Texas Photo Journey

The great state of Texas boasts the biggest bird list of any American state, and offers wonderfully diverse photo opportunities besides. The tour offers a chance to photograph everything from the tropical species of the Rio Grande, to the packs shorebirds on the Upper Texas Coast, to the absorbing breeding colonies of spoonbills, herons, egrets and cormorants on High Island, to the migrant traps of High Island that can attract a host of colorful warblers.



Day 1: Arrival in Harlingen. We will meet up at the hotel in the evening and confirm our plans for the following day. We will base ourselves in Harlingen for three nights, a great base to explore the myriad photo opportunities of the Rio Grande Valley.

Day 2: Laguna Atascosa NWR and South Padre Island. Atascosa boasts the highest bird list of any wildlife refuge and we will keep our cameras ready for any roadside raptors like Aplomado Falcon or White-tailed Hawks as we drive through, or cinnamon-tinged Long-billed Curlews that always make for the perfect subject. Other targets in the area will include approachable Groove-billed Anis and boisterous Green Jays, and a host of waterbirds of course, from Roseate Spoonbills to American White Pelicans, to Willets, and Piping Plovers.

The Rio Grande Valley is the North American stronghold for the stunning Red-crowned Parrot
The Rio Grande Valley is the North American stronghold for the stunning Red-crowned Parrot (Iain Campbell)

South Padre is the longest barrier island on Earth, and is a refuge for many waterbirds and other wetland species. We will spend the afternoon at the South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center on a raised boardwalk getting up close and personal with shorebirds and some of the larger, more photogenic waterbirds that are found around the island, from Technicolor Tricolored Herons, to comical Black Skimmers, to the gangly Reddish Egret. The latter always makes for a great photo shoot, as their distinctive “dancing” behavior when fishing in the shallows make for endless photo opportunities. Plovers like the pallid Snowy and hundreds of other shorebirds pack the shorelines so that we will not only pick up a long list of shorebirds, but the sheer numbers and variety will make it a great spot for both photos of the shorebird spectacle and some quality portraits.

Day 3: Laguna Seca Ranch. A day visit will be made to one of the premier bird photography ranches in the region. By visiting well-planned blinds on the large ranch we will have a shot at photographing such delectable species as Green Jay, Painted Bunting, Greater Roadrunner, Audubon’s Oriole, Crested Caracara, Black-throated Sparrow, and Wild Turkey. Two nights will be spent at a hotel in one of the nearby towns in the Rio Grande Valley.

Where Green Jays are common
Where Green Jays are common (Iain Campbell)

Day 4: Estero Llano Grande and Santa Ana NWR. We will visit a number of photo hotspots including the boardwalks and feeders around Estero Llano Grande that can offer close-ups of large, noisy birds like Black-bellied Whistling-Ducks, Plain Chachalacas and delightful Great Kiskadees, in addition to, Long-billed Thrashers and even day roosting cryptic Pauraques. In the afternoon we will go on the search for tropical parrots around Harlingen, where large evening roosts of Red-crowned Parrots and Green Parakeets occur nightly. This refuge is second only to Atascosa in terms of numbers of bird species recorded, and protects an impressive stand of old growth oaks and moss-draped Cedar Elms along the Rio Grande that makes for a wonderful setting in which to take photos. Santa Ana is famed amongst birders as a vagrant hot spot, and while we will be focusing on the more expected birds and corresponding photos of them, like boisterous groups of Plain Chachalacas at the feeders, or noisy Great Kiskadees daring us to photograph, there is always the chance of getting a shot at something a little more unusual like a Ringed Kingfisher, Clay-colored Robin or a Harris’s Hawk.

Day 5: Tacubaya Ranch. A full day will be spent around another, less well-known bird photography ranch just north of the Rio Grande Valley. We will have both morning and afternoon visits to blinds to have designated shoots with Crested Caracaras and Turkey Vultures (lured in by well-placed meat scraps), while other blinds focus on the songbirds in the area, and bring quality birds like Pyrrhuloxia, Northern Cardinal, Golden-fronted Woodpecker, Black-crested Titmouse, and Curve-billed Thrasher up close and well within photo range. Late in the day we drive to Rockport for the night.

"Citric Elation", provided by a male Prothonotary Warbler (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Aransas NWR/Tacubaya Ranch to The Upper Texas Coast. In the morning, if the birds are still present, we will take a cruise out to see one of America’s rarest birds, the ghostly white Whooping Crane. There is no better place to see this stately bird than from the deck of the Skimmer, that will take us into the heart of their best known feeding areas and give us a real chance of getting an unforgettable image of this extremely rare bird, by gently drifting up to these regal waterbirds. If the cranes have left early that year we will spend time in another good photography area around Rockport or back again at Tacubaya Ranch which always offers plenty more photo shoots. In the afternoon we will continue our journey north to the Upper Texas Coast, arriving in the tiny town of Winnie for a three-night stay, our base for exploring the world-famous sanctuaries of High Island, and the waterbird-rich areas of the Gulf Coast.

