World Migratory Day: Texas Birding Trails

Texas has an extensive series of birding and wildlife trails covering scores of sites over the entire state

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the US. In celebration of World Migratory Bird Day on the second Saturday of May (May 14, 2022), here is a look at the nine eco-regions and birding trails in Texas which hosts more bird-watching festivals than any other state.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Lone Star state is home to some of the most famous birding sites in the country: High Island, Bolivar Flats, Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Big Bend National Park, and Lower Rio Grande Valley. The list could go on and on.

With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round thanks to its location and diverse eco-regions and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. 

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This is where it all started—where the birding trail concept was pioneered in the 1990s. Still luring birdwatchers from all over the world, the Great Texas Wildlife Trail offers good birding throughout the year but the upper coast is at its best in spring migration when songbirds crossing the Gulf of Mexico make landfall. When the timing is right, you’ll find trees filled with colorful congregations of warblers, orioles, tanagers, and buntings.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Most famous for water birds, the central coast is highlighted by the wintering population of whooping cranes centered in the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Now readily seen from November to March, the cranes are not the only spectacles here; you might also encounter shaggy-plumed reddish egrets, blazing pink roseate spoonbills, and beautifully patterned white-tailed hawks.

Ibis rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The lower coast trail takes in a magical region where dozens of species spill across the border from Mexico, enlivening the landscape with a mosaic of surprises—noisy ringed kingfishers like belted kingfishers on steroids, great kiskadees that seem too colorful for the flycatcher family, and green jays which provide a shocking departure from their relatives’ blue and gray tones.

Related Article: My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

The Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) Wildlife Trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Pied-billed grebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nine Interactive maps are available on their website:

  • Far West Texas
  • Upper Texas Coast
  • Central Texas Coast
  • Lower Texas Coast
  • Heart of Texas West
  • Heart of Texas East
  • Panhandle Plains
  • Prairies and Piney Woods West
  • Prairies and Piney Woods East

Whether you are a birder, a wildlife enthusiast, a photographer, or just want to see the wild side of Texas, these nine driving trail maps will lead you to the best spots to see birds, butterflies, bats, pronghorns, and more. What will you discover?

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Far West Texas: Encompassing an area from El Paso to Midland-Odessa and down to the Rio Grande’s border with Mexico, the Far West Texas interactive map helps visitors discover a blend of natural and cultural resources such as historic structures, forts, and ancient pictographs as well as a chance to trek through the rugged outdoors. Watch for Montezuma quail, curved-bill thrasher, greater roadrunner, and ladder-backed woodpecker.

Recommended birding site: Big Bend National Park

Curv-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend ranks with America’s great birding destinations and if offers endless opportunities for hikers, geology buffs, photographers, history-lovers, and people who enjoy rugged landscapes.

Big Bend comprises three main ecosystems: Most of the park is Chihuahuan Desert, a terrain of cactus and shrubs. In the center, the Chisos Mountains rise to more than 7,000 feet with oak canyons and ponderosa pine. Along the Rio Grande is a lush green strip of cottonwoods and willows. All this contributes to Big Bend’s great diversity of birds.

Mexican jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Birds of the Chisos include acorn woodpecker, cordilleran flycatcher, Mexican jay, and painted redstart. More likely in lower elevations are such species as scaled quail, greater roadrunner, elf owl, vermilion flycatcher, cactus wren, curve-billed thrasher, pyrrhuloxia, and varied bunting.

Egret rookery © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Upper Texas Coast: The Upper Texas Coast region takes you close to the Louisiana border to Beaumont and Houston then along the coast from the birding hotspots of High Island and Bolivar Peninsula continuing down to Galveston and the Brazosport Area. Visit heron rookeries and be wowed by the number of egrets, herons, and Roseate Spoonbills visible from viewing platforms. You may even get a glimpse of an alligator (from a safe distance, of course!).

Recommended birding site: Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge

Fulvous whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

One of the must-visit sites of Texas, Anahuac protects 34,000 acres of marsh, prairie, and scattered woods. A small sampling of breeding-season birds found here includes black-bellied whistling duck, fulvous whistling duck, wood stork (post-breeding visitor), neotropic cormorant, least bittern, roseate spoonbill, clapper rail, purple gallinule, and black-necked stilt. 

Related Article: What Is Birding?

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Central Texas Coast: Explore well-known birding sites and hidden gems throughout the Coastal Bend from Kingsville and Corpus Christi up to Goliad and continuing through the coastal communities of Port Aransas, Rockport-Fulton, and on to Bay City. Observe vibrant migratory birds during spring and fall migration as well as over-wintering whooping cranes, all while enjoying year-round birding opportunities and events.

Recommended birding site: Brazos Bend State Park

Sites on the Texas Gulf Coast get most of the publicity but this state park 30 miles southwest of Houston is well worth a visit for its attractive scenery as well as its birds. Here, live oaks draped with Spanish moss and other hardwoods ensure a lush landscape along the Brazos River and its tributary Big Creek.

Anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Look on park lakes and wetlands for black-bellied whistling duck, pied-billed grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, many species of waders including both night-herons and roseate spoonbill and Purple Gallinule. Some of the breeding birds here are least bittern, Mississippi kite, black-necked stilt, yellow-billed cuckoo, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Lower Texas Coast: Spend some time getting to know the diverse landscapes of the Valley from Brownsville and South Padre Island to Weslace, McAllen, all the way up to Rio Grande City and inland to Raymondville and more. See some of the south Texas specialties such as the green jay, great kiskadee, Altamira oriole, and plain chachalaca in addition to the occasional Mexican rarity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley.

Recommended birding site: Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

Clay-colored thrush © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So many wonderful birding sites are located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley that it’s hard to single out one or even a handful. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge comprising 2,088 acres on the Rio Grande south of Alamo has long been a favorite destination of birders from around the world.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many of the region’s specialties are seen here including plain chachalaca, white-tipped dove, common pauraque, buff-bellied hummingbird, great kiskadee, green jay, clay-colored thrush, long-billed thrasher, and Altamira oriole, to name only a few of the most regular species.

Related Article: Discover Over 500 Bird Species in South Texas

Common pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas West: Covering an area from San Angelo and Sonora east to Junction and then over to Fredericksburg and Uvalde and down to Del Rio, this region offers the well-known central Texas while learning about cave formations.

Recommended birding site: Lost Maples State Natural Area

The beautiful Texas Hill Country is worth visiting for its scenery and rivers and it holds great rewards for birders. Lost Maples State Natural Area is one place that combines beauty and birds. Named for the bigtooth maples, it’s especially popular and crowded when the trees change color in fall.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Nesting birds here include wild turkey, greater roadrunner, ruby-throated hummingbird, black-chinned hummingbird, Hutton’s vireo, western scrub jay, black-crested Titmouse, Louisiana water thrush, Rufous-crowned sparrow, painted bunting, Scott’s oriole, and lesser goldfinch.

Black-crested titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Heart of Texas East: This region runs from Brownwood near the Panhandle down through Marble Falls and Johnson City before heading east to Austin and Bastrop and south to San Marcos and San Antonio. Tour native nature centers, private ranches, and state parks or go right into the heart of Austin, the state capitol to see the largest urban population of Mexican Free-tailed Bats. Head down to the South Texas brush country near Laredo for a more rugged terrain.

Recommended birding site: Mitchell Lake Audubon Center

Yellow warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

An all-around birding site just south of downtown San Antonio, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center includes woodland, wetlands, and a 600-acre lake. At the center of the area are former wastewater-treatment ponds, now renowned for shorebirds from late summer through spring.

Some of the birds often seen on the lake and wetlands include black-bellied whistling duck, least grebe, neotropic cormorant, anhinga, American white pelican, and many species of wading birds.

Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Among nesting, birds are greater roadrunner, black-chinned hummingbird, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, crested caracara, scissor-tailed flycatcher, cave swallow, verdin, long-billed thrasher, painted bunting, orchard oriole, and Bullock’s oriole.

