speed you will also have to change the aperture or ISO to keep a proper exposure.

5) Don’t tread on it.

This may seem obvious, but it’s a really easy mistake to make, especially when you get absorbed in planning your shot and getting creative — you tend to forget where you’re walking. True — footprints can add interest to an image, but add that interest AFTER you’ve created the other types of images you can make at the scene. There’s no going back once you’ve left tracks.

6) Protect against camera condensation.

One of the biggest problems for cameras in cold weather is condensation. Condensation commonly occurs when bringing your camera from dry, cold temperatures outdoors into warm and relatively moist conditions (e.g. your home or car). To avoid condensation remove your memory card and battery(s) from your camera and transfer your gear into your bag and seal it while you’re still in the cold air. Now when you bring the camera gear inside, everything can warm up gradually.

7) Bring extra batteries.

Batteries drain faster in colder temperatures, so while doing snow photography it’s wise to carry extras and keep them in a pocket inside your coat, closer to your body heat, until they are needed. Newer lithium ion batteries have less problems with this, but it’s still a good idea to keep extras close by.

Winter Nature Activities in Texas

Finding winter nature activities in Texas may seem tough even though our Lone Star winters aren’t always cold. (In fact, as I write this at the tail-end of December the temperature is a balmy 80 degrees!). But the Lone Star actually offers plenty to do in nature this time of year.

Here are three of mine and Mary O’s favorite winter nature activities in Texas:

Rains County EagleFest

http://www.visitrainscounty.com/eagle-fest-2017

Where:  Emory

When:  January

Bald Eagle photograph by Jeff Parker, wildlife photographer

Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocehalus) typically mate for life, but don’t begin until reaching 4-6 years of age.


In 1995, the State Legislature declared Rains County the Bald Eagle Capital of Texas.  Since then residents have taken pride in helping visitors get good glimpses of the once-endangered birds.

Eagle-spotting excursions via bus or boat take place at Lake Fork Reservoir, where a growing population nests each winter.

Back in town, the main festival features events such as raptor rehabilitator presentations & lots of on-site kid-attractants, including critters like baby gators, squirrels, opossums, turtles, & snakes.   Adults capturing a great eagle image can enter a post-festival photo contest.

An amazing spirit of volunteerism—from boat captains, bus drivers, tour guides, organizers, food preparers, & booth operators, to those going out beforehand to count & locate the birds—contributes to this event’s success.

This region, especially, attracts Bald Eagles as they arrive each from points north, usually returning to the prior year’s nest to raise their young. Rains County, situated between the bass-laden Lake Fork Reservoir and Lake Tawankoni, provides habitat the birds find especially attractive.

The fish-favoring raptors arrive in early-October, usually returning to the prior year’s nest, and stay until early-spring (though some populations continue nesting in-state through July).

Whooping Crane Festival

http://www.whoopingcranefestival.org

Where:  Rockport-Fulton

When:  February

Whooping Crane Photo Tour with Jeff Parker

In 1937, the government established Aransas National Wildlife Refuge to protect the wintering grounds of Whooping Cranes (Grus americana), which sat perched on extinction’s edge.


Folks come from all over the U.S. & Canada for this celebration.  The Canadian connection is especially poignant considering that the Whooping Cranes you’ll spot have also traveled down to Texas from our northern neighbor.

The festival features experts from all four of Whooping Crane conservation & reintroduction areas, including Wood Buffalo National Park in Canada’s Northwest Territory. Some of these folks, such as annual speaker, Dr. George Archibald, have as many fans as the birds themselves. 

Birding trips by bus & boat, photo workshops, field trips, a nature related trade show, children’s activities—including the “Not So Creepy Corner”—& lots more. 

Visit their website for a list of offered activities. Register online or mail a check using the handy downloadable PDF.

Heads up:  make lodging reservations far ahead of time; over 1500 visitors show up for this annual event.

Central-Texas Show Caves

Natural Bridge Caverns photo by Jeff Parker

Much of the Hill Country’s below-ground topography consists of larger scale karsting, explaining why so many show caves populate the area. (Shown here: Natural Bridge Caverns)

Winter’s a great time to visit these caves because their inner temps stay a stable 68-70 degrees year-round. Exact temps vary according to cave and location within the cave, but even if a Norther blows in the caves don’t grow cold.

