Outdoor Photographer Puma Article

The April 2018 issue of Outdoor Photographer features Jeff's puma article and cover shot.

I am stoked to share the great news! The April 2018 issue of Outdoor Photographer features my image of a puma from Patagonia on the cover.

It also includes the article I wrote about the Pumas of Patagonia, along with a host of additional images. Here’s the text:

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“There he is!” whispers my wife Mary O.

We’re near Torres del Paine National Park, Chile sitting in a van in the cold rain. Mary O. has just spotted a large male puma making his way down the hill to the guanaco kill we’ve been watching for the last hour. For the next 45 minutes we have the privilege of watching the interactions between this male, a female and two juvenile pumas at the kill–the sort of behavior very few folks have ever actually witnessed in the wild.

The biologist with us on the photo shoot – a big cat specialist – had never seen such behavior before. Most research has been conducted on pumas in North America, where adult males such as this one – likely the mate of the female and the father of the two kittens – don’t hang around out with, and especially don’t dine with, others. This behavior in South America may transpire because the ecological fitness of the habitat minimizes the sort of competitive forces we see in more northern parts.

Of course, much wild puma behavior of any kind has not been observed. Many people live their whole lives in cougar country without ever seeing one at all. When they are spotted, it’s typically only a fleeting glimpse. Researchers generally depend on tracking collared animals or using camera traps.

At any other time, on any other trip this would have been the absolute pinnacle experience. On this trip however, it’s just the latest of many such incredible experiences.

Over the past few days we have observed and photographed four other pumas including a pair of 6-7 month old kittens. We have seen a variety of behavior including kittens playing, a stalk, grooming, and watching the cats simply generally being the supreme masters of their domain.

These are wild, free-ranging pumas going about their daily lives. Not game farm or otherwise captive animals. A year ago I would not have believed this was possible. At this location it’s not only possible, but virtually guaranteed.

The secretive nature of these cats is legendary. How were we able to witness so much activity? A new conservation program in southern Chile, which focuses on compensating landowners for access to their property made this achievable.

Most of our puma prowling took place on a 17,000 acre private ranch adjacent to the national park. Due to a recent rule change the park no longer allows off-trail hiking in pursuit of pumas.

Thankfully, our local contact has an agreement already in place allowing access to the ranch where we can roam as we wish. This is not only good for us but good for the pumas. By collecting a fee for access, the landowner has an incentive to allow the pumas to remain on his property without persecution.

Wildlife viewing and photography tours include ranch access fees, monies which go directly to the landowner and provide tangible proof of the value of pumas. Some ranches bordering the national park have even agreed to remove all sheep from the land for a trial period in order to give photo tourism a go.

Even when we were observing wildlife in the park it was a far different experience than what we are used to in places like Yellowstone. If you have not lived it you’ve probably seen videos of the circus created around wildlife sightings there. Due mostly to a much lower visitation rate, we had the cats all to ourselves for 45 minutes.

And what a location! Torres del Paine is an awesome photographic destination in itself with soaring dramatic peaks, turquoise blue lakes and glaciers. The pumas are just the delicious icing on this tasty cake.

The primary prey for the pumas in this region is the guanaco. These wild ancestors of the llama and alpaca are abundant here and fairly tolerant of people, allowing for some great photo opportunities. They also help us locate the pumas. When the guanacos spot a puma they start sounding an alarm call. This call is very distinctive and when heard it alerts us to start looking very carefully for a puma. The pumas can be very difficult to spot as their coloring blends perfectly with the vegetation.

The other large animals in the area are birds. Darwin’s rhea, Chilean flamingos and Andean condors are all local residents.

The Darwin’s rhea, one of three “Lesser rhea” subspecies, are large flightless birds related to the ostrich and emu. The Darwin’s are slightly smaller than the Greater Rhea found in the Pantanal.

The IUCN Red List classifies Chilean flamingos as “Near Threatened.” These birds are one of four flamingo species in South America. It is slightly smaller than the Caribbean flamingo.

With a wingspan of nearly eleven feet, the Andean condor is the largest flying land bird in South America and one of the largest in the world. The IUCN lists them as “Near Threatened.” On the last day of the trip we had the pleasure of visiting a condor roost and watching eighty of these birds soaring above and below our cliff side perch. These birds kept flying above us, checking us out!

This was the trip of a lifetime as few people have ever seen pumas in the wild. I was making plans for a return trip to share with a few fellow adventurers even before we left.

Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be deleting images of mountain lions because they are just not quite sharp enough. I would have been thrilled just to see one at all. But now thanks to landowner cooperation, lack of persecution, and the open terrain of the Torres del Paine region, the pumas have grown accustomed to observation (as long as it remains from a respectful distance).

The result? While the hike in can prove challenging (typically a hilly one to two miles each way while bearing photo equipment and braving the famous Patagonian winds), once in place the photography – and the “awe” factor- comes easy.

7 Tips for Night Sky Photography

7 Tips for Night Sky Photography from Jeff Parker

If the stars appear brighter to you in winter you’re not losing your mind! One reason is that during this time of year those of us in the Northern Hemisphere are looking through the Orion Arm of our Milky Way galaxy.

Another reason is that because cold air doesn’t hold as much moisture the sky tends to be clearer in the winter.

So while winter’s here, bundle up and get out there with your camera in hand! Here are my “7 Tips for Photographing the Night Sky” to help you capture some great nighttime images:

1. Make the mode Manual

In auto or semi-auto modes, our cameras make adjustments based on what they think we want. However, when shooting night skies, our cameras tend to be terrible mind readers! For night photography, you’ve got to take control & shoot in Manual mode.

2. Do the math to get points

Want your stars to appear as points or trails? To get points, the general rule is to divide your focal length into 500 to determine shutter speed. For example: with a 20mm lens, the math looks like this: 500/20=25. Note that this is the maximum shutter speed to retain the stars as points of light. That means your stars will start to streak with a shutter speed longer than 25 seconds. (Refer to Tip #5)

3. Construct star trails

In the film days you could just lock your shutter open & leave it to record the stars as arcs. With digital you can still do that, but I don’t recommend it; when a shutter’s open for a long period the sensor heats up & produces hot pixels. (This is a separate issue from the usual high ISO noise.) Instead, construct your digital star trails by shooting a series of 30-second exposures over at least a 45-minute period. Combine them into one image using Photoshop, other software, or a website. StarStax, my favorite, is free!

4. Manual focus is a must!

Once it’s dark enough to photograph the Milky Way it’ll be too dark for autofocus to work. Can you just set your lens to the infinity mark? This does often work, but doesn’t always give you the sharpest focus. During daylight, focus on a distant subject to see if it lines up with the infinity mark. If not, either tape the focus ring into position or make your own mark. For another strategy, employ Live View & magnify the display as much as possible. Then manually focus until the stars are sharp.

5. Settings

The formula for obtaining a shutter speed in Tip #2 above marks the max for capturing stars as points. But you can choose a shorter exposure. After about 10 seconds the starlight your sensor has captured won’t shine any brighter; however, the longer your shutter remains open the more sky glow you’ll collect.
Regarding your aperture: keep it wide open. Hopefully, you have a pretty fast lens (an f/2.8 makes a good choice).
ISO is your main brightness control. I find ISO 3200 works pretty well. Remember—the beauty of digital is the ease of experimentation! Try both higher & lower ISO’s to discover what you like.
For white balance, I like 4000K. If shooting RAW leave your white balance on auto & change it during post-processing. Again, experiment to determine the white balance that looks right to you.

Light painting is a lot of fun!  Explore in Focus with Jeff Parker

6. Light painting

When shooting the heavens consider adding an earth-bound element to increase image interest. Foreground items will need some light unless you’re styling for a silhouette. Light painting’s lots of fun & easy to do. A simple flashlight works wonders. Keep that light moving & don’t let it stay in one spot for too long.
Light painting can cause depth-of-field issues since you’re shooting wide open & focused at infinity. With a lens in the 20mm-24mm range, there’s a good chance the hyperfocal distance will make your foreground element acceptably sharp. Find the hyperfocal distance for your lens at www.dofmaster.com.

7. Equipment

When it comes to which camera to use high ISO performance is key! If your camera’s less than 5 years old it’ll most likely work just fine.

For making Milky Way shots, a lens in the 16mm-24mm range is your best bet. The faster the better—f /4 will work, but f/2.8 or faster is better.

Working with these kinds of exposure times makes a tripod non-negotiable.

A headlamp keeps your hands free to operate your camera. To preserve your night vision, choose a headlamp with a red LED.

Join Jeff Parker for his Big Bend Photo Tour and photograph amazing night skies!