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Panhandle Plains: Enjoy the expansive views available in the northern part of the state including Amarillo, Lubbock, and south to Abilene. Here, get a glimpse of scenic canyons, mesas, and river corridors and keep an eye out for coyote, pronghorn antelope, sandhill cranes, black-tailed prairie dogs, meadow larks, burrowing owls and more in the wide open spaces of Texas.

Recommended birding site: Buffalo Lake National Wildlife Refuge

This refuge 25 miles southwest of Amarillo protects a 175-acre tract of native shortgrass prairie of such quality that it has been designated a National Natural Landmark. It’s a good place to see many open-country birds as well as seasonal waterfowl and shorebirds.

Golden-fronted woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

From fall through spring many species of ducks use these wetlands and some such as cinnamon teal and redhead remain to nest. Some of the nesting birds here are wild turkey, Mississippi kite, greater roadrunner, burrowing owl, Golden-fronted woodpecker, Ladder-backed woodpecker, Say’s phoebe, scissor-tailed flycatcher, Chihuahuan raven, rock wren, and Bullock’s Oriole.

Burrowing owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods West: Extending from Wichita Falls in the north, down through the Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex, and into Waco and Temple before continuing to College Station. View some of the few remaining Blackland Prairies and experience the native habitat that once covered most of north Texas. Watch for grazing bison, caracaras, Scissor-tailed Flycatchers and more. Also, reconnect with urban nature at a variety of Dallas and Fort Worth parks, zoos and nature centers.

Recommended birding site: Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

Five species of geese winter on this refuge, at times in enormous flocks—up to 10,000 have been estimated in one field, for example. Hagerman lies along the shore of the southern arm of Lake Texoma on the route of the Central Flyway so waterfowl find it a welcome rest stop on migration and a hospitable home in winter. A four-mile wildlife drive passes along the lakeshore and several hiking trails access woodland (including some bottomland forest), grassland, and ponds.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Hagerman’s bird list of 338 species includes more than 35 species of shorebirds that feed in shallow water and mudflats along with more than 15 species of wading birds attracted to the wetlands. Nesting birds at Hagerman include wood duck, Northern bobwhite, wild turkey, pied-billed grebe, tricolored Heron, common gallinule, black-necked stilt, least tern, greater roadrunner, red-headed woodpecker, loggerhead shrike, prothonotary warbler, and painted bunting.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Prairies and Piney Woods East: Travel through a region that goes from Paris to Texarkana and down through Tyler, Nacogdoches, Lufkin, and Huntsville. Spend time in east Texas to explore the Big Thicket and hardwood forest for a variety of raptors, warblers, woodpeckers, and other woodland species. Or, take time to fish one of the many lakes, rivers and streams and maybe spot an eagle soaring above.

Recommended birding site: Lake Tawakoni

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This reservoir northeast of Dallas is a favorite destination for local birders. On the west side, 376-acre Lake Tawakoni State Park is one spot from which to scan the lake for wintering waterfowl, loons, grebes, American white pelican, and bald eagle. Osprey is seen in migration. Neotropic cormorant is seen year round, and crested caracara is found regularly. Nesting birds include Cooper’s hawk, blue grosbeak, indigo bunting, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.
A few miles southeast, Highway 47 crosses the dam for the lake. The woods below the dam along the Sabine River can be excellent for spring migrants. Nesting birds include wood duck, pileated woodpecker, prothonotary Warbler, painted bunting, and orchard oriole.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

Tips and Techniques for Improving Bird and Wildlife Photography

Taking your wildlife photography to the next level

Spring is on the horizon and although wildlife photography can be a year-round activity, I’m excited for the warmer weather, blooming flora, and lots of critters being up and active. We’re gathering our cameras, lenses, and other photo gear and itching to get outdoors.

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yet, no matter the season, I am always excited to grab a long lens and explore nature and hopefully come away with some bird and wildlife photos. As I’ve said before, I’m not a professional photographer by any means. However, I certainly put myself in the enthusiast category and I’ve been photographing wildlife for many years.

Gilded flicker at Usery Mountain Regional Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wildlife photography is more than just having a camera and pointing it at an animal. There are tips and techniques, both in terms of composition and gear that can help make wildlife photography easier and hopefully help you be more successful in capturing great photos of birds, critters, and other animals.

Elk at Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Below is a list of important tips and techniques for birding and wildlife photography that I’ve learned over the years and try to keep in mind whenever I’m out photographing birds and other animals. Keep in mind that this list of tips is by no means exhaustive but it does cover some important guidelines and suggestions for gear selection and shooting techniques as well as artistic and creative tips for improving your wildlife and bird photos.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Now, without further ado…

Photographers at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Buy a telephoto lens

This first tip is, perhaps, a somewhat obvious one, especially if you’re already familiar with birding and wildlife photography but one key piece of photo gear for a good wildlife photography experience is a long, telephoto lens. There isn’t one particular focal length that works best for all situations; however, I’ve found that a solid starting point is a focal length of 400mm.

Wood storks at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Depending on your camera system, the options for a 400mm telephoto lens can vary quite a bit but be aware that supertelephoto lenses can often be expensive. You also have the option for a prime lens or a zoom.

Rocky mountain sheep in Jasper National Park, Alberta © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In most cases a zoom lens is a great choice that gives you some versatility. A fantastic choice for a great wildlife-centric telephoto zoom is a 100-400mm-style zoom or a 150-600mm zoom. Several manufacturers make these types of lenses at both affordable and high-end price points. Some options may make optical comprises to some extent in order to make such a long-zoom lens reasonable lightweight and usable handheld so you’ll need to weigh what type of budget you’re comfortable with and what kind of image quality performance you’re looking for.

Inca doves at Edinburg Wetlands, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use a tripod or monopod

Since many full-frame format supertelephoto lenses are large and heavy, consider using a tripod or monopod or some form of support. Many of these lenses can hit in the 6, 7, or 8-pound range which can get very tiring to use handheld for any length of time. And birding and wildlife photography takes patience.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Mourning dove at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tired arms and general soreness means less steady hand-holding resulting in missed shots, blurriness, or missed focus, and just generally less enthusiasm to keep shooting. A good monopod or tripod can help get you sharper shots and keep you shooting for longer.

Roseate spoonbill in flight at Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Use fast shutter speeds

Be aware of your shutter speed, and in particular, use a faster shutter speed for sharper photos especially for birds in flight. The traditional rule of thumb has been using a shutter speed of “1 / the focal length” (in terms of a 35mm full-frame camera). For example, if you’re using a 400mm lens on a full-frame camera, a good starting point is 1/400ths of a second in order to avoid blurring from camera shake. However, that means the longer the lens, the faster the shutter speed needs to be. For birds-in-flight, however, a good starting point here is at least 1/1000s, but I’d recommend shooting with even faster speeds, such as 1/2000th of a second. But 1/1000th of a second at the minimum for birds in flight is a good starting point.

Yellow warbler at Benson-Rio Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Pay attention to background elements

With a telephoto lens, you are able to bring faraway subjects closer and one of the best creative benefits to such a lens is the ability to isolate your subject and create smooth, blurry backgrounds. The ability to remove distractions is one of the great benefits to a telephoto lens. Be mindful of objects in the background. When photographing perched birds in trees pay attention to leaves, tree branches, and other objects that are positioned behind your subject.

Great horned owl at Estero Llano Grande State Park, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Get creative with your shooting angles

When photographing birds, you’ll likely find yourself pointing upward into the trees. While this can work and make for some interesting images, you’ll often end up photographing the underside of the animal which might not be the most attractive pose or position or you may have to contend with your subject being heavily backlit with a bright sky. 