Why does Central Texas have so many awesome caves?

About 100-million years ago, during the Cretaceous Period, the area along the Edwards Plateau was home to a warm, shallow sea.  With time, layers of limestone imbedded with billions of tiny sea critters built up to form Edwards Limestone.

The oldest layer creates the Glen Rose Formation, home to most of what you see here. Fossilized remains and a variety of prehistoric forms of water—from lagoons, to deep sea waters, to flowing rivers—gave these stones a diversity of forms and consistencies.  Almost all contain some amount of carbonate. 

With time, a type of chemical erosion called “karsting” etched “Swiss cheese” characteristics into carbonate-containing rocks to create the unique shapes we see today. Much of the Hill Country’s below-ground topography consists of larger scale karsting, explaining why so many show caves populate the area.

NOTE:

These write-ups on Winter Nature Activities in Texas were done by my wife, Mary O. Parker, author of “Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide.” The book features nearly 250 of my photos.

Push Yourself Beyond Your Comfort Zone

JParker_160917_7215

I was a “car guy” long before I took up photography, and so when I had the opportunity to do some photography recently at Circuit of the Americas during both the Lone Star LeMans and Formula 1 events I was really excited.

But it didn’t take long before I realized that all my shots kind of looked the same. Sure, they captured different cars, but the basic position didn’t change much. Honestly, the shots were turning out a bit boring overall.

I didn’t have a pass to get down to track level so I had to put my thinking cap on and see what I could do to add variety and interest to my shots.

As you know, aperture and shutter speed are the camera controls that most affect the look of our shots.

But, since I was limited on how close I could get to the track, aperture (depth of field) wasn’t going to make much of a difference.

This left shutter speed. A really fast shutter speed will stop all movement and leave the cars looking like they were just parked on the track. Talk about a boring shot!

So, that left the idea of slowing the shutter speed.

1/10th sec. pan

1/10th sec. pan

Slowing the shutter speed provided a huge range of possibility. I shot all the way from 1/160th of a second to a full second. The fast end of this range showed the movement of the wheels and the slowest speeds became abstracts. I tried panning with the cars, and also tried leaving the camera stationary.

JParker_161021_8208

 

The point is I tried all kinds of different things. I pushed beyond my comfort zone. I literally gave everything a shot.
And with digital, it’s easy enough to delete the ones that didn’t work. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

That’s when I had an “ah-ha” that this same idea also applies to my nature photography. But it took the motorsports photography to make me realize it.

1 second pan

1 second pan

Why?  Likely because the very act of photographing race cars pushed me out of my comfort zone and forced me to think about what I was doing I was less attached to the outcome than I might normally have been.

So next time you’re out photographing — whether it’s a subject with which you’re comfortable or not — push yourself to change it up. Do something you don’t usually do. Push past resistance.

Lay on the ground. Come at it from an odd angle. Use a really slow shutter speed. Try a really open aperture, or really stop it down. Get out before daylight. Stay out after sunset.

Push past the old tried and true. Push yourself beyond your comfort zone. You’ll be really glad you did!

Autumn Macro Photography Tips

Macro Photography Tips from Jeff Parker

As we head into November, I thought I’d post a blog featuring some autumn macro photography tips. Enjoy!

1) Abstract in Autumn.

Macro’s great for creating abstract art, and autumn leaves make one of the best subjects for making that happen – not simply because of the character of their veins and edges (as you’d expect), but for the interesting manner in which their colors appear.

As the seasons change and chlorophyll vacates it results in leaves with interesting transitional patterns in varying shades of yellow, orange, and green. These three are analogous colors, which serve as icing on the cake when it comes to creating the perfect abstract motif!

2) Parallel Pleases.

Maximize your depth of field by placing your camera on a parallel plane with your subject. Be sure to square the sensor to the subject.

This is especially important when you want to accomplish something such as getting both of a butterfly’s wings in focus.

