How to Capture Birding Images

Better Bird Photography Tips From Cissy Beasley

A familiarity with the behavior and nuances of birds and other wildlife is apparent the moment you see the elegant photography of Beeville-based photographer Cissy Beasley. Through the artful combination of lighting, composition and animal form, she consistently produces extraordinary images of ordinary objects.

Cissy, who entered her first Wildlife in Focuscompetition in 2013, is a relative newcomer to the photographic profession, but a lifetime spent in the field at the family ranch near Laredo taught her well about wildlife behavior.

“With my father and brothers as guides and teachers, I learned how to be a respectful guest in nature’s house,” Cissy says. “This comfort level has served me well as I’ve traversed the path of nature photography.”

She is well on her “path” as she continues to rack up contest wins with her artistic eye and shares her talents with others via workshops and social media. She also uses photography as a tool for conservation to visually tell the stories of threatened bird species like the black skimmer and the perils faced by ground-nesting birds like the royal tern.

“Doing what I believe I am meant to do — fulfilling my purpose — gives me great joy and satisfaction as I use photography as a means of education,” she says.

Here are Cissy’s top 10 tips for creating better bird photographs.

1. Spend time watching and learning bird behavior. This will allow you to anticipate what the bird will do next and keep you ready to shoot at the right moment.

2. For birds in flight, keep moving the lens with the subject. It takes only a second for the subject to get out of frame and then it’s gone. Go outside and practice moving your lens with things that move, especially when using longer lenses.

3. Heads beats tails every time. For photos of birds in flight, strive to take images of the bird approaching or directly in front of you, but not going away from you.

4. Check the background. Try to position your subject, whether in flight or static, against a nondistracting background. This may mean waiting
a moment to fire the shutter or moving the camera slightly in a different direction.

5. For close-up beauty shots of individual birds, try to get the light behind you. This will fully illuminate the subject and display its distinct avian features.

6. Maintain focus on the eyes of the bird, even if it means letting other parts of the body be slightly out of focus. This is true when photographing other species also.

7. Set up and use your camera’s “back-button” autofocus feature. This allows you to control the autofocus separate from the shutter button.

8. Use your camera’s focus tracking feature. Most newer cameras offer the option to acquire and hold focus on a fast-moving subject as it moves across the frame. Consult your owner’s manual for specific tracking modes.

9. Think Fast. To freeze wing movement, use a fast shutter speed such as 1 /2500th of a second or faster for larger birds and at least 1/3200th of a second for smaller birds like hummingbirds.

10. Don’t rule out camera phones for taking great bird photos. On newer phones, you can touch your screen and the phone will make adjustments for exposure. Take advantage of the zoom feature to bring the bird up closer. Several third-party camera apps offer even more custom camera features.
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Cooking Wild Game Has Never Been More Delicious

 From Field to Table

It’s National Read A Book Day, so we’d like to share one of our favorite “newish” cookbooks from the former editor/publisher of Texas Parks & Wildlife magazine, Susan Ebert.

You don’t get far into The Field to Table Cookbook: Gardening, Foraging, Fishing, and Huntingbefore you realize this book isn’t just about venison sausage recipes or how to grill redfish.

Susan L. Ebert’s new cookbook is as much a philosophical meditation on what it means to hunt and fish as it is a practical guide to using what you harvest from the land, either from your garden or out in nature. Much of it is downright poetic. Take Ebert’s description of a duck hunt:

“The predawn marsh evokes cathedral-like reverence; the dawn of creation itself could not be more stunning. This magical morning as we situate ourselves in the blind among the sennabeans, the Comanche moon is preparing to dip below the western horizon with the ascending sun a mirror image in the east. Scores of egret, heron, ibis, and roseate spoonbills transverse the dawn, the spoonbills’ rosy wings as translucent as cathedral glass against the sunrise. The teal will come soon.”

Talk about painting a picture with words.

