While down at the Harlingen Bird Festival in November 2004, I ran across an organization that was buying up land in the Lower Rio Grande Valley to preserve a bit of the natural environment that was rapidly disappearing. But in a state where 97% of all land is in private hands, the effort needed to go beyond purchasing small tracts. Enter the Valley Land Fund and their “World’s Richest Wildlife Photography Contest.” The concept is genius…pair a photographer with a ranch that has set aside some of their land in a natural state. The resulting contest and publication of a glossy hardcover photo book shines a blazing light on the incredible biodiversity in the Lower Rio Grande Valley ecosystem. The movement encouraged ranches to preserve habitat and even market their ranch to photographers and birders. It was a win-win-win deal.

So in December of 2005 I decided to enter. I knew I was going to be at a major disadvantage since I could only shoot for a week during the 3 month long contest. Locals would have a much better chance of accumulating a winning portfolio. But it just sounded like fun! And there were categories for every living thing…from beetles to bobcats…spiders to spoonbills…alligators to ants. Over $100,000 in prize money.

I entered the “Small Tract” Division and was paired with Krenmueller Farms…a several thousand acre ranch that surrounded Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. “Grandma Trudy” and her husband had set aside some wild land including a resaca, an old oxbow of the Rio Grande that was now cutoff from the river. They had a small guest house/cabin near the resaca but she wouldn’t let me stay there for fear of my safety. You see, this spot is right on the US-Mexico border and they have had several break ins from illegals crossing on to their land (drug smugglers, she said). I was fine not staying there.

It was a fantastic experience, and I ended up in 4th place…just a hair out of third. Not bad for one week of shooting! Some of these photos are still some of my favorites. In fact, I just used the Bobcat image in one of the new books my company published, Mammals of the North Woods (you crop the photo tight enough and you can’t even tell that that is a palm tree trunk behind the cat 🙂

Two years later (the contest was only run every two years) I entered again, but this time, my photo-buddy Ryan Marshik was able to come down and shoot with me. I’ll highlight that trip in a future blog post. Sadly the economic down turn in the latter part of last decade spelled the end of the contest. I really hope they bring it back in the future.

Dragofly larva on water lily lotus Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 639_3913Dragonfly larva silhouetted on lotus flower

Altamira Oriole feeding Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 640_4030Altamira Oriole nectaring on Red Yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora)
South Texas has a wealth of orioles…including “our” Baltimore Oriole, which migrates through in April. This is an Altamira Oriole.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens]

Bobcat sitting in sun Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 644_4460Bobcat in spot of sunlight
This was one of my most memorable wildlife encounters. I was wearily heading back towards my car after a hot morning of shooting when a movement caught the corner of my eye. Now first I must say that is was a VERY windy day…and when the wind blows in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, the rustling dead palm fronds make quite a racket. So it was on this morning and this is why the Bobcat did not hear me nor did it smell me as I was downwind. When I spotted her I smoothly stepped off the trail, slowly slipped the tripod and massive 500mm lens off my shoulder and onto firm ground, and focused. She never once looked in my direction. I fired off a few shots of her walking, then amazingly she sat down in the one spot of sunlight on the grass. That is when I got this shot. After a brief pause to soak up the sun, she continued down the path towards me, and got closer…and closer…and closer. I wasn’t sure what to do now as my leg was only a few inches off the trail. She would nearly brush up against me, and if I accidentally startled her, I could get mauled. Just as this last thought entered my mind, I flinched and the cat noticed my quick movement and bolted for the cover of the jungle. She had been less than 10 feet from me when I flinched. An exhilarating experience to be sure, and one I will never forget.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens, tripod]

Wasp in flower Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 640_4069Paper Wasp in Red Yucca flower (Hesperaloe parviflora)
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm lens with Canon 500D close up lens attached; hand-held]

Lizard at eye level Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 641_4128Lizard at eye level
Sometimes you have to crawl on the gravel to get an interesting shot.

Olive Sparrow singing Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 646_4644Olive Sparrow singing
The Olive Sparrow is closely related to the towhees. It is a furtive little bugger and not often seen above ankle height and rarely leaves the cover of dense brush…but love makes us all do crazy things. He jumped up atop this brush pile to sing his little heart out in hopes of attracting a mate.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens, tripod]

caterpillar and color blobs Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 652_5237Caterpillar and blobs of color
Out of focus wildflowers make a nice background for this caterpillar