7 Tips to Nurture the Art of Seeing

7 Tips to Nurture the Art of Seeing Unique Photography Compositions

I offer my “7 Tips to Nurture the Art of Seeing” in the spirit Pablo Picasso’s words: “The purpose of art is washing the dust of daily life off our souls.”

I think part of what helps us wash away that “dust” is finding ways to approach the world differently than we usually do. I welcome your input and suggestions and successes in doing that. Email me and let me know what works for you!

1) Think like a kid.

When framing the shot, ask yourself, “How would a child visualize this?” Then capture it in those terms.

Unique ways to photograph frogs and toads by Jeff Parker

2) Get rid of preconceptions.

Before taking any shot, stop & make sure you aren’t carrying along a preconceived idea of how it “should” be done according to someone else’s vision or according to a shot you may have seen done before. Try a whole day of taking shots without the word “should.” Use the words, “What if?” instead.

Get rid of preconceptions when taking photos

3) Look upside down.

Get your ideas by viewing the world topsy turvy. A whole other way of composing, feeling, & being exists when you turn your camera ground down.

Unique compositions for flowers by Jeff Parker

4) Shoot from one spot.

How many different images can you create from a single spot? Don’t let yourself move from where you’re at for at least an hour. Change the lens if you want, but not your position.

5) Touch it first.  Jeff Parker leads photo tours in South America

Don’t shoot it until you feel it. In other words, use your sense of touch – a sense we don’t usually associate with photography – to help you “see” something you might not normally.

6) Fix that focal length.

Spend an entire day keeping your focal length the same no matter what you shoot or where you go. Force yourself to work within that boundary & discover some surprising results.

7) Pick a color.

Choose one color & make that the focal point for a day. You’ll be amazed at how that transforms your art & your ability to see.

Big Bend for the Nature Photographer

Big Bend for the Nature Photographer, Join Jeff Parker for his Big Bend Photo Tour

As both a nature lover & nature photographer, Big Bend National Park is one of my all-time favorite places. I lead a tour there just about every year because I really enjoy showing other photographers — and nature lovers — some of my favorite spots.

As one of America’s least visited National Parks, Big Bend is an often overlooked gem. One of the reasons it gets overlooked is also one of the things that makes it so special:
~~ Big Bend National Park is not close to -— or on the way to -— anywhere. It is remote. You have to want it. This remoteness gives Big Bend its special character and some of the darkest skies in the continental U.S.

WHY You Should Go

Big Bend National Park was the world’s very first Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park. In 2012, the International Dark-Skies Association, a Tucson-based non-profit dedicated to more thoughtful use of light at night, awarded the honor to the park. To receive such designation a park must have a Bortle Class rating of 1, 2, or 3. The scale ranges from 1 (pristine night skies) to 9 (strong light pollution). With a Bortle rating of 2, Big Bend’s night skies rank nearly pristine.

Naturally, this makes it a fantastic location for night photography!

However, that’s just one facet of the park. Thanks to its location on the border with Mexico, Big Bend rates high in biodiversity. The Rio Grande River, Chihuahuan desert and Chisos Mountains make up three different environments for a wide variety of animals and plants.

This location means that several bird and butterfly species normally found only south of the border can be found here. In fact, more bird species have been recorded at Big Bend than any other national park. One, the Colima Warbler, breeds nowhere else in the United States.

Another great reason for making Big Bend National Park your photography destination stems from why it became a national park in the first place: its distinctive landscape. The Chisos Mountains make up the only mountain range to be wholly contained within a national park. Their scenic beauty, along with the other formations in the area, were the motivation for the creation of the park.

With its unique geology, Big Bend provides lots of turns, twists, grooves, and ridges to make your lenses happy. Diverse terrain abounds here, from 500 million-year-old formations, to evidence of the shallow sea covering this land some 135 million years before, to the dunes at Boquillas Canyon, which remain under perpetual construction.

Add it all up and Big Bend National Park makes for a great nature photography destination!

WHEN You Should Go

Though you’ll find plentiful photo subjects year-round, putting some thought into your main photography goal during your visit helps pinpoint the best time for your visit.

Keep in mind that this is a desert environment. That means summers run HOT! You’ll encounter the highest temperatures typically in late-May and throughout June with average highs in the mid-90’s. Later in the summer, monsoon rains tend to make July and August slightly cooler with averages in the low 90’s. Bring plenty of water! If you plan to venture away from the paved roads, make sure somebody knows where you’re going and when to expect you back.

