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We'll have a Brochure available in mid-December. Please refer to this trip report for now to have an idea of this tour, but we'll be offering much more than what is described below!

Scouting Trip Report:

South Texas Wildlife 2013

April 27 -29, 2013


As Mary and I drove south, southern Texas was in the midst of an extreme drought, having lasted over two years. The land was parched, and in dire need of rain. Thus, as we approached south Texas, it was quite ironic that the skies would cloud and that severe storms were forecasted for the next several days. In fact, on the second day of our too brief visit we had a true torrential rain, flooding the dirt roads that crossed the ranches, inundating virtually every flat or low area and creating new ponds and wet lands that made the dry desert a muddy morass.
Terrible conditions, right? Perhaps, but even with rather adverse conditions we had an extremely rewarding and productive scouting trip. We visited three ranches, and each offered some unique opportunities that made the visit rewarding. We made great friends, and the dilemma truly ended up being which ranch, or ranches, would we use if we returned and it was soon apparent that we would certainly return.
A few months earlier we had been contacted by one of these south Texas ranches, inviting us to visit the ranch for a possible tour. This contact started the ball rolling for our return to south Texas. Probably twelve or so years ago we had taken part in one of the Valley Land Fund Photo Contests, where we photographed on a great ranch for about six weeks. The contest lasted five months or so, and we wished we could have spent more time but our schedule didn’t allow it. Still, we came in second, and we fell in love with south Texas. Unfortunately, our schedule always seemed to prevent us from returning. This year, because of a cancellation of our Midway Trip (blame the Federal Government here!) we suddenly had some free time, which we immediately filled – with my scouting trip to Ecuador for hummingbirds, and this side-trip to Texas on our way to Arizona.
Here’s the details.

April 27. Texas Photo Ranch, Refugio, Texas.

hawkAlthough the day before we had enjoyed wonderful weather as we did brief tours to San Bernard, Brazoria, and Aransas National Wildlife Refuges, where we found Rough Green Snakes, White-tailed Hawks, and great Whitetail Deer, the dawn of our visit was overcast and gloomy. Rain threatened, and the sky was heavy with black clouds. We met our host, Wade Grossodonio, at the ranch gate and after a brief conversation Wade escorted us to a photo blind where we spent the morning.
redwing quail

The blind was a sunken so that we were able to photograph from near water level. Perhaps because of the wet weather and occasional drizzle bird activity was slow. Great-tailed Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds were the most common visitor, sometimes practically over-whelming the area and driving off the other birds. Bobwhite Quail, Ground Doves, and Cardinals were the other visitors – rather mundane birds for south Texas, but offering great shots. By 11AM the sky looked really threatening and dark, and we phoned Wade to continue with a further tour of the ranch.
The ranch also offers a raptor blind where vultures and Crested Caracaras fly in for baits, and several blinds around water holes set for ducks and waders. A bottomland with a rich forest of huge live oaks looked especially enticing, and Wade mentioned that the brochure photo of a Barred Owl was made ‘right there’ as he pointed to a nearby tree.
armadilloMy other highlight here was the Nine-banded Armadillos. As we toured the ranch Wade pointed out an armadillo feeding in the open pasture. I’d stupidly left my tripod back at our truck, but I was carrying my 800mm and Mary had her 500mm lens along, so I stalked out, hand-holding the 500 and carrying a large Molar Bag that I could use as a brace. The armadillo was oblivious to my presence, as long as I stayed downwind. Wade suggested that if I walk upwind the armadillo would stand upright before running off, and after a few minutes of shooting I decided to try that. As predicted, the armadillo stood up when it scented me, then scurried towards a large brush pile.
But it didn’t disappear, and when I circled the brush I resumed my shooting of the uncaring armadillo until, sated, I headed back to the truck to continue our tour. Our time was somewhat limited since we needed to leave the ranch at 3 for a 4 hour drive south to our next ranch, so Mary and I split up, with Mary going into the baited raptor blind and me going back to the woods for the owls. Wade placed several pieces of meat out for the carrion eaters and several Turkey Vultures flew in, offering good shots for Mary.
owlI drove with Wade back to the woods where I played a barred owl tape, hoping to draw in the owls. Within two minutes a Barred Owl soared overhead and perched on a limb nearby, but unfortunately it was posed behind a leafy branch. A few minutes later it flew off, but we played the tape again and both birds returned, where they perched on several different limbs. The owls were incredibly tame and tolerant, and we were able to move about, slowly and quietly, to frame the owls more effectively. I got some very satisfying images, and I’d recommend this ranch to anyone interested in photographing owls, as well as the large Alligators around the sloughs and the wonderful armadillos.
The Texas Photo Ranch is located within a half hour’s drive from Aransas National Wildlife Refuge which is famous for its wintering Whooping Cranes, the only location in the US where this bird can be seen with some confidence, and close enough for great photos, during the winter. By the time of our visit most, if not all, of these huge cranes were headed back north. Aransas, however, has abundant deer, and in the past I’ve had great Wild Turkey and Collared Peccary here, so it’d be worth a visit as well.
At 3 we headed south, arriving at our next location, Campos Veijos Ranch, where we’d spend the next two nights. When we arrived, a large, formidable black boxer dog greeted us, circling and barking, attempting to intimidate us. It didn’t work, and the dog kept its distance until Dora, our hostess, appeared at the door. Once the dog knew we were accepted his demeanor changed, and she was a lover for the rest of our stay.
We immediately felt warmly welcomed by Dora and her husband Richard, and shown to our room, one of a series of richly appointed rooms in a separate building. While Mary unpacked I went for a short, exploratory walk, and almost immediately spotted a large, cobra-like black snake. It was a Texas Indigo, a spectacular, non-venomous snake that can grow to eight or nine feet and is known for eating rattlesnakes. It was a great start!