By the way: in many places, fall affords lots more butterflies than spring! That’s certainly true here in October at my central-Texas “Red Belly Ranch.”

3) Get Intimate.

While your macro lens gets you up-close and personal, it’s up to you to communicate something special about your subject. Think about why it caught your eye in the first place, and how to infuse your image with that.

Changing your perspective—seeing it from a different angle, under slightly changed lighting, or with something else in the background (so that maybe even the color behind your subject would be different)—can make a big difference when it comes to highlighting the unique essence that “spoke” to you.

4) Add Light.

The closer your lens is to the subject, the less light will be available. Since we usually stop down to maximize depth of field, the loss of light put a serious damper on your shutter speed. To compensate, raise that ISO and/or use flash. I also often use a flashlight when working in macro.

I like this option because it allows me to pinpoint where I need light—even lighting my subject from behind if I desire.

5) Focus with Your Feet.

While most say a tripod is a macro must, try telling that to the butterfly you’re trying to get in focus before it flutters away!

In such situations, rather than trying to autofocus, use manual focus, shooting in high-speed burst mode, while—ever so slightly—moving the camera (and your body) forward and backward until you achieve focus.

6) Eliminate Movement Magnification.

Not only is the subject magnified with macro, but so too is every mistake you make.

Windy days and macro don’t usually mix, but if you have no other choice, be sure to bring along something to block the wind for a bit (a piece of cardboard can do wonders). Clothes pins and other such clamps also come in handy to stabilize spindly subjects.

7) Color & Composition Count.

Minutiae can mesmerize when working in macro, often causing us to hone in our subject without considering its surroundings. But, just as with any other image, composition counts.

So too does color. If you have a choice, give your subject a background comprised of a complementary or analogous color. In the fall, you’ll have an easier time finding analogous colors, particularly reds, oranges, yellows, and greens.

Artist in Residence ~ Togiak NWR

Togiak Lake, Togiak NWR Alaska

Togiak Lake, Togiak NWR Alaska

I was an Artist in Residence at Togiak National Wildlife Refuge as part of the Voices of the Wilderness Program. Here are some thoughts from my time in southwestern Alaska:

WILDERNESS?

My first afternoon I’m with just one person: Allen Miller, a Supervisory Park Ranger. I’m accompanying Allen as he makes his law enforcement rounds.

A float plane drops us, our gear, and our food off at Goodnews Lake. We’ll float down the Goodnews River and the same float plane will pick up us 55 miles downriver three days from now.

It is my first time ever in a float plane and it’s a blast! Decades ago I came close to obtaining my pilot’s license and, while I always found flying in a small plane fun, I find the float plane experience, especially so.

Allen and I drift miles from our drop-off point and all goes well. If things had gone wrong he would’ve been able to call for help; he checks in with headquarters twice a day with a satellite phone.

It’s just the two of us out here on the first afternoon. As we float down the river we will begin to come across fishing parties.  The farther downriver we go, the more frequently we come across fishermen.  After we cross out of the designated wilderness the boat traffic picks up markedly as there are no motor restrictions outside.

The aloneness, however, hasn’t meant silence, nor has the fact that we’re in a “designated wilderness.”Since this is Alaska exceptions are made to the “no engines in designated wilderness” rule for float planes. Our float plane, of course, was part of that exception and made getting to our remote locale possible.

However, that exception creates lots of ongoing noise that detracts from the wilderness experience. Several times a day planes come and go ferrying fishermen in and out of the wilderness. (At least there are no motorboats this far up the river.)

On the third day we are woken by a wolf howling close to camp. We didn’t see it, but it was great to hear. A wonderful reminder that we share this space with wild things. Another reminder comes later in the morning when we spot a grizzly sow and her three cubs about a half mile away.

The wildlife sounds and sightings are so welcome. I’ve been missing them. This is beautiful country but if feels void of wildlife and so it leaves me feeling a bit lonely and sad.

NO NAME

The next part of my journey takes place via motorboat. A young man named Keemuel Kenrud, a member of the local Yup’ik Eskimo group, acts as my guide. We head up the Togiak River to Togiak Lake. There, the lake is mirror smooth. The mountains surrounding the lake are ruggedly beautiful.