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If possible, try to position yourself at a different elevation or more at the same level as your subject. As you might expect, this is easier when photographing ground-based animals as you can more easily get down to a lower position and more at their level. For birds up in trees, this can be a difficult task depending on your location and surroundings. Getting level with birds is more easily accomplished when photographing near bird feeders or if you’re fortunate to find yourself in a location with elevated walkways or trails that put you more up into the trees. For shorebirds, water birds, or other ground birds, again, the key is to go low and close to eye level.

Related Article: Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep the sun at your back

When possible, position yourself so that the sun is behind you and illuminating your subject. You don’t want to be photographing a bird or other animal with the sun behind it as it will likely be harshly backlit and underexposed. With the sun illuminating your subject you’re able to capture the beautiful colors and the sharp detail in fur or feathers of your subject.

Curved-billed thrasher at Whitewater Draw, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Seek out good light

Consider the time of day when photographing birds in flight. Much like the golden hours rule for landscape photography, these are also ideal lighting conditions for photographing birds in flight. Light is softer, has a warming glow, and properly illuminates the bird. If the sun is too high in the sky, the underside of the bird will likely be in shadow.

Black-bellied whistling ducks at La Feria Nature Center, Texas

Research your shooting locations

Research your location before you go. You’ll be more comfortable and aware of your surroundings and you’ll have already scouted some good locations for wildlife and be prepped to set up shop and wait for photo opportunities.

Western scrub jay at Catalina State Park, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

State and national parks, national wildlife refuges, and nature preserves are prime locations for birds and other wildlife and are conducive to photography. They often provide bird blinds and feeding stations which are ideal for observation and photography.

Birds sometimes land right where you want them © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be patient, be quiet and take your time

Last but definitely not least: be patient.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Birds and wildlife are unpredictable and they won’t often land or appear right where you want them. But that’s part of the fun of this type of photo subject, the unpredictability of it all. However, wildlife photography takes patience. Traipsing through the woods will alert most animals to your presence and so you’ll want to get into a good spot and then wait, quietly. Eventually, the birds and animals will likely start to ignore you or become okay with your presence, so long as you’re calm and quiet. 

Ground squirrel at San Pedro House, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Along the same lines as being patient, it’s also important to be diligent and observe your subject once you’ve spotted it. Don’t just snap a single frame and call it a day. Watch for interesting behavior or certain poses that can bring the subject to life and show some of its personality.

Worth Pondering…

Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.

—George Eastman

Bird Photography Basics: On Camera Equipment and Shooting Techniques

In bird photography, the camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds

Photographing birds often encourages us to spend more time with them, study the birds closer, and appreciate the importance of watching and waiting to see what might happen next—or what different birds might slip into view. Photographing birds make birding more enjoyable in the field—and as you review and edit photos after your close encounters of an avian kind.

Cerulean warbler © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capturing great bird photographs has its own set of challenges. Many beginners wanting to try their hand in bird photography may have a perception that they need to buy an expensive camera and lenses to match. While it is true that the top-of-the-line cameras and premium lenses produce superior results in challenging conditions, still don’t expect it to be the end-all-be-all. And a lens alone can set you back over $10,000.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For successfully photographing wild birds in the wild, you need a camera, a long focal length lens, and a good tripod. Once you are confident about handling your camera and lens, you may wish to use them free-hand. But in the beginning, a tripod can benefit your photography especially with the composition and low-light situations.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Inca dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you feel carrying a tripod around is too cumbersome, you can also try handheld photography. But you need to maintain optimal body stability and posture to minimize the associated camera shake. Another option is to carry a monopod which would give you excellent results.

Tufted titmouse © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Personally, I have not used a tripod for 99.9 percent of the pictures that I have taken. They are not perfect but are reasonably sharp and focused. This is because I have developed hand and body posture stability through years of experience and practice.

Pauraque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are a few things to remember about the camera requirements when aiming for bird photography. The camera should have a fast frame rate to capture the fleeting moments of birds. Anything upward of 8 frames per second is good.

Green-winged teal © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With few exceptions, most common birds move around quickly. Their pictures can be blurry by the subject movement if the shutter speed is not high. A 1/2000 of a second shutter speed is a safe starting point. A camera with good ISO performance can achieve that. So aim for the one giving low noise results at ISO 1600–3200 range.

Cooper’s hawk © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

When considering the sensor resolution in megapixels, most cameras now offer plenty. A high megapixel count is beneficial when you want to crop the picture in post-processing. Look for cameras with more than 15-megapixels. Be mindful that large megapixel cameras produce large image files. You will need a powerful computer to process those images. A camera with an inbuilt GPS is an option to consider. GPS enables the camera to tag the location where each photo is taken. It also sets the time automatically.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Great horned owl © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep in mind that a camera is only one of the ingredients of photography. To make your photo stand out, you need good soft light. Soft ambient light conditions are available when most birds are active, mornings and evenings. So be prepared to wake up early.

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The next ingredient in the recipe is a long focal lens. Wild birds can be very skittish and are hard to approach. A lens of at least 400mm focal length is a good start. That way you also have the flexibility to approach the birds from a reasonably good distance.

Western scrub jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Usually, when we have smaller focal length lenses we tend to go overboard and approach the bird too close for their comfort. You don’t need to spend a fortune to buy a prime wide aperture lens. Most camera manufacturers offer budget options in the popular focus length ranges.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shooting technique becomes paramount in the field. By carefully selecting the shooting angle, it’s possible to separate the bird from the cluttering background. You can try to move slowly to find the best possible background. I have observed that abrupt lateral movements alert the birds to take off immediately. Thus, a patient and calm approach is necessary to obtain the best results under the given conditions.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A background blur can be created even with narrow aperture lenses. A word of caution here; you don’t want to stress a bird or an animal in the process of getting your best photo. If the bird or animal shows any sign of discomfort, back-off or leave the area.

Royal tern © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Even with a good camera and a lens, an incorrect exposure can ruin the picture.

Mirrorless technology is the latest in advanced cameras. You can also try these models as they are light to carry and offer great results and quality.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

A Photographer’s Focus on Wading Birds

The watery world of wading birds

Tall wading birds—herons, egrets, bitterns, ibis, spoonbills, storks, and cranes—are among the most popular birds for birders and photographers—and for everyone. They are large and fairly obvious attracting our attention wherever we encounter them. They have long necks, long legs, long bills, long wings, and in-flight wading birds are most impressive—singularly and in flocks.

Ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As photographers, we are always hopeful of photographing wading birds to show their majesty, to document them catching prey, and to show them in the throes of mating displays in advance of the nesting season.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As winter melts into spring along the shallows of wetlands adjacent to the warmer areas of the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, bright colors are flushing bare skin on the face of many species of wading birds with deeper colors accenting their legs and bill while some species grow feather plumes on their head, throat, back, or breast, providing ever-more impressive birds to photograph. As spring progresses, the wading bird progression will anchor the migration north with camera-toting birders intercepting their flight paths and stopover sites.

Great white egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Wading birds are large, they are impressive, and they provide a variety of photo opportunities. Wading birds are among the first birds we hope to photograph—great blue herons, tricolored herons, great egrets, sandhill cranes—and we eventually seek out wood storks, roseate spoonbills, and yellow-crowned night herons—then we try to photograph all the wading birds. So we make it a point to seek them out, visit locations where we hope to find them, and marvel as we photograph each one.

Related Article: The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Sandhill cranes © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Because many wading birds are among the largest birds we encounter, they are a good group to start with as beginning photographers, but ultimately, we never get enough photos of wading birds. There are always more opportunities in different settings under different lighting conditions with the birds engaged in an array of activities. Wading birds as a group are just plain exciting to behold and to photograph.

Yellowlegs © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Locations: Wading birds are usually associated with water—the shorelines of shallow ponds and marshes, tidal flats, and lakeshores—these are the primary habitats to visit regularly to photograph wading birds.

Whimbrel © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Timing: Pick the time of your visits for the best possible lighting—mornings before 11:00 and afternoons after 2:00 are best now. As the spring season progresses and we adjust to the daylight savings change of time, we will need to adjust the periods we devote to photography.

