South Texas Birds and Stars Photography Workshop

Trip Report – South Texas Birds and Stars Photography Workshop 2018 – February

In Trip Report by Matt Shetzer

We had a great group of guests that traveled South out of the cold and into the warm Texas birding meca of the Rio Grande Valley. We had a great week of photography, and many laughs in between.

Below is a recap of our week and everything we photographed. We saw many more species than listed, however I just wanted to list what the group photographed rather than sighted.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Hank, Matt, Nancy, Chuck, Carl and Bruce.


Day One: Monday, Arrival to South Texas

On the day of arrival, we all meet up for a welcome dinner. We went to this great local Texas eatery that has scrumptious regional Tex-Mex. I love the history they honor.

Named after a short-lived independent Mexican state. Imagine the decades after Mexico gained its independent from Spain in 1821. A band of revolutionaries fought against Santa Anna’s centralist forces for 283 discordant days. The goal was to create a federalist northern Mexico free of Santa Anna’s policies. They formed a capitol, raised an army, and were inspired by the 1824 Constitution creating the Estados Unidos Mexicanos, or the United Mexican States.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Bird photography doesn’t have to be hard work. The gentleman taking a mid-day break and relaxing on the porch

We convene over food and drinks to discuss our moves and make preparations, this time for Laguna Seca Ranch tomorrow and some great viewing of Rio Grande Valley birds.

In our party is Bruce from Minnesota, Carl from Texas, Chuck and Nancy from Arkansas, and Hank from Pennsylvania. A fine bunch indeed, and all have joined us on other adventures with the exception of Carl who is experiencing his first trip with us.

We feasted on fresh tuna, grilled shrimp, and some fall-off-the bone ribs! During dinner the crew all got to know Ruth, a local guide in the area bringing her knowledge to help us get the best shots possible. Ruth’s work has been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institute and featured in National Geographic. Believe me, she knows a thing or two about how to set up for the birds!

After talking about different camera techniques and settings for tomorrow’s shoot, enjoying a lovely meal in a charming space, and making new friends we set off to bed as tomorrow is RAPTOR DAY! A full day of shooting at the famous Laguna Seca Ranch.


Day Two: Tuesday, Laguna Seca Ranch

We headed out early after breakfast, and over to our first birding habitat, Laguna Seca Ranch. Today we are focusing on photographing the Raptors of the Rio Grande Valley!

South Texas nature has a special quality that is uniquely featured at Laguna Seca Ranch. This idyllic 700+ acre ranch provides perfect high-quality photography of Rio Grande Valley birds for us wildlife shutterbugs.

As a family owned bird photography ranch operation, they go above and beyond!

Not only do they have numerous blinds specific to accommodating photographers, they feed the raptors on off days and set up mannequins, so the birds are used to human forms nearby. Needless to say, they take bird photography seriously! And this is going to be an awesome photo adventure!

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Nancy, Chuck, Carl, Hank, Ruth and Bruce taking a minute for a photo opportunity at a historic Texas ranch.

Laguna Seca Ranch has numerous Raptor blind setups for photographers. Wonderful backgrounds are found with no trees for 100 feet near the blinds, and having morning and evening setups. Beaver pond, Horned Frog pond, Longhorn pond, are just some of the blinds Laguna Seca Ranch offers for prime photography opportunities of Rio Grande Valley birds.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Ruth setting up a photogenic perch for the birds (and the photographers too!)

During the day, we worked the three different raptor blinds which all offer their own unique compositions. An elevated blind, a mid-height, and the ground level blind. With the multiple blinds we were able to shoot at eye level when the raptors are fighting, and place nice backgrounds on the perched shots.

Today we had the pleasure to photograph:

  • Crested Caracara
  • White-tailed Hawk
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • American Kestrel

A great many memory cards were filled today with so much action! We were able to capture the following behaviors in detail:

  • Raptors fighting over food
  • Crested Caracara with a Racoon carcass
  • Head tossed back and vocalization for territorial dominance.
  • Perched on interesting logs
  • South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

    Photo opportunies in the blind with a watering hole at the Laguna Seca Ranch

  • In flight
  • Landing on perches with talons out
  • Mockingbirds stealing meat from the Crested Caracara

It was a great day of shooting, and we all got a wealth of images to download and review images. Happy with the quality of captures, we headed back for a brief rest and freshening up before dinner.