A hanging glacier caps one of the mountains and I ask Keemuel its name. He thinks a bit and comes to the conclusion that it doesn’t have one. Later I look up the glacier on a topographic map and sure enough it is not labeled with a name. I reflect on how cool it is to find myself in country with unnamed glaciers.

I have a moment as we’re leaving, a strange blip in time when I look around and realize that I will never see this lake or these mountains or that glacier again.

Most times I don’t think that way, or if I do I figure I’ll be back someday. But in that moment I know how unlikely it is that I’ll ever return to Togiak Lake. Without the Artist in Residence Program I wouldn’t have been able to come in the first place.

JALAPEÑOS

As a Texas native jalapeños are run of the mill to me. In fact, you’ll find them at just about every local restaurant in the Lone Star State. But I certainly don’t expect them in Dillingham, Alaska (population 2,400)-—- the town closest to the national wildlife refuge. When I go grocery shopping to stock my little cabin I discover them in the produce section and I’m shocked! I ask myself, “I wonder who here eats jalapeños?”

I get my answer soon. In the tiny indigenous village that Keemuel comes from -—- the refuge’s namesake, Togiak -—- Keemuel has a burger named after him. You can order it at the little burger counter inside the local store. They call the burger “The Keem” and it features cheese and jalapeños.

So, of course, I have to eat one with Keemuel. Surreal: there I am, a Texas boy, in the town of Togiak, Alaska, chowing down on a jalapeño cheeseburger with a Yup’ik Eskimo.

You just never know where life will lead you next. Another reason for staying open to possibility!

WARMING

Global warming’s effects are tangible here and the refuge staff doesn’t hesitate to share their concerns about it with me.

Last winter, the snow didn’t stick. A couple of days after each snow it would rain and melt it all. The permafrost is melting. Trees are invading the tundra. The pack ice no longer comes in here.

The walrus are summering somewhere else. This is especially noteworthy because this is one of the major claims to fame for this NWR -—- the Pacific walrus has, historically been a famous visitor here. It also plays a big role in the Yup’ik’s sustenance.

At 20 years old, Keemuel already speaks wistfully about how cold it used to get. How he misses real winter. He wonders what it means that it doesn’t get cold like that anymore.

I wonder what the future holds for his people. For that matter, I wonder what the future holds for us all.

Bat Viewing in Texas

Bat Viewing in Texas heats up in August
Bat viewing in Texas heats up in the summer, especially in August.

Bats live on every continent except Antarctica. Of the 1,000 or so unique species worldwide, 70% eat insects. In Texas, we have 32 species of bats statewide. (Learn about 10 of them here.)

In Texas, our most numerous species is the Mexican Free-tailed Bat (Tadarida brasiliensis). Bat viewing in Texas gets especially great in August because Mexican Free-tailed Bat numbers peak when pups are able to accompany their mothers on nightly forays for food. In late-summer, our Texas-wide Free-tailed population is estimated to reach at least 100 MILLION!

As warm-blooded mammals, Mexican Free-tailed Bats give live birth. Females only give birth to one young per year, which they’ll nurse for 6-10 weeks. Males stay on just long enough to mate with any available females before heading out to form colonies of their own (called “bachelor colonies”).

Females give birth, usually in June, to a single hairless pup. Newborns arrive weighing about a third the weight of their mothers (that’s akin to a human birthing a 40-pound baby!). Each pup has a unique scent and sound so its mother can identify it.

Within about 4-weeks pups fly and, by usually at 5-6-weeks of age, they join “Mom” in nightly food forays. In late-July, you’ll likely notice juveniles practicing flight. See a furiously flapping bat and you’ll know you’ve spotted one!

In Texas, Mexican Free-tailed Bats chomp an average of 300 tons of bugs from dusk to dawn! By weight that equals about 150 SUV’s — PER NIGHT! That’s a lot of mosquitoes among other insects that we don’t want to get out of hand.

