Shooting Birds and Bugs … Texas Style

I spent the week following Christmas shooting wildlife at and around South Padre Island (SPI) at the southern tip of Texas. The draw for me was the anticipated warmth (70-85 degrees), the SPI Birding and Nature Center on the island and Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge about 45 minutes away on the mainland. Last year at this time I traveled to The Bosque in New Mexico and was surprised by a sudden snow storm and frigid temperatures. This year, despite the warmth it was the unexpected daily fog and persistent clouds that could render even the best camera equipment (which I don’t have) powerless to capture quality bird images.

Fortunately I had a backup plan for cloudy days or mid-day harsh light: I brought my macro gear (90mm macro lens and twin flash) to shoot bugs if I had to. Birds first, bugs as a backup as conditions dictated. Having the options of one or the other wildlife sanctuary and two ways of shooting turned what could have been a frustrating bird shoot into an experience filled with quality opportunities every day.

8h7a5986First, the birds. Believe me, I tried shooting birds in the fog and low light and even had some success reviving otherwise drab photos in Lightroom using the dehazing filter. But the crown jewel of my adventure was one 90-minute period on my birthday on the last day of the trip in which the low-hanging sun broke through the clouds at my back when I happened to be at the edge of a lagoon (the Osprey Overlook) where spoonbills, ibis, herons, egrets and other birds were foraging for food in the marsh and caracara and turkey vultures circled overhead. The wind was blowing at 15-20 mph, which meant that the birds were more likely to stay lower and closer to shore when flying. I had my camera set just right – 1/2000th  – 1/4000th second shutter speed to freeze wing movement and AI Servo mode to maintain focus as the subjects moved. And move they did. One by one and sometimes in groups they flew into the wind right by me, the only photographer there. It was magical. Best birthday gift ever.


r22a5931Now, the bugs. By design, the foliage in and around the two wildlife refuges attracts butterflies and where there are butterflies there are other bugs and, of course, spiders, the likes of which I had never seen. During the hazy and/or cloudy hours I wandered the walking paths at Atascosa hunting for anything small that stood out. Turns out there was plenty to see and shoot, even drama. For example, I watched a beautiful butterfly fly by, and before I could even raise my camera to try and shoot it, it flew into a web and the web’s owner scrambled out in a fraction of a second and then proceeded to wrap it up and carry it back to its lair under a leaf. I managed to get most of it on camera. There were also a few dragonflies, grasshoppers, colorful butterflies and spiny-backed spiders to shoot. It scratched my macro itch after a number of dismal weeks of cold and rainy weather around the Puget Sound.

Spontaneous moments like the spider/butterfly encounter and the bird fly-bys aren’t planned, they can’t be predicted or scheduled, but they seem to inevitably happen when I show up at these protected places. All I can do is be prepared and sprint into action when the situations present themselves. Patience, flexibility and preparation – with some luck – can really pay off, as there is nothing quite so satisfying as emerging from these trips with images that indeed capture the magic of these moments, big and small.