Days 7 – 8: High Island and The Upper Texas Coast. This area of Texas has been a long-established, world-class, birding and photography destination for decades, and for good reason. Quite simply, the area offers a wide variety of avian photo subjects and photographic experiences. The area is perhaps most famous for the legendary fallouts of warblers and other colorful Gulf Coast migrants that can occur there.

A well-set up blind in Houston Audubon’s Boy Scout Woods Sanctuary on High Island will be booked for our use at various times, and be put to good effect if weather conditions bring in good numbers of trans-Gulf migrants. A couple of freshwater drips there provide a vital water source for these colorful birds when they are freshly arrived from the Gulf, so that at such times multiple species can be lined up side-by-side trying to get a look in at the drip, and poised memorably in front of the gathered lenses. Warblers, vireos, orioles, tanagers, catbirds, buntings, thrushes and others can all be shot at such times at extremely close range, and the action can be so frenetic that the challenge is having enough battery life, or trying to decide where best to angle the camera.

Snowy Egrets in spring are transformed, with their facial skin turning intense fiery orange at times
Snowy Egrets in spring are transformed, with their facial skin turning intense fiery orange at times (Ken Behrens)

The second area of interest for any nature photographer is the rookery at the Houston Audubon Smith Oaks sanctuary. Just a mile or so away from the photo blinds are the wonderful viewing platforms of Smith Oaks which look out on breeding colonies of Roseate Spoonbills, Great and Snowy Egrets, Double-crested and Neotropical Cormorants, and Tricolored Herons. The absorbing behavior of the nesting birds will keep us glued to our cameras for hours, as we can shoot egrets fighting over sticks to decorate their nests with, or watch pairs of spoonbills trading sticks in order to strengthen their long-standing pair bonds; there will never be a dull moment, and always be something on view to shoot. One of our visits will be timed for the evening “fly-in” when hundreds of waterbirds from all around come descending on the lagoon to roost on the safe islands for the night. At such times huge numbers of herons, egrets, cormorants, ibises, and spoonbills come in, in large, spectacular formations that swoop low past the platforms, making for both a great spectacle and an excellent photo shoot.

Thirdly, there are the marshes of Anahuac NWR, just a stone’s throw from our accommodation in Winnie. An early morning visit here is great for atmospheric shots of waterbirds like White and White-faced Ibis, ducks and grebes, feeding as the early morning mist rises off the wetland. Although this refuge will not get us as close to the birds as some other Gulf Coast sites the main attraction is the wonderful early morning ambiance that make for some great scenes in which to photograph these waterbirds, and other conspicuous species like Boat-tailed Grackles displaying from the tops of the reeds in the beautiful early morning sunlight, that will make for a very different experience from the other areas covered.

Last, but by no means least, is the shorelines of the Bolivar Peninsula, which are loaded with shorebirds, waterbirds, terns, and gulls in truly mind-blowing numbers. The sheer number and variety of shorebirds packed into a tiny beach or tidal pool can make for great subjects, as can the wheeling flocks of shorebirds flying in formation above the Gulf. The Gulf Coast offers opportunities to sidle up close to individual shorebirds, terns or gulls and take some great portraits, or to photograph the impressive mass of coastal species packed on the shorelines, small pools, and beaches.

Not much compares with a male Blackburnian Warbler at the height of its spring attire
Not much compares with a male Blackburnian Warbler at the height of its spring attire (Sam Woods)

Of course the decision of where to shoot will be governed by the conditions at the time: if large numbers of songbirds have dropped in we will take a front row seat for this scintillating action at the Houston Audubon blind, although if migration is slower then the rookery, Anahuac, and coastlines harbor more than enough to keep our cameras constantly active.

Day 9: High Island to Houston. We will have most of the day to focus on the optimum photo opportunities around High Island at the time, before we drive to Houston in the afternoon for the night.

Day 10: Departure from Houston. The tour ends this morning at Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Wilson's Plovers are full of character, and are often one of the tamest shorebirds on the Upper Texas Coast
Wilson's Plovers are full of character, and are often one of the tamest shorebirds on the Upper Texas Coast (Ken Behrens)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Texas can be warm and humid at this time of year, with the chance of the odd shower.

DIFFICULTY: Easy.

ACCOMMODATION: Good to very good.