As Mexican Free-tails forage they eat lots of moths, particularly Corn Borers, one of the nation’s most virulent agricultural pests, which rank only second to Boll Weevils in total pounds of pesticides used in control attempts. Texas bats save Texas’ farmers millions of dollars a year in lost crops.

As long ago as 1917, the Texas Legislature recognized this important service by creating the first and, then, only, known law protecting them. The law made it a misdemeanor to willfully kill or injure the mammals.

Ready to take advantage of this awesome natural phenomenon? Here are three of mine and Mary O.’s favorite bat viewing sites in Texas:

HOUSTON: Waugh Drive Bats


With small crowds & close views, this spot provides an intimate bat-viewing experience. Learn lots from on-site interpretive signage while waiting for the 250,000 (or so) mammals to emerge.

Down the slope, at the bridge’s bottom edge, listen to the singular sound of thousands of chattering bats readying to rouse (think: crickets on steroids!).

Get best views of exiting bats from atop the bridge. The summertime stream lasts at least ½-hour.

Many fly across Allen Parkway, sky-mingling with sky-rises, generating a unique juxtaposition of nature and steel. Others bolt over the bayou and a nearby Magnolia-treed area. Head toward those trees, going left at the circular sidewalk; there, as the bats swoop low for insect meals, they come mere inches from the top of your head…a super cool experience!

Waugh Drive in Houston provides a more intimate bat-viewing experience

Some of the bats live here year-round, but the longest exiting stream occurs in late-August when mothers & pups all fly (emergence can last an hour). Bridge-top offers the best bat viewing when the mammals first emerge.
http://www.houstontx.gov/parks/batpage.html

CONCAN: Frio Bat Flight


At dusk, a seemingly endless supply of bats streams forth from a pit stretching down 2,000-feet. The hole houses an estimated 12-million flying mammals, comprised primarily of three species.

Most are Mexican Free-tailed Bats, which arrive each spring to breed, staying-on through early-fall to raise their young. In-midsummer, after giving birth to most of the pups, the population peaks here as it does elsewhere in Texas.

Peter’s Ghost-faced Bats arrive in September to stay through winter, while Cave Myotis Bats live here year-round.

Sunsets laden with Hill Country color escort you into prime time; the moment the sun dips below the horizon the flow of this fauna really heats up!

Don’t leave early even though much of the crowd does or you’ll miss the best part! Moments after sunset brings most activity. Stand near the cave’s opening where bats zoom best overhead & catch wind from their wings.

Rocky seats afford sitting space, but your own chair will make your experience much better. Also bring a hat, umbrella (for shade & poop protection), and sunscreen. Temps get hot! Sunglasses a must as you’ll look into the sun. Cold drinks a good idea, too.

On your drive in, look for Armadillos, Rio Grande Turkeys, & White-tailed Deer. When leaving in dark watch for the sparkling orange eyes of Chuck-will’s Widows on dirt road.
http://friobatflight.com

Bat Viewing in Texas at Frio Bat Flight

AUSTIN: Congress Avenue Bridge


It begins as a trickle, but eventually turns into a swarm each summer night in downtown Austin when more than 1.5-million Mexican Free-tailed Bats leave their daytime roost –— the crevice-filled Congress Avenue bridge —– to sally forth in search of supper.

The festive atmosphere at the site of North America’s largest urban bat colony makes even waiting great fun. A sense of anticipation fills the air, as children run and play in the lawn, friends laugh, and families and couples munch on picnic dinners.

Once dusk descends, watch the bats stream forth non-stop for at least an hour.

Bat viewing in Texas in summer - millions of bats!

Bring a blanket or a chair for lawn locations, placing chairs to rear of viewing area so as not to block others. Consider the clock when making your plans as bats don’t come out until right at dusk and you’ll be waiting in summer heat. Hat & lightweight water-resistant jacket are good ideas for guano protection, though we’ve never really had an issue.

The bridge above offers a different view; sometimes better, but often dark water below makes bats tough to see — and photograph. The side closest to the Four Seasons Hotel offers the best bridge location.
http://www.batcon.org/index.php/our-work/regions/usa-canada/protect-mega-populations/cab-intro

It’s about the Experience…

Puma wild and free in Patagonia.

