Brazos Bend State Park, Texas (Eliminating the Stir Crazies and Testing A Telephoto)

Normally, I like to stay home and go nowhere during my weekends and days off (when I don’t have a plane ticket to someplace out West, that is), because I commute 84 miles round trip to and from work every single day.  It gets old and I’ve been doing this for a little short of 14 years.  However, after an extended series of weekends at home, I began to get a little stir-crazy with cabin fever and needed to get out and about somewhere with my camera.  So this past Saturday (Jan 28), I took my cameras and a couple of lenses (including a rented Canon 70-300mmL IS lens) and hit the road to Brazos Bend State Park.

I used to joke “if you’ve seen one alligator, you’ve seen them all”, but I don’t really mean it.  This little photographic oasis out in the middle of nowhere is a wealth of photo ops – particularly of the winged kind.  Herons, birds of prey, moorhens, grebes, ibis, egrets – they all make this place their home (or at least, their stopover).  Deer, armadillos, snakes (poisonous and non-) also make their home in this park.

I don’t have much experience, really, with bird photography (or any wildlife photography, actually), but I’ve been looking at a number of birders who post their photos on Flickr, and I also had the pleasure of traveling with a bird photographer during my 2011 Ireland trip.  So I figured I should probably work on my photo techniques pertaining to wildlife.

During the winter months at the park, the birdlife is not as varied as it is during spring and summer.  And the alligators don’t really come out unless it’s a warm day.  So I have decided I should make at least three more trips out to the park: spring, summer, and autumn, and blog about the differences I see during each of the seasons.  This post is the Winter post.

I left my home at about 6:15AM and arrived at the park a few minutes prior to 7AM.  The park doesn’t open until 7AM on Saturdays, so I just sat in the car outside of the entrance and listened to all the birdsong, including the deep hooting of a nearby owl.  After paying my $7 entry fee, I headed down the road at 30mph, stopping along the way to allow some deer to cross.  This image was taken looking outside of my windshield.  Not the sharpest of images, but I didn’t yet have the correct camera settings and was in a hurry to get the shot before the deer scampered away (yes, I had stopped and the emergency brake was on – no photographing while driving for this kid).

My first stop was at Creekfield Lake, across from the visitor center.  Aside from the crows, my first wild fowl view was of what I call the “Buzzard Tree”.  Buzzards (aka vultures) are not a pretty bird, but their wingspans and appearance in the air certainly are impressive.

Creekfield Lake is a small lake but has the prettiest scenery around it, I think.  Although the day was forcasted to be clear, sunny, and in the upper 60’s, that morning at 7AM, it was overcast, very windy, and downright chilly.  I was pretty tickled because cloud cover always makes for interesting scenery shots.

Note the leading line of the trail and the fact that I used the rule-of-thirds for placement (ahem).

My next birdlife view (and audio experience) was of the coots (the bird kind, not the old men kind).  Those birds are on every lake in this park.  During this time of the season, they outnumber the other birdlife around the lake.

So I walked around the paved .5-mile interpretative nature loop, stopping now and then to photograph the coots and the various vegetative life, of which there is a wealth in that park.

They call these stumps “cypress knees”

Tree fungus

Spanish moss drifts and lands everywhere (for those of you who have read my posts regarding “rules” of photography, you will note that I not only did not use the rule-of-thirds with this image, but I placed it smack dab in the center (as I have done with a number of other images in this post).  Hah!  So much for “rules”.

I was hoping to spot a heron or egret or duck, but I didn’t see any of that this early in the morning around this lake.  I figured it must be the time of year.  I did see a bright splash of red from the corner of my eye while walking and I spotted a couple of cardinals (or “redbirds” as the locals call them).

I also had the good fortune to see a little blue bird high up in the tree limbs – I was told that – like lady bugs – to see a bluebird means you will have good luck.