April 28. Dos Ventos and Campos Veijos Ranches.

buntingAn old friend, Steve Bensen, had invited Mary and I to visit his ranch, which was close to Campos Veijos and generally visited as part of a two-ranch tour. Once again the sky was overcast, and the weather forecast was dire, with severe storms predicted for later in the day. Steve got us into one of his eight photo blinds right away in order to maximize our chances while we had some light, and within minutes of settling inside our first birds arrived. In the next three hours we had Green Jays, Painted Buntings (above), White-tipped and Ground Doves, Pharaloxias, Cardinals, Golden-fronted Woodpeckers, Bobwhite Quail, Olive Sparrows, and another, incredible opportunity with an Indigo Snake that swam about the pond, searching for frogs. It was a real highlight.
snakeBy 10 the light had completely failed, with a shutter speed of 1/100th with an ISO of 2,000, impossibly low and slow for active birds. Heavy rain drops began falling and we started packing, and returned to Steve’s lodge for a visit. While we sat and talked inside the storm arrived, blowing rain nearly horizontal, bending the nearby mesquite limbs nearly flat. The dirt road filled with water, and in the next hour or so over one inch of rain fell. As we drove out, returning to Campos Veijos, we felt as if we were cruising down a small river, with both tire tracks completely filled with a swiftly flowing stream.

By mid-afternoon the rain had stopped and Daniel, the daughter-in-law and one of the photo guides, drove Mary and I around the ranch, showing the deer feeders and photo blinds. At one point we passed a short acacia tree with a Great Horned Owl nest, and, as we neared, the adult flew off. A three-legged treestand/blind was erected nearby, and Danny, as most call her, offered its use if I’d like to try for some owl shots. I readily accepted.
owlAfter our tour I followed Danny in my truck back to the owls where I climbed up with my 500mm and 800mm and tripod. The adult had left, and the two nearly fledged owlets looked curiously at me as I settled inside the blind. After an hour or so the female owl returned to the nest and stayed near the babies, but when I tried switching lenses, going from a 500 to an 800, the owl saw me and flew off. The light was getting low and although the owl was within sight, and I expected it to return soon, I had to leave.