Least Bittern Krenmueller Farms LRGV TX 662_6251Least Bittern

Least Bittern caught fish Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 662_6260Least Bittern 2: Caught!
Grandma Trudy let me use the family rowboat to actually get out on the resaca for some waterbird photography. And this was the most exciting thing I found…a Least Bittern hunting the edge of the cattails. Now it isn’t easy to move quietly in an aluminum rowboat with wooden oars, but I tried, and this guy didn’t pay me too much mind. I fired off a few shots then tried to remain still and quiet as I could see the little guy was on to something. Then suddenly, with lightning fast reflexes, the bittern nabbed a fish from the water. I was ready and this was the first shot I managed (my reflexes aren’t as fast as his!)
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; braced on gunwale of rowboat]

Great-tailed Grackle resaca cattails Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 665_6561Great-tailed Grackle
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens]

Black-bellied Whistling Duck sunrise silhouette Krenmueller Farms TX 664_6403Black-bellied Whistling Ducks at Sunrise
I envisioned this image in my mind. So at predawn I got in position…west of some trees that would make a nice silhouette as the sky reddened. Now all I needed was a bird to silhouette. Two Whistling Ducks obliged nicely. This photo looks over saturated but I didn’t touch either the Vibrancy nor Saturation sliders in Photoshop/Aperture.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens]

Brown Longtail Urbanus procne Krenmueller Farms LRGV TX 3AH_673_7326Brown Longtail butterfly (Urbanus procne)
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm lens with Canon 500D close up lens attached; hand-held]

Bluet damselfly Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 3CH_638_3868Bluet damselfly
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm lens with Canon 500D close up lens attached; hand-held]

Snail on Texas Bluebonnet leaves Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 3EV_651_5185Snail on Texas Bluebonnet leaves
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm lens with Canon 500D close up lens attached; hand-held]

Tricolored Heron Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 666_6621Tricolored Heron
Sometimes all it takes is a stick. Remember those words! If the water you’re shooting at (marsh, pond, resaca, lake, stream, river) doesn’t have many perches, make one! Fishing birds need perches…herons, egrets, kingfishers…all like to hunt from a solid perch. I stuck this stick into the mucky bottom about 30 feet from the dock. I knew that I had to be able to get all of the bird into the frame with the big 500mm lens, and I had to plan for the biggest bird possible so I didn’t clip any limbs. Also, I wanted a soft green “bokeh”, that is the out of focus color behind the bird. I positioned the perch so that the distant cattails would blur to a pleasing background at f5.6.
Just minutes after I put up the perch and got in my blind positioned on the dock, I had customers! They were practically fighting over the stick. The light was incredibly soft this morning too, and this image to this day is still one of my all-time favorites. Incidentally, this photo made it to National Audubon’s TOP 100 photos in their bird photography contest a few years ago.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens

Tricolored Heron Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 666_6632Tricolored Heron
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; tripod; blind]

Black-crowned Night Heron Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 664_6470Black-crowned Night Heron
Yup…using the same perch that the Tricolored Heron used. Like I said, they were fighting over it. Here’s one case where “red eye” isn’t a bad thing!
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; tripod; blind]

Ambush bug on Mexican Hat flower Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 669_6903Ambush Bug on Mexican Hat flower (Ratibida columnifera)
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm lens with Canon 500D close up lens attached; hand-held]

Clay-colored Thrush Robin Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 669_6954Clay-colored Thrush and worm
When I took this photo in 2006, this bird was extremely rare in the U.S. and it was called Clay-colored Robin. This Mexican species has since become a more common resident of the Lower Rio Grande Valley. On this morning I set up my blind on the grass near the guest house specifically to get this shot. I lay on the ground inside the blind and stuck the 500mm lens out below the bottom edge of the blind. I really like this shot, but the green canopy cast a greenish light that is hard to remove in Photoshop. I couldn’t use a flash (which would have solved the color cast problem) because my camera was inside the blind and I did not have a remote cord.
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; braced on ground from inside blind]

Rio Grande Leopard Frog Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 670_7073Rio Grande Leopard Frog
I actually got into the water to get this eye-level shot. I had brought my chest waders along specifically to crawl about in the muck (This was in the days before $25 checked luggage fees!). This is a southern cousin to our Northern Leopard Frog.
[Canon 10D with Canon 70-200mm f4 lens; hand-held]

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 672_7242Ruby-throated Hummingbird at Red Yucca flower
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; tripod]

Blue-winged Teal pair Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 671_7191Blue-winged Teal pair on the resaca
[Canon 10D with Canon 500mm f4 lens; braced on gunwale of rowboat]

butterfly on flower Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 3AH_660_6082

Sparky 2006 Valley Land Fund contest Krenmueller Farms Lower Rio Grande Valley TX 642_4212Sparky on a HOT afternoon (note all dark beard…not all dark anymore 🙂 )

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