Having used my tripod only for the landscape shots of the lake, I realized it was going to be a bit of a hindrance for me.  I tend to photograph “on the fly”, using a tripod mainly for landscapes and preferring to handhold the camera and lens when it comes to capturing images of moving subjects.  These little cardinals, for instance, were constantly moving.  So I lay the tripod down and began to test the handholding IS capability of this Canon 70-300mmL lens.  I like it!  Combined with a full-frame camera, the clarity of the images is wonderful – even after  75-100% crop.  And it’s a light lens (compared to the 70-200 lens).  I have small, arthritic hands, so this lens was great.  I’d use it for weddings (I have an upcoming wedding shoot) except that the lowest aperture on this lens is 4.5; unless the wedding is held outdoors during the day, they are usually interior, low-light affairs calling for a lens with the capability of at least f2.8.

For almost all of my images, the ISO was set to 640.  I learned this trick from a Flickr contact.  I set the ISO relatively high so that I could get super-fast shutter speeds in the sunlight in order to freeze a bird’s movement.  My aperture was set to 6.3 and the shutter speeds varied from 1/500 to 1/2000.

After circling Creekfield Lake, I returned to the car and drove back toward the park entrance and 40 Acre Lake.  While I am of the opinion that Creekfield Lake has the prettiest scenery, I believe 40 Acre Lake has the best wildlife viewing opportunities.  I ended up visiting this place twice – once during the early morning hours, and then again between noon and 2PM.  Turns out my second visit was a good choice; by then, the temperature and sun were warm enough to elicit the American Alligators to come out and bask in the warmth (I didn’t see them earlier in the morning, when it was much cooler and windier).

40 Acre Lake has a 1.2-mile trail encircling the water with an observation tower at the northeast corner.

As I was walking around the trail, a couple of photographers passed by, each one carrying two of the biggest Canon lenses on tripods that I have ever seen in my life!  Good thing those men were large themselves, because it would take a large person to lug one of those things around.  For a split second, I had “lens envy”, but after the two men passed on, I happily went about the business of testing the “little” telephoto lens I had rented.

Again, I saw plenty of coots,

but I also saw ibis,

roseate spoonbills (here’s an example of the great crop capabilities of the camera/telephoto combo about which I wrote earlier in this post),

The original image:

The cropped image:

a snowy egret,

a blue heron,

Original – can you spot the heron?

Crop #1:

Crop #2:

Fishing for breakfast:

another cardinal,

turtles,

a cormorant,

plenty of Spanish moss,

fish (boats are prohibited but it’s free to fish, so many people were out with their poles and tackle boxes that morning),

and of course, alligators (6 different ones along the shore).

I saw a number of these “gator wallows” (my term, but maybe that’s what they actually are called) along the shoreline.

And another original vs. 75% crop:

While perambulating around the path, I naturally climbed up the observation tower for some views:

To the West

To the East

To the North

To the South

And to the Southwest (all of these observation tower images exemplify another one of those “rules” of photography: perspective)

During my walk, I saw the effects this long Texas drought has wrought.  All along the non-lake sides, what once flowed with dark water and brilliant green pond scum was now a dry dusty green and brown.

As I continued along the trail back to the parking lot, I stopped to photograph some tree bark, thus bringing to mind another one of those “rules” I have written about:  pattern (and texture).

Another stop I made while in the park was to Hale Lake.   I didn’t stay long there, though, because I was beginning to poop out and feel the effects of my slightly sunburnt face.  I had a little trouble finding the lake (drove right past the trail) and hiked about half a mile out of my way before realizing my mistake.

Hale Lake is what I call an “oxbow” lake – a part of the Brazos River that was eventually cut off and bypassed in favor of an easier route for the river water to flow.

By 2PM, cars and crowds had multiplied exponentially – time for me to head home and process the photos.   I had a great day at the park.  Cabin fever and stir crazies are banished and I came away with some wonderful images.

Plus, I know now that Spring is just around the corner (in Texas, that is).

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Filed under birds, Brazos Bend State Park, nature, Parks, Photography, wildlife

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