If Milky Way photography is your goal plan for the heat as May through August is when it’s most visible.

If bird photography is your thing April is a wonderful time to be in Big Bend! Peak of migration is difficult to pin down, but the last two weeks of April are a good bet.

The summer breeding birds (including the Colima Warbler, Mexican Jay, Varied Bunting, Painted Bunting and Vermilion Flycatcher) usually show up by the end of the month.

Big Bend for Nature Photographers, join Jeff Parker for his Night Skies & Landscapes Big Bend Photo Tour

You’ll find the most hummingbird diversity in the Chisos Mountains in August. Lucifer, Broad-tailed, Magnificent and Black-chinned Hummingbirds are some of the species present in late-summer.

Spring wildflowers are unpredictable in Big Bend, but a wonderful surprise when you encounter them! If rain has been both plentiful (relatively speaking) and timed right the desert will burst into bloom. This phenomenon occurs in late February through March, while ocotillo usually produce their tubular-shaped red blooms after a rain any time of year. The creamy yucca and gorgeous cacti flowers are more dependable and your best bet of photographing these thorny bloomers is through April and May.

Fall makes a rather subtle appearance in Big Bend. Near the Rio Grande or other water sources, cottonwood leaves turn a bright, clear yellow and some of the oaks in the Chisos also flaunt a bit of color.

Pleasant weather makes up for the park’s overall dearth of fall color. Expect generally clear skies with warm days and cool nights. Autumn is a great time for hiking and enjoying the solitude of the park.

Winter weather is erratic in this region so it’s best to be prepared for anything. Although generally cool days and chilly nights prevail, it can get downright cold with temperatures in the teens. Occasionally the park even gets snow. Or it could reach the 80’s even in the heart of winter. This season marks the time of highest visitation.

Big bend for nature photographers photo tour with Jeff Parker

The park experiences its largest crowds a couple times a year. The largest visitor spike occurs during spring break. In Texas, this generally falls during the second full week of March. You’ll find camping spots full and trailhead parking areas closed due to excessive vehicles. Thanksgiving is the other high-visitation time, although it’s not as crowded as spring break.

The sweet spot between good weather and few people is October through mid-November.

WHERE You Should GO

Big Bend is big. At nearly a million acres -— 801,163 to be exact -— the park is about 24,000 acres larger than the state of Rhode Island. It takes nearly two hours to drive from one side to the other. Avoid too much driving back and forth by taking some time to plan your visit before you arrive.

When planning, think of the park in terms of a west side and an east side. The Chisos Mountains and the Basin are in the middle.

On the east side, Rio Grande Village is a great place for wildlife photography. Resident javelinas and roadrunners are fairly easy to find. (Javelina, by the way are NOT the same as feral hogs.) And, with the river and wetlands, Rio Grande Village has the most bird diversity in the park. This area also provides dramatic views of the Sierra del Carmen Mountains of Mexico at sunset. The road to Rio Grande Village makes for good morning light upon the Chisos.

The Basin is in the heart of the Chisos Mountains. Higher and cooler than the surrounding desert, the Basin hosts a very different community of birds. This area is best for hummingbirds and is also where the majority of black bear and mountain lion sightings occur. Sierra del Carmen white-tailed deer frequent the trails surrounding the campground (Mule deer aren’t as numerous and are mostly seen in the lower areas). Sunset from the Window View is a must-do for any Big Bend first timer.

The west side of the park is accessed via the Ross Maxwell Scenic Drive. This drive takes you past a never ending parade of land forms and rocks. A geologist’s paradise! Landscape photo opportunities abound on this road. These same formations also make great foreground elements for your night sky photography. The road ends at Santa Elena Canyon, a great spot for morning photography; plan to get there at first light!


Lodging inside the park is limited to the Chisos Mountains Lodge or camping. If you plan to stay at the lodge, I highly recommend making reservations far ahead of time. Rooms are limited fill fast!

The park hosts three developed campgrounds with spaces for motorhomes, trailers or tents. These campgrounds have water and electricity at the sites and bathrooms (some are pit & some are flush toilets). Some campgrounds, like Cottonwood, require that all generators be turned off after 8:00 pm. In addition there are numerous back country drive-up campsites, some reachable with a regular passenger car. These sites are primitive and consist pretty much of a cleared, level spot to pitch your tent. No facilities whatsoever. But the tradeoff is quiet and solitude (in most cases; some of these primitive spots have two spaces next to one another). Of course, you may also choose to backpack in which case your choices are almost limitless.