Good ole Texas BBQ awaited use and dined well to say the least! Tonight, we met in the conference room and had a discussion on camera settings and techniques for capturing quality bird images, and compositional ideas. Each participant has individualized desires and needs; therefore we covered a broad range of topics while diving deep to explain in easy terms how to get an incredible shot.

Tomorrow is another day at Laguna Seca Ranch, and we have some more good tweaks and ideas to work with while in those world-class blinds. More Rio Grande Valley birds coming up …


Day Three: Wednesday, More at the Laguna Seca Ranch

We left the hotel early this morning and headed back for Day 2 at the Laguna Seca Ranch.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

During the mid-day light, we headed out to explore some ruins on a historic Texas ranch

Today we did something completely different.

We split the group into two smaller groups. Everyone had more space in the blinds for camera equipment and personal comfort, so we just went to work. With all the debriefing yesterday, we all were ready to head back to the blinds at the Laguna Seca Ranch and enjoy some more excellent bird photography.

Basically, we shot all morning until we were hungry for lunch and temporarily satisfied from nature photography.

We went to this great little hole in the wall local Mexican restaurant that has some home cooked food. After a nice meal we headed back onto the Laguna Seca Ranch for more shooting.

Post lunch we switched up the blinds. We had a nice selection of blinds with different perches and backgrounds for the groups to choose from giving a lot of diverse images.

As the sun got lower at the Laguna Seca Ranch, we came together and moved to a new blind that provided the best lighting for the evening. We stayed until sunset. I cannot think of a better way to have closed out our birding expedition there and the Golden-fronted Woodpecker put on quite a show.

It was bittersweet as we headed back to the hotel for a little sleep before more shooting tomorrow. A great experience at the Laguna Seca Ranch, and a new birding ranch coming up, the Santa Clara Ranch!

Today was a busy day by the blinds with a nice list of various Rio Grande Valley birds:

  • Green Jay
  • Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Curve-billed Thrasher
  • Long-billed Thrasher
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • Swamp Sparrow
  • Green-tailed Towhee
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Lesser Goldfinch
  • Olive Sparrow
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Lark Sparrow
  • Mourning Dove
  • Northern Bobwhite

Day Four: Thursday, Santa Clara Ranch

This morning we headed to a new ranch, the Santa Clara Ranch. A 300+ acre wildlife sanctuary that has many blinds specially designed by photographers for some of the best nature images in South Texas. Two for the morning and two for evening shots, and a raptor blind, these blinds each have small water sites and allow for ground level photo opportunities.

The Santa Clara Ranch offers an untouched glimpse at the biodiversity of the Rio Grande Valley. The owner, Dr. Beto Gutierrez, consulted with wildlife biologists and wildlife photographers to build this birding opportunity.

We split the groups up again so we each had plenty of room to photograph all morning. We enjoyed beautiful weather today in the 70’s as the birds visited each blind. After a nice morning session, we took a short break and then headed to our afternoon blinds for some nice light on the birds.

In the afternoon we photographed a Harris’s hawk. One of the blinds was even treated to a visit from an Armadillo!

Once the sun set, we headed back to our hotel, and grabbed dinner. Then early to bed as we have a full day planned tomorrow again of more Rio Grande Valley birds at the Santa Clara Ranch.


Day Five: Friday, Moving on from the Santa Clara Ranch

We headed back to the beautiful Santa Clara Ranch today. Today we are rotating blinds, so everyone gets a chance to shoot in each one with its own different background and species that visit.

This morning’s session was full of action with lots of new species visiting the blinds!

The Rio Grande Valley birds do not disappoint. After a short break, where we discussed night photography techniques in hope for clear and dark skies tonight in a remote location, we headed back out for our afternoon shoot.