Puma wild and free in Patagonia.

I know you’ve seen the shots. The mountain lion leaping from one red rock to another. The close-up of the beautiful, fluffy wolf. The stunning snow leopard slinking through the snow.

I can virtually guarantee these are shots of game farm animals. I feel like these shots cheat the viewer, the animal and even the photographer.

Let me explain.

The viewer thinks that photographer had spent days scouting for the animal, patiently waiting in the cold and then nailing the perfect shot when the elusive quarry finally reveals itself. What would that viewer think if he knew the reality was the trained animal was let out of a crate and commanded to jump multiple times until everyone got the shot? Or was taken from its kennel to a slightly larger enclosure with natural features while the photographer clicked away?

It might still be a great image of a beautiful animal but it’s about as magical as photographing your dog.

There’s been much written about the treatment of animals at game farms so I’m not going to get into that. Just please be aware of where your money is going and what it’s supporting.

For me the one who is really cheated is the photographer. Cliché I know, but isn’t life about the journey? By going to a game farm you’ve missed out on a whole experience. You will return home with memory cards full but what about your own memories? There is the whole environment the animal lives in to experience. The sounds, the smells, the wind. And then there are the other animals and photogenic subjects also living in that environment.

Yacare caiman doing the water dance; photo by Jeff Parker in Pantanal

Yacare caiman doing the water dance


A prime example occurred on the first morning of my Jaguars of the Pantanal Photo Tour. Our guide wanted to head out at 9am because that would give us a better chance of spotting jaguars. I wanted to already be underway as the sun was coming up. As photographers it’s all about the light and I felt there would be plenty to photograph besides jaguars. He reluctantly agreed.

What an adventure we had! As the sun began to come up mist rose from the water’s surface. Yacare caimans began to bellow and do the “water dance” in the morning mist. A group of giant otters surrounded our boat. They would pop up within a few feet, crunching away on a just-caught fish. Such fun to watch them cavort and play! There were birds galore calling and feeding. And monkeys.

When we came in for lunch the guide gave me an “I told you so” expecting that we regretted our choice. My response was that we had a fantastic morning! We witnessed so much and took many photos of the other denizens of the Pantanal. We got plenty of jaguars on that trip, but we also went out before sunrise every morning and surrounded ourselves in the experience.

Wild jaguar at home in the Pantanal, by Jeff Parker

Wild jaguar at home in the Pantanal

Wild wolves playing in the Yellowstone snow

Wild wolves playing in the Yellowstone snow. A terrible photo, but an amazing memory!

In 2007, Mary and I ventured to Yellowstone in the winter. We spent several days in Lamar Valley looking for and watching wolves. Sometimes watching wolves sleep.

One of my most treasured memories is of watching a trio of wolves playing on the snow covered bank of the river. They would slide and tumble down in the snow and then race back to the top to do it again. Over and over again.

Did I get the shot? No, they were too far away for the shots to be much. But I had the experience. I stood in the cold, surrounded by snow covered mountains watching wolves play. Hearing them howl. Seeing them test the fitness of some bison.

Any time I think of those wolves and that day it makes me happy!

Snow leopards are on my bucket list. I could easily go to a Montana game farm and get as many shots as I want.

But that is not the experience I seek. I want to be surrounded by snow peaks. I want to see blue sheep. I want to see and hear Buddhist prayer flags snapping in the wind.

I may not even see a snow leopard. But you know what? That’s OK. I will still have the memory of the journey and all that I experienced in the quest.

Explore Texas ~ Book Release Event ~ June 2016

Explore Texas:  A Nature Travel Guide
It’s now finally official:“Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide,” the book that my wife, Mary O. Parker and I have been working on for a few years will be out at the beginning of June. It’s being released by Texas A&M University Press.

When asked what the book’s about, our short answer is, it’s a book for nature lovers who love to travel and travelers who love nature!

Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center has kindly offered to hold our book release and dedication event there on June 23, 2016 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. This venue is located in McAllen, Texas.