White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sunlight: The need for good sunlight originating from behind you is essential to capture the best colors on all wading birds and that’s especially true with birds that have any iridescent plumage. In addition to providing more vivid colors, sunlight provides more contrast between colors and shades of colors too.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

Green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shadows: Since sunlight also produces shadows, be aware of shadows on one side of the bird. After taking an initial photo, you may want to move to avoid shadowing. I also like to refer to my own shadow when positioning myself, so try to position directly between the bird and the sun—that’s when my shadow is pointing directly at the bird.

Tri-colored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Overcast Conditions: When overcast it’s best to re-schedule for a sunny period. The quality of any resulting photos will have muted colors, low contrast, and dull surroundings. Any photos you take will be subpar.

Little blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Water Reflections: Blue sky sunlight produces blue-colored water which provides a great setting for wading birds. At the same time, wading birds are the prime interest and whether the watercolor is blue, green, brown, or gray is less important. Water has unlimited variations produced by calm or variations of windy conditions, water flows, or waves. While you are focusing on the bird be aware of the water and its movements for enhanced photo quality. At times, when the water is calm, you may be able to take photos with the bird reflected in the water in front of it.

Willet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Vegetation: Be aware of the background and foreground. Plants in your setting can be a welcome addition to add some contrasting green, yellow, or tan coloration while showing the bit of habitat. In some cases, plants may not be welcome if they hide parts of the bird in a distracting manner. If necessary, reposition to get a better background after taking a couple of initial photos. Or you may be able to simply wait for the bird to move to a better location. As with any composition, take the photos you can and try to improve on them if possible.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Positioning: When photographing wading birds, take some images from a low position—kneeling, squatting, sitting, or lying on the ground—to get closer to water level or ground level and thereby closer to the level of the bird.

Immature White-faced ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilizing: Stabilize yourself while holding your camera by bracing your elbows against your chest when standing or bracing one elbow against a knee while kneeling. Bracing your lens against a tree, pole, fence, or car window will help too. Hold your breath when pressing the shutter button to help stabilize your camera and lens.

Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Action: Take several initial photos, then wait to see what happens next—wait for the action. Perhaps the bird will try to catch a fish; perhaps it will take a few steps as it hunts providing another angle to photograph, or maybe it will decide to take a flight to reposition to a new hunting area. Spend ample time with each photo subject and you will often be rewarded with another, possibly better photo opportunity. Also try to anticipate the birds’ next moves, rather than react to their movements a step behind the action. Action photos are always the most interesting and most revealing.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Flight Photos: Your best bet for getting multiple opportunities to photograph wading birds in flight will come when you can find a flight path the birds follow between feeding areas and nest sites. Then it’s a matter of spending some time in position and watching for birds you can focus on and follow through your lens, taking multiple photographs of each bird in flight if possible.

Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Best Approach: Avoid alarming a bird as you approach it, especially if it is feeding—the bird always comes first. Keeping your distance and allowing birds to behave naturally will provide the best photo opportunities. If you try to approach a bird, move slowly and don’t walk directly at the bird; instead, move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever-closer.

Black-necked stilt © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cropping: When reviewing your photos some simple cropping can improve the quality of your final images. A simple crop to remove extraneous background area will enlarge the bird within the photo frame. It’s best not to center your subject in the frame. Instead, leave some space in front of the bird (consider the Rule of Thirds).

American Avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

March and April provide a great time to photograph wading birds as many species migrate north. The weeks ahead should provide a variety of species for you to photograph. Waders are most active during May and June as they begin nest-building at rookeries and the variety of wading birds should keep your attention through the summer months. There’s a great wading bird photo season ahead, so embrace this exceptional group of photo subjects as often as you can, and Good Luck!

Read Next: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

The Basics of Bird Photography: Before, During, and After Photo Sessions

Take advantage of the photo surprises that unfold, and be prepared for the next rare, unusual, or profound bird you get to see—and document it with photographs

There are many elements that go into a given photo. The position of the bird or birds, the location of the sun in the sky; positioning yourself between the bird and sun; composing your photos with respect to the surrounding landscape, and the technical aspects of using your camera and lens.

Photographing birds on a sunny day usually result in a pleasing contrast between the sky and the bird, in this case, a colorful Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With time, many of these elements become second nature and there are also a number of things you can prepare in advance of encountering the next bird. There are a host of things to consider while photographing and a few more to keep in mind when you review and edit your images and pick out the best of the best.

Take a few initial photos, then wait for the action, like this Tri-colored heron hunting for food © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I like to think of the following information as a standard for bird photography, especially for beginners but I think anyone can gain a number of tips and ideas that will simplify some of the mechanics and thoughts that factor into a given photo opportunity. Some of these techniques I learned during my first years of photographing wildlife, others I learned from other photographers either in person or by reading their magazine articles or online.

Of course, it is really just an outline of good photo practices that I’ve learned over the years which can be adjusted to your interests and conditions. Well, here goes:

Focus on a bird’s eye whenever possible, in this case, a pair of Mourning doves © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Planning and preparation

Even before I begin photographing, I work within a simple framework of planning.

Use a fast shutter speed (1/1200) to stop the action with a focus on the bird’s eye, in this case, a Roseate spoonbill in a natural setting © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s important to watch the weather and try to plan your photography for when there is plenty of sunlight. I watch the weather reports to make sure I will have quality sunlight. Bird photography is always best when there is adequate sunshine from the optimum direction and angle.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Sunny mornings and early afternoons are best for photographing. However, during the winter months, when the sun is positioned farther south in the sky, you can often photograph with good sunlight angles throughout the day.

I preset my camera so I’m ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice which happens fairly often when photographing birds. Then, when I’m in a position to photograph and have an extra moment, I double-check the settings and adjust any if warranted.

Be aware of the background and any distracting elements as you position yourself for the photograph, in this case, a Guilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You should never use the automatic setting on a camera. Instead, it’s best to set the Mode Dial to the Aperture-preference (Av) setting. Then set your aperture (f-stop) and the camera will automatically provide the associated shutter speed as determined by the amount of available light.

During sunny days, I preset the ISO to 400 with an aperture of f7 or f8 and the resulting shutter speed will usually be between 1/1200 and 1/2000—fast enough to stop most motion.

It’s always exciting when everything works in your favor, but advanced preparation always improves your luck when photographing birds, in this case, a Great blue heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved


Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible.

Your shadow is a good indicator of the direction of the sunlight; try to keep your shadow pointing at your subject as best you can.

Consider the possibilities of photographing birds during sunsets and sunrises, in this case, a flock of ibis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware of shadows on the bird you are photographing caused by the angle of the sun when you’re not in the optimum position. In the field, you often don’t notice a shadow but because shadows are more obvious in photos, it’s good to watch specifically for shadows and adjust your position to avoid them when possible.

Keep the sun at your back so the sunlight illuminates your subject as directly as possible, in this case, a House finch © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photo Ethics

Try not to disturb birds, especially if they are feeding, nesting, or are caring for young—the birds’ well-being always comes first.

Related Article: Best Birding in Arizona: Tips on Where to Go, Species to See, and How to Identify

The color of a sunrise or sunset adds an interesting element when photographing birds, in this case, a group of Wood storks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Don’t get too close; allow birds to behave naturally. If you see a bird become aware of your approach, stop and wait to see if it will relax after a few minutes. In fact, when you stop short of alarming birds, they may actually move closer in your direction on their own.

Photographing a bird in silhouette works in some situations, in this case, an anhinga © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you try to approach a bird, keep a low profile, move slowly, and don’t walk directly at the bird; move at an angle to the bird that gets you ever closer, slowly zig-zagging if necessary while keeping the sun at your back as best you can. Don’t look at the bird for long; give it the impression you are interested in something else.

A fast shutter speed stopped this Willet in its tracts © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Anticipate the next move of the birds you are photographing and be prepared to photograph that action.