You’ll find motels and campgrounds just outside the west boundary of the park in and around the small communities of Study Butte, Terlingua, and Lajitas.

Lodging there for the most part is nothing fancy but serves as a handy base for exploring. The area also provides a few restaurants, a store and gas station. Just be prepared for a two-plus hour drive from here if you wish to visit Rio Grande Village on the far side of the park.

Terlingua Cemetery makes a great place to do night photography with Jeff Parker during his Big Bend Photo Tour

Big Bend National Park is my go-to place when I need a dose of awe. Of course, I always come home with great images, too. I encourage you to make the effort to visit this special place tucked down into a corner of our country.

No Border Wall at Santa Ana NWR!

No border wall at Santa Ana NWR!

The Great Kiskadee is just one of the many special animals that live in Santa Ana NWR.

I am strongly against the construction of the do-nothing border wall, particularly in the few remaining natural areas of the Lower Rio Grande Valley such as Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.  Mary O put on her journalist hat and interviewed me about the subject.

1) Why do you think Santa Ana NWR is such a big deal? Why not put a border wall there?

To me all National Wildlife Refuges are a big deal. The reason is right in the name: a refuge for wildlife.

Established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds, Santa Ana NWR is particularly important due to its location along the Rio Grande.

Save Santa Ana NWR from the border wall!

In 1967, Santa Ana NWR was designated a Registered Natural Landmark.

In recognition of that, this “crown jewel” of the National Wildlife Refuge System was designated a Registered Natural Landmark in 1967.

Registered Natural Landmarks are sites that offer outstanding biological resources. They are designated by the Secretary of the Interior for their rarity, diversity, and value to science and education.  

Today, 95% of the native habitat in the Lower Rio Grande Valley (LRGV) is gone.

The Valley (as it’s known) hosts 11 unique habitat types from tidal wetlands, Tamaulipan thorn forest, to riparian forests.

More than 1,200 species of plants, 500 species of birds, 200 vertebrate species, and over 300 species of butterflies can be found in The Valley. Rare and endangered species, too, including the ocelot, the burrowing owl, Texas tortoise, and Texas indigo snake.

When it comes to the riparian habitat of the Rio Grande River, 99% of the habitat is gone. Yes, only 1% remains. And part of that is on Santa Ana NWR. Is it really asking too much to save the tiny, irreplaceable portion that we have left?

At just 2,088 acres, the refuge provides home to an astonishing amount of biodiversity. Many of the plants and animals here are found nowhere else in the United States. Because of that, I like to say that this is the only place to see these species without a passport.

Santa Ana NWR is one of the world’s top birding destination thanks in part to the fact that two major flyways converge there. By attracting an average of 165,000 visitors per year, Santa Ana NWR alone contributes an estimated $462 million annually to the local economy.

This region -— one of the poorest in the nation -— needs every economic boost it can get. With an annual average income of $19,846 in the Mission-Edinburg-McAllen area and $20,047 for Harlingen-Brownsville, it’s easy to see why these communities are rated the 6th and 7th poorest places in the United States.

2) If you don’t want a wall then you must think it’s okay for people cross the border illegally, right?

Not at all. I don’t condone illegal immigration one bit. But I also don’t feel that border security and conservation should be an either-or proposition.

And I definitely don’t condone recklessly spending my hard-earned tax dollars and destroying key non-replaceable habitat when we can tackle the problem in other—more effective—ways.

If we’re really serious about putting an end to illegal immigration, why aren’t we cracking down harder on the employers who give undocumented immigrants jobs? Is the U.S. really serious about stopping illegal immigration? If so, why aren't they cracking down harder on the EMPLOYERS who hire them?

With all the tough talk on deportations and wall-building, there hasn’t been a single executive order on cracking down on employers who hire those here illegally.

The initial budget proposal of the new administration called for $2.6 billion in border-wall funding and $1.5 billion in new resources for deportation and detention. But only $15 million toward upgrading the E-Verify a system that allows employers to cross-reference a prospective employee’s work-eligibility documents against government records. (By the way, E-Verify is voluntary for most employers.)

Wouldn’t tougher employer sanctions create its own kind of wall? Wouldn’t that help free up more jobs for American citizens? (Since that’s also cited as a reason for the wall.)