But it’s not all poetry. Ebert gets down to the nitty-gritty of how to butcher hogs and pluck doves, as well as useful information on license requirements and bag limits in Texas.

Still, the book has a lovely way of meandering through the seasons while bringing together what’s available each month: which hunting or fishing seasons are open, which vegetables will be ready to harvest, what food you can find in the wild. Take June: You can cook sunfish in fat from ducks you harvested in winter, add a side dish of your garden’s summer squash, and top it all off with ice cream showcasing foraged elderberries.

Talk about delicious.

Cooking this way takes time — a lot of time — so why go to all that trouble? It’s about the desire to “feed my loved ones the cleanest, healthiest food. I can, and to take personal responsibility for the life of the animals that grace our dinner table,” Ebert says. As it does for many hunters, that personal responsibility can come with the conflicted feelings she reveals — loving the hunt but sometimes mourning the animal; feeling reverence for life but being honest about our role in the food chain.

Taken as a whole, it’s a cookbook that’s also a graceful argument for protecting habitats and conserving wildlife, even as we harvest it — a book that can appeal to everyone from the most experienced outdoors enthusiasts to those who have no plans to fish in the Gulf or hunt down wild persimmons. It’s at once practical, philosophical and celebratory.

Talk about food for thought.

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A World Full of Butterflies

The Snout Swarm’s Coming!

If you ask Texans to name a butterfly that migrates, chances are good they’ll name the monarch.

Yes, few butterflies are as iconic and beloved as our dear monarch, but it is not the only butterfly that migrates en masse. Indeed there’s another, albeit less regal, butterfly with a migration that’s nothing to turn your nose up at. That’s right, if you put your nose to the grindstone and do a little digging, you can find astounding reports of a butterfly migration that rivals or even surpasses that of the monarch ... if you have a nose for that kind of thing.

Enough with the “nose” idioms?

The American snout butterfly (Libytheana carinenta) is aptly named and instantly recognizable by its very long, namesake facial feature. The species is not unique among butterflies in its sizable schnozz: three other snout butterflies occur in the Caribbean. But in Texas, if you see a snout, you can be sure that it’s an American snout. The American snout butterfly should be better known to all Texans, not only because of its singular morphology but also because of its remarkable migrations during which butterfly densities reach plague-like proportions, particularly in South Texas.

Consider a report from the late 1800s, for example, when swarms of the butterfly were observed stretching from Fredericksburg to Karnes City — a distance of more than 100 miles. And don’t think for a minute that we’re using the term “swarm” lightly. A swarm in 1916 was reported to be sufficiently dense that the butterflies clogged vehicle radiators and caused engines to overheat. The butterflies usually fly close to the ground, but a swarm in 1966 was so thick that streetlights had to be turned on after the daytime sky was darkened with butterflies.

In 1921, an estimated 75 million butterflies per hour passed through South Texas in a particularly large wave that stretched for nearly 250 miles. To put that in perspective, the entire eastern monarch population during the winter of 2016-17 was estimated at just over 81 million individuals. That’s essentially every monarch in North America east of the Rockies, save for a few snowbirds that hang out around the Gulf Coast, compared to 75 million American snouts passing by in a single swarm, in a single hour. The flight lasted for 18 days.

The verdict is still out on what causes these incredible butterfly aggregations, but population size appears to be correlated with the intensity and duration of droughts that precede drought-busting rains. In other words, if big rains follow big droughts, big snout populations may be on their way. Intense drought periods may help reduce parasites that impact snout populations, and when heavy rains follow, snout caterpillars are assured to have an abundant supply of their favorite foods: fresh hackberry leaves. When conditions favor an explosion of American snout butterflies, the chance for a young male to successfully find a mate is low because of competition with other, older males. So, it may be that mass migrations are triggered by amorous young males moving in search of potential mates, but again, no one knows for sure.