When you find a trusting bird, spend a little extra time with it. You may get another perspective on the species’ behavior and you may be able to photograph another of the bird’s activities.

Photographing birds in blue-sky water usually result in a pleasing contrast between the water and the bird, in this case, a green heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In the Moment

Focus on one eye of the bird to be sure your focal point is in the middle of the bird. If the eye is not in focus, your photograph will suffer.

Related Article: Photographing Wading Birds

If the bird is swimming, wading, or walking consider repositioning yourself lower to the level of the bird by kneeling or even lying down in some cases.

A fast shutter speed is required to stop the action, in this case, a black skimmer © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stabilize your camera and lens as best you can to reduce body shake that could be transferred as you hold your camera. Lean your lens against a tree, window frame, or another stable option. When photographing in the open, you can brace your elbows against your chest as you handhold your camera and lens.

Some birders use a tripod to help stabilize their camera and lens, but for many of us, using a tripod is cumbersome at best, especially when photographing flying birds. For me, dealing with a tripod takes much the fun out of bird photography. But if you use a tripod, consider using a shutter release cable to optimize the stability the tripod provides.

Using a blind provided closer access to a location that attracts birds including this green jay and then wait for the action © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Field Settings

Keep aware of the background of your photo. Try to eliminate distracting twigs and grass from view which may be a simple matter of taking a step right or left in some cases to get a clearer background that is less distracting. However, in some cases, a twig with budding leaves or other vegetation can add a pleasing natural element to a bird photograph.

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus, in this case, a Cassin’s kingbird © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Getting a more uniform background can be accomplished with some success by reducing the area of focus (depth of field) to throw the background out of focus. The blurred effect helps to emphasize your subject and is accomplished by setting your aperture to a narrow f4 or f6. That aperture should keep your bird in focus while blurring the background (and foreground). Be aware that this technique works best if there is some space between the bird and the background elements.

Preset your camera so you’re ready to take a photo at a moment’s notice (this pair of Royal terns won’t keep this pose forever) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Using a narrow f4 or f6 aperture also provides a faster corresponding shutter speed which is helpful in stopping the motion of fast-moving songbirds and birds in flight while creating sharper images overall.

It’s fine to have plants or other natural elements show in the background and in some cases, you will want to embrace the background. Then, you may wish to increase the area in focus around the bird by dialing the aperture to f11 or f14 as long as you have plenty of shutter speed to work

Burst photos are perfect because they allow you to capture multiple shots as your subject moves, in this case, a Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Composition and design

Try not to center a bird in the middle of the photo; leave a little more space in front of the bird for it to look into, walk into, or fly into.

To better understand how to position a bird within your photo frame, consider the “rule of thirds” which artists often use when composing their works. Photographers also use this technique for photo framing and design, although it is just a guide to be aware of when composing photos.

Related Article: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Sometimes you can position a bird within the frame while initially taking a photo.

Stay with the bird and wait for an interesting pose, as in this case, a Ladder-backed woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Simple Editing

When using photo editing software, I edit a photo as little as possible; but simple cropping of an image can improve some photos immensely. Cropping extraneous areas of a photo can also increase the size of the bird in a photo frame—effectively zooming in on the bird.

Try to keep up with your photo reviews and editing, preferably after each photo session. Keep your photo files orderly and easy to access.

Your patience may be rewarded by the sighting of a rare bird sighting, in this case, a clay robin, also known as a clay thrust © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy to keep your photos on external hard drives, separate from your computer, although it’s always convenient to have a file of favorite photographs saved on your computer.

Keep two copies of all photos—preferably in different locations to ensure you never “lose” any of your valuable photos.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

Great Backyard Bird Count this Weekend

25 years of coming together to watch, learn about, count, and celebrate birds

A plain chachalaca strolls the grounds while a green jay stops for a drink and an Altamira oriole takes a bite of an orange at the feeding station. Three different species of hummingbirds zoom in and out.

Plain chachalaca © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So what’s the big deal about birdwatching? The variety and wonderment of birds! Well to some, it may seem dull watching birds gather seed from a bird feeder or fly and hop within the trees but to others, it’s rather cool!

Vermillion flycatcher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

What is fascinating about birdwatching is how different the birds are. From sizes, colors, patterns, beak shapes to songs, and with over 10,000 species of birds worldwide, you are bound to see a diversity of birds.

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

This Friday through Sunday (February 18 through 21) will mark the 25th edition of the event Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC). Everyone is invited to take part in the GBBC so your birds become part of the birders’ database used by biologists to track changes in bird populations over time.

Eastern phoebe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Great Backyard Bird Count is a bit of a misnomer in that you can count birds at any location, at any time of the day, for any length of time (but for at least 15 minutes), and enter a new checklist for each new count you make during the 4-day event which is being conducted by birders like you worldwide.

Mourning dove © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s easy for people of all birding skill levels to participate and there are ample tools and information on the GBBC website to help new and returning birders get involved this weekend. Last year, an estimated 300,000 people worldwide submitted checklists reporting a total of 6,436 species and they submitted 151,393 photographs in the process. The Great Backyard Bird Count is a joint project of the National Audubon Society, Birds Canada, and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Greater roadrunner © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“The GBBC is about the birds but it’s also about the people. It’s clear from research studies that getting outdoors or connecting with nature—even watching or listening to birds from home—does people a lot of good,” said David Bonter, the Cornell Lab’s co-director at the Center for Engagement in Science and Nature.

Gambel’s quail © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Sometimes people feel intimidated about jumping into the world of birds if they have no previous experience,” said Patrick Nadeau, president of Birds Canada. “The Great Backyard Bird Count is a wonderful way to get your feet wet, feel the warmth of the community, and start to realize the wonders in your own neighborhood. The tools and resources are free and you are helping birds when you get involved.”

American avocet © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Birds tell us how our environment and climate are changing,” added Chad Wilsey, chief scientist at the National Audubon Society. “By joining the Great Backyard Bird Count, participants can contribute valuable data that help scientists better understand our surroundings. Together we can use this information to better protect birds and the places they need.”

Cactus wren © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Some GBBC participants discovered a fascination with birds for the first time during the pandemic and found participating in the GBBC to be a welcome distraction as a new birder from Maryland explained: “Like many others, I found solace in the natural world, especially in birds,” said participant Anna Anders about birding during the pandemic. “I had extra time to observe and learn more about them. I began going birding, put out more feeders and a birdbath, took birding classes, and started my life list. I can’t wait to participate in the GBBC and continue my birding journey!”

Gilded flicker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How to Participate

Participating is easy, fun to do alone or with others, and can be done anywhere you find birds.

Step 1: Decide where you will watch birds.

Step 2: Watch birds for 15 minutes or more, at least once over the four days, February 18-21, 2022.

Roseate spoonbill © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Step 3: Count all the birds you see or hear within your planned time/location and use the best tool for sharing your bird sightings:

  • If you are a beginning bird admirer and new to the count, try using the Merlin Bird ID app (
  • If you have participated in the count before, try the eBird Mobile app (, or on your desktop or laptop enter your bird list on the eBird website (
  • If you are participating as a group, see instructions for Group Counting (
Curve-billed thrasher © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bird Photos from the Weekend

Upload your favorite bird images when you enter your Great Backyard Bird Count list in eBird. Your photo will become a part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Macaulay Library (, the world’s premier scientific archive of natural history.

Turkey vulture © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Images for the Macaulay Library can be uploaded directly from your eBird/GBBC list.

All Great Backyard Bird Count participants are urged to observe birds safely.

Worth Pondering…

There is nothing in which the birds differ more from man than the way in which they can build and yet leave a landscape as it was before.