Without getting tough on the employers who hire those who come here illegally, you have to ask yourself: is our government really serious about ending illegal immigration through our southern border?

3) So if we don’t put a wall on the border at the Refuge, how will we keep people from crossing through it illegally?

First of all, there is actually already a Border Patrol station at the Refuge. And it’s been extremely effective at catching illegal immigration and drug trafficking.

Secondly, we’ll never stop those who are determined and desperate from illegally crossing. Especially when our government mostly looks the other way when employers hire them without proper documentation. Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t come up with a plan to stop as many as possible.

But we also shouldn’t assume that because “Build a Wall” is an easy election-time catch-phrase it’s an easy  — or realistic — fix to a complex problem. It’s not.

Instead, it’s an expensive and problematic solution at best. Walls can be hopped over and dug under if one is determined or desperate enough.

Walls represent old technology that is outwitted by another type of old technology—ladders. (Even 10,000-year-old Mesolithic rock paintings feature ladders.)

You can find handmade ladders piled up at certain Border Patrol stations. And, at the Old Hidalgo Pump House, one of Texas’s nine World Birding Centers, they use the wood from dozens of ladders left behind by those who hop the wall on its property. With the wood the Center builds bird feeders, feeding stations, benches, and other infrastructure.

Tunnels are another way the wall is defeated. Hundreds have been discovered going under portions of the wall already built.

Check out this extensive tunnel system featured in this Fox News article.

Maintenance on the 649 miles of fencing/wall we already have cost the U.S. taxpayer $274 million last year.  Maintenance on a fence that went the whole length of our southern border will cost about $1 billion PER YEAR.

At 2017 rates, every additional mile of fencing we build is estimated to cost $16 million. There are still about 1,300 miles of border without a fence. Do the math.

Why not spend the money it would cost to construct and maintain more walling to install modern technology? Drones, cameras and sensors that will detect people crossing but not impact wildlife or those law-abiding U.S. citizens who live nearby so dramatically? Many of the spots that already have a wall are augmented by sensors and cameras because the wall doesn’t stop the flow.

Consider this: after what most of these folks go through just to get to our southern border, a wall presents a minor obstacle.

Contrary to the banter about Mexicans and the wall, at least half of those who cross illegally trek up from Central America. If they don’t succeed the first time, after all they went through just to get to the border, they’re not just going to shrug their shoulders, say “Oh well,” and hop a bus back home.

They’re going to try it again — and again, and again — until they make it.

4) Isn’t our safety as U.S. citizens more important than wild animals?

In the scheme of things, building more walls does little to secure our safety, especially building three miles of wall through Santa Ana NWR.

The 9/11 terrorists were in our nation legally. So, too, were the Boston Marathon bombers. And the couple in San Bernardino.

Timothy McVeigh and legions of mass shooters have been native-born U.S. citizens. They weren’t immigrants – illegal or otherwise!

Literally, tons of drugs come in through legal ports of entry. In fact, most do. The money and volume is too great to fool with trying to swim across the river. Just as is the case with jobs and immigrants, as long as the demand for drugs is profitable the drugs will come.

For those who live along the Rio Grande River and near the Gulf of Mexico, a wall could actually present safety issues in the case of hurricanes and accompanying flooding, which occur in the region regularly. Already, unintended consequences have been felt by area residents.

5) We have lots of National Wildlife Refuges in the United States so what does it matter if we put a fence through just this one?

This isn’t just any wildlife refuge -— Santa Ana NWR lies in the heart of one of our nation’s most biologically diverse places. We’ve already whittled the natural habitat of the Lower Rio Grande Valley to nearly nothing.

Is it too much to ask that these 2,088 acres remain unmolested?

Adding a border wall isn’t just a matter of building a barbed wire fence across ranchland. We’re talking about clearing an area at least 300-feet wide and three miles long. That and the associated infrastructure will destroy a large percentage of the refuge.

The physical barrier presented by the wall will be an inconvenience for people, but for wildlife it acts as a cage. Wildlife trapped between the wall and the Rio Grande River would have nowhere to go, no way to leave, and too little habitat upon which to thrive.

The wall will prevent animals from migrating, finding mates that aren’t genetically related, and dispersing into new territory. It will prevent wildlife on one side from having access to water, and will subject wildlife on the other side to drowning in case of floods. And there will be floods; after all, this is a flood plain, which is part of what makes this land so biologically diverse.