Mary and I would love to have you join us. There is no cost for the event. Join us and enjoy a presentation that we’ll be doing, which features my photos and Mary’s research. We’re going to talk about some of the best spots to experience nature in the Lone Star State, what types of flora and fauna you can expect to see while you’re there, and what to do when you’re there.Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, activity icons

The book includes 96 different entries, organized into the seven different travel regions of Texas. We divided “Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide” into the seven official travel regions of Texas. Each entry has a “Learn” section in which Mary writes about the natural attractions you can expect to see during your visit.

We’ll be dedicating the book to John F. and Audrey Martin.

Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide, dedicated to John F. and Audrey Martin

John F. & Audrey Martin

For those of you not familiar with the Martins, they are very much responsible for getting the concept of Texas wildlife photography ranches going and helping make them so popular worldwide. Because Texas has so little public property (about 3%!) the Martins wanted to find a way to reward private landowners economically for being good land stewards. They, along with others, also played a huge role in establishing the Valley Land Fund, then went on to create Images for Conservation Fund (ICF).

Join us at Quinta Mazatlan World Birding Center in McAllen on Thursday night, June 23 from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. and learn more about where — and how — you can explore Texas naturally. While you’re there, introduce yourself to the Martins and be sure to thank them for all that they’ve done. Then head over to where Mary and I will be signing books and get a copy for yourself.

National Wildlife Refuges ~ America’s Better Idea

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Bosque del Apache NWR

The National Parks have famously been called “America’s best idea.” I have visited many of our National Parks and they ARE awesome. However, I tend to think that our National Wildlife Refuges are “America’s Better Idea.”

Our National Parks were created for their scenic beauty or historical significance. Any habitat preservation or wildlife protection that occurred was a happy coincidence. Many of our grandest parks are mostly rock and ice. Yellowstone, the granddaddy Numero Uno of our parks system, was created because of the geological wonders of the area. Wildlife never entered the picture. In fact some of the most important areas for wildlife, the valleys, are not part of the park.

National Wildlife Refuges, on the other hand, were created specifically for wildlife. Their mission is wildlife conservation. Some even have scenic beauty!

With more than 560 refuges, there is at least one in every state. These refuges provide, well, refuge for our native wildlife. In some cases, the refuge habitat may be the only place a particular species is found.

Without Aransas National Wildlife Refuge we would no longer have the privilege of hearing the bugle of Whooping Cranes. At one time the entire world population of these birds spent every winter at Aransas. Until the mid-1950’s nobody even knew where they went in the summer, but we sure knew where to find them in the winter!

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Cranes

Laguna Atascosa NWR and some private property nearby hold the last breeding population of ocelots in the United States. Without the refuge provided by the Refuge, these beautiful jungle cats would vanish from our country.

The coastal prairies of Louisiana and Texas once covered six million acres. Within that area lived an estimated one million Attwater’s Prairie Chickens. Today, the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken has a wild population hovering around a mere 100. That’s up from 40 in 2002. This highly endangered bird would no longer be with us without, you guessed it, the aptly named Attwater Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.

Attwater's Prairie Chicken

Attwater’s Prairie Chicken

At the other end of the spectrum, Bosque del Apache NWR is home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes and tens of thousands of Snow Geese every winter. What an amazing, astounding spectacle it is to see 20,000+ Snow Geese blast off against the backdrop of an eye-popping New Mexico sunrise. If you love wildlife this is an experience you need to have!

Each year, millions of migrating birds depend upon our National Wildlife Refuges as stepping stones of habitat. The refuges provide places to rest and refuel during the long journey between winter and summer ranges.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

Our National Wildlife Refuges also provide places for our psyches to rest and refuel. Whether you go for a strenuous hike in a designated wilderness area or relax on a viewing deck within feet of your car, being in Nature with wildlife really is good for you. Breathe, slow down and take in the myriad forms of life that also inhabit this earth.

What a blessing it is to have these lands set aside for wildlife!

The majority of the refuges are open to the public. There is a very good chance there is one within an hour’s drive of where you live. Go check them out. You might not see an ocelot or Attwater’s Prairie Chicken but I’ll bet you’ll find many other forms of wildlife.