—Robert Lynd, The Blue Lion and Other Essays

13 Tips on Capturing Photos on the Road

Here are a few tips to help take your photos to the next level when you’re on the road

With cameras on our phones, everyone is a decent photographer these days. It’s easy to grab a snapshot or a selfie at a moment’s notice. But sometimes it’s difficult to capture mementos of our travels—nature shots seem ho-hum and boring. So here are 12 tips to help take your photos to the next level.

Note the even light without the harsh mid-day light © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Look for even light

When you take a photo, you are really just capturing light, so you need to be able to pay attention to all your light sources and understand how they will interact with the mechanics of your camera. 

Avoid the harsh mid-day light by shooting during the Golden Hour © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Beautiful, sunny days look gorgeous but cameras can struggle with the harsh shadows cast by the midday sun. If you’re shooting portraits, place your subject in the shade to get the same exposure on their face and body. You can always bump up the brightness using a photo editing app to get it exactly how you want it to look as long as the light is even.

Spanish moss in the Lowcountry © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’re shooting a landscape photo, try angling your body so that the sun is at your back, shining on whatever you’re shooting. Unless you’re into artsy stuff, in which case, I love the look of bright, dappled sunlight coming through tree branches with just a hint of a lens flare. This technique works especially well for Spanish moss, the silver garland that hangs from live oak trees in the Southeast especially in the Low Country where it is just about everywhere you turn.

Along the La Sal Mountain Loop Road near Moab, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Understand the exposure triangle

Here is a brief summary of the three parts of your camera’s exposure.
ISO: This sets how “sensitive to light” your camera becomes. A higher ISO number means the camera will be more sensitive so you can use a faster shutter speed or smaller aperture, but will also be progressively more grainy with higher and higher numbers.

Related Article: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Sky Mountain Golf Course at Hurricane, Utah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Shutter Speed: This sets how long your shutter will stay open, letting light hit your sensor. Slower shutter speeds will produce motion blur if anything in your image is moving but they let in much more light allowing for a lower ISO or tighter aperture. Faster shutter speeds can “stop time” and make even quickly moving objects appear to be frozen but they let in much less light, so you’ll need to compensate with a larger aperture or a higher ISO.

Near Woodland, Washington© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture: The “aperture” of your lens is much like the iris of your eye—it can be opened very large to let in a lot of light or it can be opened only a tiny bit to let in only a very little amount of light. As I discussed above, a wide aperture will produce a very shallow depth of field while a smaller aperture will produce a much deeper field of focus.

Skaha Lake in the Okanagan Valley of British Columbia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It should be obvious that ISO, shutter speed, and aperture all affect each other. If you open your aperture, you’ll need to speed up your shutter or use a lower ISO. If you change your ISO, you’ll need to adjust either your shutter or aperture (or possibly both) to compensate to get the right exposure. Once you have mastered the exposure triangle, you can leverage the parts of the triangle to more accurately capture what you see.

Sunset near Casa Grande, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Time your best shots for the golden hour

An hour or so after dawn and an hour or two before sunset is what photographers call “golden hour.” It refers to the special golden quality the light takes on during those periods when the sun is low in the sky and its rays are slanting through the atmosphere.

Related Article: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

After shooting the sunset in the above photo, I turned around… © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden hour makes any subject look a little more magical whether you’re shooting a mountain at dawn or a late afternoon desertscape. If you’re looking to capture some really special keepsake photos, plan your best shots for golden hour and watch as Mother Nature gilds your subjects with light. And if you’re shooting a sunset, don’t forget to turn around as the scene before you might be even more amazing.

Get close to the subject © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Get close to your subject

One common photography pitfall is shooting a subject from too far away. But getting closer and filling the frame can make for more dynamic shots whether you move physically closer to your subject or zoom in a bit. You can still shoot “wide” or from further away but adding a handful of close-up shots will imbue your photo story with rich context and detail it may otherwise be missing.

Getting closer to focus on the details © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Focus on the small things

To build off that, sometimes it’s not possible to get closer to the subject of our photos. In which case, why not rethink the subject? Instead of shooting a photo of the sunset, try focusing on something nearby instead. A stand of saguaro or a row of palm trees, a bee on a flower, or a sandcastle casting a long shadow on an empty beach. You’ll still get the benefit of that beautiful sunset light but a shot of a smaller detail is more likely to bring back the feeling of that place and time as opposed to a generic photo from further away. Sometimes specificity just makes our memories stronger.

Shooting the above Altimira oriole involved shifting my position to avoid unwanted background objects © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Check the backgrounds

We’ve all seen funny pictures online of people who were unwittingly photo-bombed by their surroundings. Animals popping up unexpectedly or a background object captured at just the right moment to make it look like it is part of something else. When you’re intently focused on capturing your subject, it can be easy to overlook unwanted elements in other parts of your photo. Like a shirtless guy drinking beer just behind your smiling partner’s shoulder or a dog in the middle distance picking that exact moment to heed nature’s call.

Yellow warbler at Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

So take a second to scan your photo composition and look for unwanted elements. Sometimes it pays to wait a few extra seconds for tourists to clear your shot, giving the illusion that your surroundings are more serene than they really are.

Related Article: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Approaching the Flat Iron Trail at Lost Dutchman State Park in Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Selfie safety

A hiker in Arizona recently slipped and fell 700 feet to his death after trying to take a selfie on the Flat Iron Trail in Lost Dutchman State Park. Time and again, the smallest misstep, distraction, or lapse in judgment has resulted in severe injury or death. To help raise awareness, the National Park Service published a guide to safe photos. “Be aware of your surroundings whether near wildlife, thermal areas, roads, or steep cliffs,” the website says.

Focus on where you walk especially when surrounded by beauty; Cathedral Rock hiking trail at Sedona, Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stay focused on your surroundings, not your shot. Tripping, slipping, and falling whether into water or from great heights have all led to selfie deaths. One moment of inattention or distraction could mean the difference between life and death.

Keep your eyes focused on where you’re going and where your feet are more so than what’s in the viewfinder of the camera especially if you’re trying to take a selfie. Make sure your feet are planted firmly before you line up the shot and then don’t move once you do that.

Joshua Tree National Park in California © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Consider a selfie stick already

Sure, they’re kind of silly and we all had a good time making fun of selfie sticks when we first heard about them, but the thing is, they can be useful. For one thing, you can take more than selfies with them. They’re perfect for capturing group shots without leaving anyone out. No need to set the timer and dash to get in your own family photos. It’s like having an extra-long arm to help you angle your camera perfectly, so you don’t have to cross your fingers and hope a stranger has good photography skills and the patience to get your shot just right. And if you happen to be in an area where there’s no one around to take your photo, well, then nobody will judge you for using a selfie stick, will they? It’s goofy, it works, I don’t have one but you can embrace it. I won’t laugh!

Using a tripod for bird photography at Whitewater Preserve in Southeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Look for a flat surface

In case this isn’t obvious, tripods are perfect for setting up things like long-exposure photos, videos, and group shots. Monopods also provide support for cameras and help photographers steady their shots and are less cumbersome to tote than tripods. But if you’re a casual photographer, you might not want to lug a tripod (or monopod) around with you.

Using a tripod for bird photography at Bosque National Wildlife Reserve in New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Keep your eyes peeled for flat surfaces where you can prop up your camera to capture shots that require total stillness. For instance, you might set the self-timer and then run into the frame to capture a cool portrait shot on a solo hike. Or maybe you want to do a time-lapse of fog moving across the water or the moon rising. Get creative with your surroundings to help get the shot you want.

Photographers at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Northeastern Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And if like most of us, you’re using your phone as a camera, there are some very cool, bendable mini-tripods you can get online to help position your shot.

10. Use a BlueTooth remote

Another easy hack is to buy an inexpensive BlueTooth remote control to trigger your shutter. Rather than using a self-timer, you just keep the small control in your hand and press the button to signal to your camera or phone to take a shot. It’s great for self-portraits or setting up your camera to capture skittish birds while you hide behind a tree. Or, shy, small, peaceful wildlife, like rabbits. Don’t do this with bears.