6) Putting a fence through Santa Ana NWR doesn’t close the refuge to the public, so what’s the problem?

Actually, it certainly could close it to the public. In theory, it might be open, but if visitors can’t access it — or the bulk of it — then it’s effectively closed.

Here’s an example: the Old Hidalgo Pump House, one of Texas’s nine World Birding Centers.

In 2009, a portion of the border was constructed that essentially trapped 900 prime acres — and a trail known to be a premier spot for spotting Pygmy Owls, Tropical Kingfishers, and Groove-billed Anis — in a “no man’s land” on the southern side. During construction, officials promised that the wall would not affect the public’s right to visit. That the gate to those 900 acres would remain open during visiting hours.

That was 8 years ago. The gate has yet to be opened for the public.

Another example is Audubon’s Sabal Palm Sanctuary.

In 2009, the sanctuary ended up behind the wall and the U.S. government forced them to close. Thanks to a partnership with the Gorgas Science Foundation, the folks at Audubon were able to open it back up — two years and plenty of legal bills later.

But, given the formidable gate through the border wall that visitors must pass through to get into the Sanctuary, many people are uneasy about being on the “wrong” side of the wall.

A wall and a 300-foot swath of cleared land would certainly detract from the visitor experience at Santa Ana NWR, even if public access is retained. The way it looks now, only a small area next to a busy road, the parking lot, and the visitor’s center will be the part on the north side of the wall.

Border Wall

Escape Texas’ Summer Heat ~ Head to the Davis Mountains

McDonald Observatory near Fort Davis Texas

A late-summer Star Party at McDonald Observatory merges the Perseid Meteor Shower with west-Texas’ dark skies. The annual meteor show takes place around August 12th each year when the wide tail of the Swift-Tuttle comet intersects Earth’s orbit. / © Jeff Parker / Explore in Focus™

Escape Texas’ summer heat by heading to the Davis Mountains — specifically Davis Mountains State Park, Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center & taking in a Star Party at McDonald Observatory.

All three are located in the Big Bend Region near Fort Davis. Not only does the higher elevation make for cooler temps, but monsoon season’s about to arrive and will continue through August. By the end of August you may even see baby quail at Davis Mountains State Park.

The entries below are from mine and Mary O’s book, Explore Texas: A Nature Travel Guide. Enjoy!

Davis Mountains State Park 
Bird-watching; Nature Photography
Davis Mountains State Park offers your very best shot at seeing Montezuma Quail on public land in Texas. The top of Skyline Drive provides one opportunity—along with gorgeous sunsets—while the bird blind near the campground gets you close enough to appreciate their black & white facial markings & get some good photographs. Listen closely to hear the quails’ distinctive quavering metallic-like whistles throughout the park.

A total of three bird blinds makes enjoying other wildlife easy to do. Hummingbirds & hungry javelina visit the blinds as well.

The primitive area across the highway presents its own rewards. A 1 ½-mile loop meanders through grassland, along a creek bed, & into a riparian area ripe with seep-sipping birds & cottonwoods.

Dawn & dusk offer best activity at blinds & best light for photography. Montezuma Quail frequent blind along Park Road 3 (near campground) when weather’s warm. Look for the quail toward back of feeding area.

For kiddos with extra wiggle worms, the Interpretive Center’s indoor blind is your best choice as the glass muffles noise so you don’t have to worry about disturbing others.

Javelinas often visit the campground, but won’t harm you. Just remember: they’re wild animals–don’t  feed them nor attempt to touch them!

Volunteers manage the bird blinds; please consider donating toward birdseed & expenses (find box for that at Interpretive Center).

The Historic Indian Lodge at road’s end offers unique lodging. More lodging & dining in Ft. Davis (4-miles). 

Montezuma Quail (Crytonyx montezumae) used to thrive in portions of tall-grass habitats from the Edwards Plateau to the Trans-Pecos, but today you’ll only find them in a few select spots, mostly in the Trans-Pecos. 

Rainfall strongly drives egg-laying time. In the Davis Mountains, the annual “monsoon” season usually arrives in July. Montezuma Quail chicks arrive about a month later.