No matter the causes for the bewildering numbers of American snout butterflies that can periodically dominate the skies in South Texas, there is no question that the butterfly with a prodigious proboscis is a special part of the Texas landscape. Yes, it should be as plain as the nose on your face that the American snout butterfly is certainly no butterfly to look down your nose at.

Common Name: American snout 
Scientific Name: Libytheana carinenta 
Habitat: Forest edge, thorn scrub, shrubby fields, roadsides
DietHackberry leaves as caterpillars; nectar from flowers such as aster, dogwood and goldenrod as adults.
Did you know? Adults imitate dead leaves by clinging to branches.

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Texas’ Favorite Wildlife

The Armadillo is a Determined Digger

It’s National Wildlife Day Sept. 4, so let’s celebrate with a profile of one of our favorite creatures, found nowhere else but Texas.

Sure, we all know that the nine-banded armadillo is the iconic wildlife symbol of Texas. It’s hard to miss this so-ugly-it’s-cute creature whose prehistoric image can be found on countless kitschy souvenirs in roadside shops. When my husband carved a larger-than-life limestone replica for a Dripping Springs storefront, we found out more about the animal beneath the trademark suit of armor.

Armadillos sport 18 toes (eight front, 10 back) with large, strong claws used to dig for insects and other foods. The softer the soil, the more armadillos you’ll find nearby, particularly when water is handy.

While the reputation of Dasypus novemcinctus as a gravedigger may be true, the armadillo is sometimes blamed for egg stealing done by other predators. They can uproot a large area of your vegetable garden looking for grubs and worms, as I’ve discovered the hard way many a summer morning.

Though armadillos avoid marshy areas, they do enjoy a nice mudbath. This spa treatment doesn’t soften the armadillo’s protective casing, or carapace. Large shields protect the shoulders and rear quarters, and bony rings cover the long tail. Nine bands ring the area in between. Armadillos are active on summer nights and winter days, as they don’t have much protection from heat or cold, with only a light dusting of pale hairs.

Armadillos tire easily in the water but have a unique way of dealing with travel needs. If the stream is too large to cross by foot, armadillos inflate themselves by ingesting air, increasing their buoyancy and improving their swimming skills.

Half the female armadillos are pregnant by mid-summer, though the pregnancy goes on hold until November, when implantation happens. Each mother gives birth to quadruplets in the spring and allows her offspring to hang around beyond the two-month nursing period.

While you won’t find it on cafĂ© menus, the light-colored meat has been used as food in parts of Texas and Mexico. Tastes like pork, they say.

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Know Your Backyard Birds

Texas’ State Bird is a Surprising Mimic

Every Texan is familiar with icons like the Alamo and the state Capitol, but how many of our feathered friends can you identify? Northern cardinal, blue jay, grackle … Those are pretty easy, but there are so many more!

Birding is one of the fastest-growing outdoor activities in the U.S. With 639 species of birds documented in Texas, things really are bigger and better here in the Lone Star State. Birding in Texas is year-round, thanks to our location and diverse eco-regions, and can be rewarding in every corner of the state. TPWD's wildlife trails make it easier than ever to find the best birding hot spots.

Learning to identify all our state’s birds can be a daunting task, especially during fall migration, which is happening right now. One species that makes it easy to begin your birdwatching journey is our state bird, the mockingbird. It’s loud and funny and around all year long.

This gray and white bird makes up for its drab appearance with a voice that could compete in any singing competition. The Latin name (Mimus polyglottos), which translates loosely to “the many-tongued mimic,” really sums up this songster. Instead of singing its own song, this bird performs like a tribute band playing an original band’s song note for note. A seasoned male mockingbird can sing the songs of dozens of other species found nearby and make a variety of other vocalizations, from frog sounds to car alarms.

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Avoid the Lines

New State Park Reservation System Makes It Easy to Visit

There’s a downside to the great news that people are spending more time in nature: it has become more challenging to get into a popular state park or to arrive early enough on a busy weekend to find the perfect campsite.