April 29. Santa Clara Ranch

It rained again during the night and the light was dim, the air cool, and our prospects gloomy as we drove to our next destination. We post-ponded our arrival until 7:30, figuring that we’d have no light and, at best, just a tour of the ranch to see what was to offer. In contrast to Steve and the Jackson’s ranch, Santa Clara is small, just 300 acres, in contrast to the 1,000 acres of the Jackson’s. The owner, Beto R, however, proudly, and justifiably, proclaimed that he’d designed the ranch as a photo ranch, and had incorporated the best ideas he’d seen elsewhere in setting up his ranch.

bird bird
The ranch has four photo blinds, two for the morning and two for the evening, and the water sets are sunken for water-level shots and the raptor blinds elevated for a clean, green background. Water was everywhere because of the heavy rains, and at one blind I heard the sheep-like bleets of a species of frog I really wanted to see. The frog, the Mexican Burrowing Frog, is an improbable desert species, spending most of its life in a state of either estivation (a summer dormancy) or hibernation (in cold weather). Only in heavy rains does this frog emerge from its underground crypt, and in this case over two years had elapsed since the last rains. The frog looks like a bag of jelly, with a tiny, pointed head, bulbous eyes, and a squat, squishy body. We tried finding the frog, but with all the mud and slickness, and a bit of reluctance in having to dig out a macro system if I even found it, we aborted the search.
A Collared Javelina, the US’s only native swine-like mammal, ran across the muddy track as we approached one blind, and Beto remarked that javelinas often visit the feeder nearby. After our tour I asked if we could spend some time in that blind, and Beto, who had set aside the day for our photography, and who had expected a titmoujseclement day, graciously agreed, although he believed that with the standing water lying everywhere we probably wouldn’t have much luck.
Nonetheless we set up a small perch at the water hole and spread out some seed and climbed into the ground-level blind. The view and angle was spectacular, and surprisingly in just a few minutes a Black-crested Titmouse appeared, landed on our perch, and dropped to the seed. Beto was surprised and pleased, and even more so when a few minutes later other birds arrived. When a Mexican Ground Squirrel appeared, and teased me with a wonderful, eye-level view as it drank, I asked to go back for my 800mm that I had left at my truck.
jayWhen I returned the birds began arriving in numbers, and in the next several hours we had Green Jays, Bobwhites, Pharaloxias, Cardinals, three species of Doves, Titmice, Olive Sparrows, and, for a brief moment, a Collared Javelina that showed its face before disappearing behind some brush to munch on the corn spread below the deer feeder. Beto stepped out to spread seed, hoping to lure in the javelin, but as the time passed it didn’t look promising.
javWe were about to pack up, as we still had 14 hours of driving as we continued on to southern Arizona for our Hummingbird and Bat Photo Tours, when a herd of seven javelinas moved through the brush towards the feeder. Over the next half hour the javelinas were hidden behind the brush but they finally moved into the open, where they rooted about with their flat, pig-like snouts, uncovering hidden seed. Over the next hour or so we photographed the javelinas as they fed or stepped in close to drink at the water hole, giving us shots that I’ve always hoped to get of this often shy species. Our javelina shooting was often interrupted by other birds that arrived at the perches, so that our last hour or so was simply action packed.
By noon we felt we had shot all we could expect to get at one blind in the wet conditions, but we had shot enough that we had a great idea what this ranch, and indeed this entire area, had to offer. We packed up, grabbed a great lunch of Mexican food at a nearby restaurant, and headed north for our long drive west.
I’d wanted to return to south Texas for years, and as we drove west Mary remarked on how lucky we were to finally have the time. It was an extremely successful trip where we were not only able to  see the ranches and the conditions, but also to meet with the owners to discuss the plans we had to make a Photo Tour we’d offer that would be noticeably different from others offered for the area. javWe have some great ideas, and we’re looking forward to our first Photo Tour to this area next ….. Well, we don’t know. Next year, in February or March, I’ll be having back surgery, but if the Doc approves, we’re hoping to do a photo tour in south Texas at the end of our Arizona photo tours, in late May.

If I can do it, we will, so if you’re interested, contact our office and get on our first contact list for 2014. If I can’t, we’ll definitely be doing the tour in 2015, guaranteed!
Stay tuned!




Visit our Trip and Scouting Report Pages for more images and an even better idea of what our trips to the Pantanal are like. There you'll find our archived reports from previous years.