Using the burst mode when shooting the above green jay, I was able to sort the keepers from the dozens of photos taken © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

12. Go ahead and burst

Burst mode is when a camera just automatically takes shot after shot of stills in a row. You can typically trigger this function by holding down the shutter button on your camera or phone. It’s great for capturing quick-moving action, like someone doing a cartwheel or a cheetah going for a run. But it is just as handy for getting selfies or group shots because you’ll capture twice as many photos as you typically do, allowing you to sift through the stills for the perfect moment.

This photo was a keeper while using the burst mode © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can also use burst mode to create really cool stop-motion effects, almost like a movie, since there are subtle changes from shot to shot. There are a million ways to experiment and play with burst mode, so let your imagination fly.

Being ready for the caracaras © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Be ready—moments come and go quickly

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a perfect position to capture a truly memorable image but had my camera in my bag, or turned off, or on the wrong settings. Some shot opportunities only last a second or two and if you don’t have your camera in your hand, turned on, and set to reasonable settings you may miss it. When I’m shooting, I’ll frequently double-check my camera settings. I’m constantly adjusting the exposure triangle (see above) to fit what I’m shooting so I can be ready when the opportunity arrives.

Lady Bird Johnson Park in Central Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

13. Practice!

We’ve all heard that practice makes perfect but I prefer the adage that perfect practice makes perfect. Photography is an art form that requires a lot of mental thought be put into every shot. I’d recommend practicing each of the previous tips one at a time until they all become second nature and you can easily do them all at the same time. Then you’ll be armed with the tools you need to truly capture what you see.

Worth Pondering…

We don’t take pictures with our cameras. We take them with our hearts and we take them with our minds, and the camera is nothing more than a tool.

—Arnold Newman

Experience the Journey Within

How the forest can change your life

Who could have imagined that being confined to our homes would bring so many people closer to nature?

As we wrap up the first month of 2022, let’s remind ourselves to hit the “reset” button. America offers RV travelers the opportunity to do just that and tap into true joy and fully relax and reset. Improving your health and well-being can be as simple as getting outdoors to enjoy parks and forests and trails. The health benefits of outdoor recreation inspire healthy, active lifestyles, and a connection with nature.

Enjoying nature at Lackawanna State Park (Pennsylvania) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Humans are custom-designed for nature awareness. Before there were computers, smartphones, and televisions, most of our time was spent outside in the fresh air, tuning in with birds, plants, trees, and all the aspects of nature.

This deep level of knowledge and understanding about edible plants or how to move quietly in the forest and get closer to wildlife was developed out of a need for survival.

Enjoying nature at Roosevelt State Park (Mississippi) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But beyond the surface appearance of a basic need to find food, shelter, and navigate without getting lost, using our sensory awareness in nature also brings significant benefits to our health and wellness.

Related Article: Get Outside and Enjoy Nature

Just check out some of these nature awareness quotes by famous people.

“If you live in harmony with nature you will never be poor; if you live according to what others think, you will never be rich.”
—Seneca, Roman Stoic philosopher (4 BC-AD 65)

Enjoying nature in Custer State Park (South Dakota) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

 “It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men’s hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanates from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit.”
—Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894)

 “Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive, and even
spiritual satisfaction.”
—E.O. Wilson (1929-2021)

Enjoying nature at the Coachella Valley Preserve (California) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“Look deep into nature and then you will understand everything better.”
—Albert Einstein (1879-1955)

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.”
—John Muir (1838-1914)

Enjoying nature on the Creole Nature Trail (Louisiana) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There’s a reason why history’s greatest philosophers, scientists, and leaders tend to have close relationships with nature!

Yet today things are quite different.

Related Article: Fun and Healthy Ways to Enjoy Nature

Most people today have barely any awareness of the natural world.

Enjoying nature at Bernheim Forest (Kentucky) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We’ve become preoccupied with technology, video games, and how to fit into an expanding world. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with any of these activities, they simply don’t stimulate the human brain in the same way that nature does.

That is why so many people around the world are now coming back to the wilderness and intentionally rebuilding practices of nature awareness into their daily life.

Okefenokee Swamp (Georgia) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For a hefty dose of nature look no further than a National Natural Landmark. From tidal creeks and estuaries to mountain wilderness, underground caverns, and riparian areas, America offers a diversity of stunning landscapes to explore and enjoy.

Enchanted Rock (Texas) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Managed by the National Park Service, the National Natural Landmark program was created in 1962 to encourage the preservation and public appreciation of America’s natural heritage. To date, 602 sites in the country have received the designation.

Francis Beider Forest (South Carolina) is a National Natural Landmark © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

In my mind, there are few things more rejuvenating than hiking or walking in nature. One of the biggest reasons I fell in love with the RV lifestyle is that beautiful nature is so accessible wherever you are. It seems like I am always just minutes away from a spectacular trailhead. Whether I am hiking in the mountains or traversing trails in the desert, nature is a refuge—it’s a change of pace from city life, from being stuck inside, from being sedentary.

Hiking Catalina State Park (Arizona) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With national and state parks, millions of acres of national and state forest, and thousands of miles of trails, America offers a lot of opportunity and free access to the outdoors with numerous options for outdoor recreation including hiking, biking, birding, photography, canoeing, rafting, skiing, and simply taking a walk in the woods. Activities such as these have proven major benefits for human health and wellness due to their ability to clear the mind, engage our senses, and get our bodies moving.

Related Article: How Much Time Should You Spend in Nature?

Birding (Little blue heron) at Corkscrew Sanctuary (Florida) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spending time in the outdoors is something we need at any age. Spending time in nature is inherently calming. The patience that birding requires only serves to enhance this meditative effect. As birders learn to appreciate nature’s slower pace, it inspires reflection, relaxation, and perspective. The exercise benefits that come from walking outdoors also contribute to increased happiness and energy levels.

Birding (Sandhill cranes) at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Looking for a fun hobby you can do anywhere, anytime, without spending much cash upfront? You can’t go wrong with birding, commonly known as bird watching.

Birding (Black skimmer) at South Padre Island Birding Center (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can do it purely for fun or keep a life list—a birding term for the running list that bird enthusiasts keep of all the different species of birds they see. Whatever your goal, you’ll be rewarded by the sights and sounds of beautiful and interesting feathered creatures.

Birding (Great kiskadee) at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge (Texas) © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

If you’ve been considering joining the ranks of the 47 million birders in the United States, there’s no better time than the present to take the plunge—or at least dip your toes in. 

Related Article: Getting Back to Nature: How Forest Bathing Can Make Us Feel Better

Anyone who spends time birdwatching knows intuitively why they keep going back: It just feels good. Being in nature—pausing in it, sitting with it, discovering its wonders—brings a sense of calm and renewal. 

Worth Pondering…

Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

My Top 10 List of Texas Birds

There are plenty of lovely avian contenders for my top 10 list

Whoever came up with the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” was quite a diplomat but I had to throw diplomacy out the window when selecting my 10 favorite and most beautiful birds. Just think, Texas has nearly 640 species, and only 10 of them, or less than 2 percent, could make the cut!

As a photographer and lover of nature, I enjoy all birds. If diplomacy was my only consideration, I’d give the honor to all Texas birds and call it a 639-way tie.

Black-bellied whistling ducks © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, there are lots of lovely avian contenders for the most beautiful list. The “beauty” of it is that every year we winter in Texas I see things differently and have new favorites. After all, Mother Nature has provided us with many stunning treats just waiting to be observed and enjoyed.

Related: The 10 Most Beautiful Birds

Without further ado, here are my 10 favorite—in my opinion—most beautiful birds in Texas.

Roseate spoonbills © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Roseate spoonbill

No problem or hesitation about picking the roseate spoonbill first. One of the most striking birds found in North America, they demand attention and they get it. The roseate spoonbill is a large, visually striking bird, having a pink body with red patches on wings, a white neck, and a flat, spoon-shaped bill. It can often be seen in small groups where they swing their spatula-like bills to and fro searching shallow water for crustaceans. They are often seen perched in trees in swampy areas, foraging in shallow fresh or saltwater, or flying in small groups overhead.