By late-August Montezuma Quail (<em>Crytonyx montezumae</em>) chicks will be out & about at Davis Mountains State Park / © Jeff Parker ~ Explore in Focus™

By late-August Montezuma Quail (Crytonyx montezumae) chicks will be out & about at Davis Mountains State Park / © Jeff Parker ~ Explore in Focus.com™

Females start nest construction by using their strong feet to create a depression in the ground. Next, they line it with grass, cover it with a grass dome and, finally, create an entrance. On average, each hen lays 11 eggs and incubates them 26 days—a bit longer than other quail species.

Timing egg-laying with the rainy season serves the young chicks well in that, by the time they hatch, the grass nurtured by rainfall has not only grown tall enough to help hide the ground-dwelling babes, but that same grass has “nurtured” plenty of insects (read: future meals).

Quail babes hatch completely feathered, which allows them to leave the nest within hours. Birds that do this are called “precocial.”

When they start chomping, protein-rich insects will be their chompees of choice. While at first insects play a key role in the nutritional lives of Montezuma Quail, about the time those tall-grasses start going to seed, summer-born chicks are ready for a more seed-centric diet.

Chihuahuan Desert Nature Center
Flora Fun; Geology Gems; Nature Center
Over 3,000 species of plants thrive in the Chihuahua Desert—ranging from spiny cactus to majestic ponderosa pines—and this venue celebrates that. While you won’t find all three thousand of them here, the 507-acre nature center—perched at the edge of an amazing vista—still offers plenty to explore.

When you arrive at the visitors’ center, check out the right corner of the sidewalk in front. There, rocks form a “Path Through the Ages of Earth” and teach geological history from Pre-Cambrian to Quaternary Period.

The botanical gardens feature, among many other taxa, samples of yucca from throughout Texas. A large greenhouse hosts more than 200 species of cactus and succulents native to the Chihuahuan Desert region. And a peaceful & shady pollinators’ garden teaches fun facts about wasps, bats, moths, & others.

Paths are gravel, some are steep. Ask to borrow a walking stick! Dogs on a leash are welcome. No smoking (grasses present a high fire hazard!). No feeding the wild animals, please! Sunscreen is recommended year-round. Elevation makes it pleasant in the shade even on hot days.

The Chihuahuan Desert region receives over 80% of its 7 to 16 inches of rainfall during the late-summer months of July, August, and September. Summer storms are usually short in duration, intense, and affect localized areas. During the summer monsoon season the desert region is spectacular—grasses are green, wildflowers dot the landscape, and trees and shrubs burst into bloom.

Enjoy “Desert After Dark” night hikes during July. Trails go into Modesta Canyon. Great trail! About 1 ¾ mile. Rocky walk. The outer loop to the vista is 2 ½ miles. The botanical garden trail is easy to navigate.

Holly-like agarita (Berberis trifoliolata) are one of spring’s earliest bloomers. These evergreens produce their yellow flowers as early as February and will usually continue doing so through April. As an early-bloomer, they provide pollinators with food when little else can be found.

Come summer, delicious little red fruits decorate agarita. They make a tasty jelly, the reason for the nickname, “Currant of Texas.” Cardinals, mockingbirds, raccoons, quail, opossums, grey foxes, and coyotes also appreciate the fruit, while deer browse agarita leaves year-round.

Spring also brings the super sweet scented nose-candy of the javelina bush (Condalia ericoides). Inhale and enjoy! Its delicate, yellow flowers coupled with that flirty fragrance, however, belie the vicious points that tip each tiny branch.

But those long, sharp thorns make great gatekeepers for critters that can burrow under the javelina bush. In summer, the plant’s flowers bush turn into dark purplish or reddish colored berries, which birds and mammals devour. Small leaves allow it to survive with little water; with such small surface area there’s little room for moisture loss to occur.

Lace cactus, Laredo Texas, Photo by nature photographer, Jeff Parker

The Center’s impressive greenhouse houses over 200 species of cactus and succulents native to the Chihuahuan Desert region. Due its variety of habitats, the Lone Star state has more species of cactus than any other state.

One gorgeous example you’ll see in the greenhouse is lace cactus (Echinocereus reichenbachii). In nature, this Texas cactus grows throughout most of the southern and northwestern portions of the state. Unfortunately, certain variants rank as the most collected cactus in Texas and that’s resulted in the listing of some subspecies as federally endangered.

Interesting fact: all cacti originate from the Americas, but nature didn’t design a single one to bloom in blue!

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: https://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


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


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.


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


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.



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:


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.


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.


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!


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.

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.

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.

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.