New mobile-friendly online features will help address these frustrations and make it easier than ever to visit for the day or arrange an overnight stay.

Many of the more than 9 million visits to state parks each year are just for the day, and now day-trippers can purchase a new “Save the Day” pass to reserve their day entry. While not required, this day pass can offer visitors peace of mind knowing they’ll be able to get in to the most popular parks at the most popular times. Overnight visitors can take advantage of the new “Pick Your Site” feature to reserve specific campsites in advance. No more worrying about arriving too late to find the perfect site, or sites together if you are traveling with a group. View photos and details of campsites, cabins and shelters online before making your reservation.

While you’re online, pick up the Texas state parks annual pass and get a year of unlimited entry for yourself and everyone in your car.

These new features will make planning and visiting your state parks easier in time for spring and summer getaways. Need some inside suggestions for the best campsites? Check out our feature on Prime State Park Campsites.

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Better Birding Photos

Shoot Like the Pros

If you love our magazine, chances are good that you love exquisite wildlife photography. Wonder how they get those shots, and if you can capture one yourself?

It’s time for the great fall bird migration that sweeps through Texas, so there’s no better time to hone your skills. With iPhones or cameras in hand, head out to a state park bird blind or other place where birds gather. Contributor Larry Ditto offers these tips.

  1. Bird photographers need great patience. Birds don’t perform on demand, but they will perform. Develop patience by working in a photography blind with a group. Each photographer must quietly wait for the subjects to arrive. You can’t walk out after 10 minutes.
  2. Study the work of successful photographers. Try to evaluate the entire image (lighting, action, focus, interaction of subjects, etc.). What about this photograph evokes emotion?
  3. Study birds, their habits and their body language. The best bird photographers are excellent naturalists and ornithologists. Many great bird photos were captured because the person behind the camera anticipated the bird’s next action. Learn when they are likely to flush, fight, peck, stretch, etc.
  4. Practice focusing on moving birds. Keep the camera and lens ready for action and set with an appropriate shutter speed and f-stop that are likely to work best at that time of day and that location. Learn how to quickly focus and compose your shot. When photographing wildlife, anything can happen, so photographers have the best chance for success if they’re always ready to shoot.
  5. Invest in good equipment, including a camera that shoots several frames per second and a large telephoto lens capable of good magnification.
  6. Keep the depth of focus (depth of field) shallow. That sets the bird apart from the background and draws the viewer’s eye to the subject. Big telephoto lenses help because they have a limited depth of field at most f-stops; otherwise, look for opportunities where the background is distant from the subject. Look for clean, smooth backgrounds that appear as an area of uncluttered color behind the bird. Avoid photographing subjects amid distracting busy limbs and stems.
  7. Create your own natural-looking setup and attract birds to it with suitable feed and water. Use slender green limbs with fresh green leaves, berries and/or flowers.
  8. Photograph in the warm, soft light of early morning and late evening, when birds are active. Midday light is harsh; the bird’s colors and feather detail will be hidden by the midday glare.
  9. Keep your shadow pointing toward the bird (but not visible in the shot), so the light comes over your shoulder. This helps create a well-lighted scene devoid of contrasting shadows.
  10. Birds are always blinking and turning their heads just as I take the shot, but a short burst of shots will ensure that the second or third frame is the one with the eye open and the head turned in a good direction.
  11. If possible, shoot at a high shutter speed (1/ 2500th of a second is my favorite) to stop a bird’s incredibly fast wing motion, head turns and in-flight movement. Hold the camera’s ISO at a relatively low number (400-800) to avoid undesirable noise (grain) in photos.
  12. Don’t just shoot a “bird on a stick.” Wait for a turn of the head or lifting of a foot. Go for the action; viewers will love your lifelike shots. When birds are on the wing (my favorite type of shooting), I prefer photos with the wings pointing up or down. They can be artistic and offer the best display of the bird’s feathers and color.

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