Green jay © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Green jay

Unmistakably tropical, the brilliantly-colored green jay ranges south all the way to Ecuador but enters the U.S. only in southern-most Texas, where it is fairly common in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Green jays are colorful birds with a pale green back and underside, a black chest, a blue and blackhead and face, and yellow sides on their tail.

Great kiskadee © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great kiskadee

The great kiskadee is a treat for visitors to southern Texas—and the birds won’t keep you waiting. Kiskadees are an eye-catching mix of black, white, yellow, and reddish-brown. The black head is set off by a bold white eyebrow and throat; the under-parts are yellow. These are loud, boisterous birds that quickly make their presence known.

Related: What Is Birding?

Yellow-crowned night heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Yellow-crowned night heron

When it comes to patience, no bird can outdo the yellow-crowned night heron. The yellow-crowned night heron is a short, stocky wading bird about 24 inches in length with a wingspan of a little under four feet. It has long yellow to orange legs, red eyes, a thick black bill, and a short neck. It has a slate-gray body, a dark bluish-black head with a white streak along the cheek, and a very pale yellow (sometimes so pale that it appears white) crown that extends back from the head in the form of a few wispy feathers. The wing feathers have a grey and black striped appearance.

Black-bellied whistling duck © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Black-bellied whistling duck

The black-bellied whistling duck is a boisterous duck with a brilliant pink bill and an unusual, long-legged silhouette. Also called a Mexican tree duck, watch for noisy flocks of these gaudy ducks in yards, ponds, resacas, and, of course, in trees. Listen for them, too—these ducks really do have a whistle for their call.

Tricolored heron © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tricolored heron

The tricolored heron is a medium-sized wading bird named for its three main colors: bluish-gray, purple, and white. Its head, back, and wings are a dark bluish-gray. The back of the neck is purple. The belly is white. The tri-color also has a narrow white streak with delicate rust-colored markings down the front of its neck. The tri-colored is more active than the larger herons. This bird does not patiently stand and wait when feeding. It walks through shallow water in a jerky fashion, crouching and darting as it moves along. It lunges then shoots its bill into the water to catch a fish or an aquatic insect. 

Related: Bird Therapy: On the Healing Effects of Watching Birds

Altamira oriole © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Altamira oriole

The Altamira oriole is a bird of Mexico and Central America whose range just reaches into southern Texas. The largest oriole occurring in the U. S. makes the longest nest of any North American bird: its woven basket-like nest can reach 25.5 inches in length. The Altamira has a black back, wings, bib, lores (the region between the eyes and nostril), bill; orange head, nape, and under-parts.

Golden-fronted Woodpecker © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Golden-fronted Woodpecker

A stripe-backed woodpecker of eastern Mexico and northern Central America, the Golden-fronted woodpecker reaches the U. S. only in the brushlands and woodlands of Texas and southwest Oklahoma. Very noisy and conspicuous, the Golden-fronted has barred black and white back and upper wings, the rump is white, and the tail is usually black.

Crested caracara © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Crested caracara

Related to falcons but very different in shape and habits, the crested caracara reach the U. S. only in Texas and Florida. A large, long-legged raptor, the crested caracara has a black cap with a short crest at back, pale sides of back and neck, bare red skin on the face, black body, white tail with wide black tip, white patches at ends of dark wings, and faint barring on upper back and breast.

Reddish egret © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reddish egret

A conspicuously long-legged, long-necked heron of shallow saltwater, the reddish egret is a very active forager. Often draws attention by its feeding behavior: running through shallows with long strides, staggering sideways, leaping in the air, raising one or both wings, and abruptly stabbing at fish.

Related: Photographing Wading Birds

Texas Spoken Friendly

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Selecting Camera Mode: Manual, Aperture Priority & Shutter Priority

Use the mode that helps you capture the image you want

Are the settings on your camera really so hard to understand? Of course not, but it can seem that way at the start, especially if they are not explained to you in simple terms you can understand.

Great white egret at Corkscrew Sanctuary near Naples, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For some photography snobs, shooting in manual mode is a badge of honor, shunning any other mode as something akin to cheating. I do shoot in manual mode, but I use Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority as my preferred modes of choice.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Typically represented by a capital A (or sometimes Av, short for Aperture Value) on the camera mode dial, aperture priority allows the photographer to dial in this specific exposure setting—the ƒ-stop—and asks the camera to calculate the correct corresponding shutter speed in the instant before the shutter is released. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s back up just a moment for a better understanding of how aperture priority mode works.

Related: 10 Essential Photography Tips Every Photographer Needs to Remember

Amish Country, Indiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A camera has three primary exposure modifiers: aperture, shutter speed, and ISO. The aperture (also called ƒ-stop) is the size of the opening in the lens which modifies the amount of light that’s let into the camera.

The shutter speed modifies the duration that light is let into the camera.

Bernheim Forest, Kentucky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And the ISO (or film speed, back in the old days) represents how sensitive to light the sensor will be. A higher ISO is more sensitive to light (and produces more noise) while a lower ISO is less light sensitive but produces a cleaner signal and better image quality. These days, though, sensor technology is so good that even high ISOs still look great.

Related: Photography: The Geometry of Nature

One of many frog murals in Rayne, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s by adjusting these three settings in combination that proper exposure is established. If you allow in less light with a smaller aperture, you’ll need to balance it with more light from a longer shutter speed. Add to one, take away from the other. Simple, right?

Roosevelt State Park, Mississippi © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Well, sometimes it’s not so simple, particularly in situations in which the light is changing. This could be when I’m photographing in full sun then moments later in shade. These changing situations make automatic exposure modes more convenient than continuously recalculating the correct manual exposure.

Sandhill cranes in Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

But rather than turning over all the control to the camera, modes such as Aperture Priority and Shutter Priority allow the photographer to retain manual control over one specific setting. In this case, it’s Aperture Priority, where the photographer sets the ƒ-stop and the camera calculates the correct shutter speed to accompany it.

Hoover Dam and Colorado River, Nevada/Arizona © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority mode is particularly helpful in situations where the photographer wants to set a specific depth of field and have that setting take priority over the shutter speed.

Applegate River Valley, Oregon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aperture Priority is my mode of choice with landscape photography. To create a sharp image area through greater depth of field the photographer can dial in a tiny aperture such as ƒ/22, and in Aperture Priority the camera will determine which shutter speed will produce the correct exposure. Be warned, though, that in this case, a tripod may be necessary if low light requires a long shutter speed that’s too long to handhold.

Related: Travel Photography Tips You Don’t Usually Hear

Lackawanna State Park, Pennsylvania © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Now that we understand the way Aperture Priority mode works, we’ll look at its counterpart on the automatic exposure spectrum: Shutter Priority exposure mode.

Often represented by an S or Sv on the camera mode dial, Shutter Priority mode sees the photographer dialing in a manual shutter speed and leaving the selection of the appropriate aperture to the camera’s brain.

Badlands National Park, South Dakota © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As with any automatic exposure mode, Shutter Priority is particularly helpful in changing light situations, though it’s useful in any situation in which it’s the shutter speed you primarily want to control.

Ladybird Wildlife Center in Austin, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instance, when I’m shooting birds I want at least 1/500th, I can set the shutter speed in Shutter Priority and let the camera pick the correct aperture to accompany it.

Related: The Beginners Guide to Birding (and Bird Photography) on Your Next Outdoor Adventure

Moose Farms Maple Sugarworks, Vermont © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be aware though if your shutter speed is too fast for the available light you may end up with underexposed images. This can be corrected by dialing in a higher ISO.

Worth Pondering…

Great photography is about depth of feeling, not depth of field.

—Peter Adams