While at Santa Clara we were fortunate to photograph the following species:

  • Harris’s Hawk
  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Northern Bobwhite
  • Great Kiskadee
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Audubon’s Oriole
  • Green Jay
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Black-crested Titmouse
  • Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Black-throated Sparrow
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Curved-billed Thrasher
  • Long-billed Thrasher
  • Clay-colored Sparrow
  • Olive Sparrow
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • Mourning Dove
  • White-winged Dove
  • House Sparrow
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Common Ground-Dove
  • Ovenbird
  • White-tipped Dove
South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Chuck and Nancy from Arkansas. It’s great to see happy couples exploring wildlife and photographing together.

Some mammals seen during our time at Santa Clara Ranch:

  • Armadillo
  • Javelinas
  • White Tailed Deer
  • Cottontail Rabbits

For the last day on the Santa Clara Ranch, we had a wonderful experience! Once the sun set, we headed out to a historic Texas ranch for dinner and to spend the night enjoying local Texas hospitality.

The ranch was first settled in the 1890’s and became a township in the early 1900’s. Meaning it has numerous 100-year-old buildings that have been renovated with modern accommodations. This birding ranch has a morning and evening blind for photographers.

We had a fantastic home cooked Mexican dinner by their chef at the lodge, and after dinner, we saw the clouds had cleared, and the stars were so bright due to the remoteness of this ranch. Being in the “last great habitat,” dubbed so from its rich and vital biodiversity in South Texas, just happens to be great for stargazing far away from city lights.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

The group ready for the action from one of the birding ranches blinds.

We went outside and photographed an old barn with the big dipper and North star in the background until the clouds came in. Then headed back to our rooms and got a great night sleep until early the morning. Tomorrow we shoot from new bird blinds and see new species of Rio Grande Valley birds!


Day Six: Saturday, The Final Ranch

Energized from the trip thus far, we had a quick breakfast and coffee then headed out to the morning blind overlooking a pond. We immediately heard a couple of Greater Roadrunners and turned our focus towards capturing images of these amazing birds.

Everyone got nice shots as the roadrunners kept walking next to the blind. They were many of references with the group to the Roadrunner cartoons as the “beep beep” reminded us of our childhoods.

After our great morning shoot, we headed back to the ranch for brunch. No one goes hungry here! We all enjoyed a delicious meal from the chef and afterwards the owner explained the history of the ranch. He took us on a scenic drive through the ranch as he regaled us with stories of the past.

South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

Exploring a Texas Ranch. Hank the spotter is all ready to go, as Bruce, Carl and Chuck and Nancy enjoy the scenic ride.

From that humbling ride, we discussed some post processing techniques with Photoshop and then headed back into the field for more photography from an afternoon blind.

We shot all day until dinner then were greeted by smoked ribs fresh from the wood burning smoker!

After dinner, we did some more night photography, this time working an old and interesting mesquite tree.

From our stay at the historic Texas ranch, we photographed the following species of Rio Grande Valley birds:

  • Greater Roadrunner
  • Northern Cardinal
  • Eurasian Collared-Dove
  • Wild Turkey
  • Orange-crowned Warbler
  • Eastern/Western Meadowlark
  • Northern Mockingbird
  • Golden-fronted Woodpecker
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • House Sparrow
  • White-eyed Vireo
  • Pyrrhuloxia
  • Lincoln’s Sparrow
  • Mourning Dove
  • White-tipped Dove
  • White-crowned Sparrow
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
South Texas Bird Photography Workshop

No one goes hungry with Texas hospitality. Carl, Chuck, Nancy, Matt, Hank, Bruce and Ruth are all ready for some fall off the bone, smoked ribs and sausage as we dine outside.

Day Seven: Sunday, Departure

Last day at this historic property and for the workshop. Not a moment to spare, we woke early to get into the blind before sunrise and continued photographing the birds until it was time to head back to the airport. After our shoot, we had another fabulous meal at the ranch.

We had such a great group that shared their love of wildlife during the week, and new friendships were made. We said our goodbyes to our kind hosts, and to each other as we headed to the airport, or to our next adventure …


Thanks to each and every one of you for joining us on this very special photography workshop, and to our hosts at each birding destination! See you next year! – Matt Shetzer

Trip Report – South Texas Birds and Stars Photography Workshop 2018 – February was last modified: April 30th, 2018 by Matt Shetzer