Monday, April 7, 2014

Go the Real, Old West

Raw, dusty and rock laden terrain points toward blue skies that stretch as far as the eye can see.  Muted shades of many colors roll across flat lands that quickly enfold into mountainous ranges and ancient limestone canyons.

Vermillion in Full Sun
Nikon 7100, Sigma 150-500, ISO 160, f/8, 1/250
Big Bend National Park rests in far west Texas alongside the Rio Grande river. Quietly, she waits to share desert delights of blooming cacti, hundreds of bird species and onyx nights filled with diamonds in the sky.

She surprises with pockets of riparian habitats offering close ups views of many wildlife species. The Cottonwood CampgroundRio Grande Village and the Chisos Basin are the three largest primary riparian areas within the park.

Our first stop in the park was Cottonwood Campground.  The reward? Vermillion flycatchers that zipped from campsites, to barbed wire fences to low hanging branches.

My first step was to observe their flight patterns and poses.  From there, I determined my plan of locations, camera settings, lighting and lens.  As I had recently added a Nikon 910 Speedlight to my arsenal, it was a well appreciated tool in the shady Cottonwoods.

While photographing birds, I almost always use Aperture Priority mode.  Given the shady conditions in the campgrounds, the best images came from those with f/stops that ranged from f/7.1 to f/10.

The lower the f/stop number means a larger amount of light coming through the lens.  The more light, the faster the shutter speed.  With more light, the depth of field is more shallow which means your foreground is sharp and the background is blurred.

The male vermillion below was captured using an Aperture of f/7.1.  The bird is in focus and the leaves and branches are very soft and blurred.  The female was captured using an Aperture of f/9.  You'll see a bit more branch detail behind her but with some blurring.  It was very windy and I wanted to capture the surroundings to share her delicate strength as she gripped the branch.  The Nikon 910 Speedlight was used in these two images to get more detail of the feathers.
Nothing Boring about the "Bird on the Stick," Vermillion Flycatcher
Nikon 7100, Sigma 150-500mm, ISO 250, f/7.1, 1/250 sec

Female Vermillion hangs on in the West Texas Breeze
Nikon 7100, Sigma 150-500mm, ISO 250, f/9, 1/640 sec
Our next morning was spent at Rio Grande Village searching out the Common Black Hawk nesting in the Cottonwoods.  Even though the Vermillion flycatchers danced to my right, left and overhead, I only had eyes for the black hawk sitting in a cluster of branches.  As a birder, it was a first time sighting.

As a photographer, it was a rare gift to capture and now share.

Black Hawk Preening for its Mate
Nikon 7100, Sigma 150-500mm, ISO 250, f/7.1, 1/200 sec

That afternoon was spent in the Chisos Basin where a winding, steep downhill led to nesting pairs of Mexican Jay's.  These jays can be found in oak woodlands in Western Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.  Always sassy and full of spunk, the Mexican Jay's vibrancy glows against the desert background.

Mexican Jay peering around an oak
Nikon 7100, Sigma150-500mm, ISO 250, f/9, 1/250 sec 
From sunrise to sunset, Big Bend National Park is a bird and nature photographer's delight and escape.  To get there, be prepared for a journey.  It's a solid seven hour drive from San Antonio or a four hour drive from El Paso.  Everything is bigger in Texas, including the drive.  But the roads travel fast as it's legal to go 80 miles per hour along I-10.

Since it is remote and vast in scope, planning in advance is highly recommended. We stayed at the Big Bend Casitas at Far Flung which is just outside the park in Terlingua, Texas.  The cozy casitas (cabins) were well appointed with small kitchens and very clean.  The grounds observed the 'no lights outside' so you could rock the time away gazing at the stars from your private porch, relaxing in a rocking chair.  

The real west awaits....

Happy Trails and Happy Shooting!