Seventeen private ranches make it easy to photograph the most sought-after birds in America, and they’re great for birdwatching, too
By David Welling | Published: 8/26/2011
Brilliant yellow flashes zip past, and suddenly, two Audubon’s Orioles are bathing in the pond in front of me. I’m in a blind on the Santa Clara Ranch in South Texas, eyeball to eyeball with the stunning black and yellow birds. The species occurs only in Mexico and South Texas, and its secretive nature makes it difficult to find. To see two birds out in the open, in a picture-perfect setting, was quite a thrill.
The orioles are among the hundreds of birds I’ve found on private Texas ranches that cater to birders and wildlife photographers. The owners protect or are restoring native habitat for resident and migratory birds, and they invite birdwatchers to enjoy the show.
Professional photographers who have been published in this magazine, including Alan Murphy, Ruth Hoyt, and Larry Ditto, regularly shoot and lead photo workshops at ranches. Most ranches have blinds, many of which are partially buried, so they produce intimate, eye-level viewing of birds. Several ranches offer lodging and kitchen facilities, and some provide meals.
Fees charged range from about $100 to $200 per day. What the money buys you is the chance to avoid crowded refuges, to sit in comfort in wild habitat or take a birding tour, and to watch birds bathe, feed, and interact. What you will not find is tolerance for using live bait, such as rodents or pigeons, to get an easy shot of a predatory bird. Ranches are not game farms. They have no trained animals. They are managed primarily to raise cattle or other livestock, and as a bonus, they provide habitat for wildlife.
Audubon’s Oriole and other specialty birds of Texas are big draws, of course. Another reason to take up ranch birding? Warblers! The Rio Grande Valley, Coastal Bend, and Hill Country are on the spring flyway for songbirds, and in April and May, warblers and other migrants stop at ranches to rest and refuel before continuing north. Northern Parula, Blackpoll, Blue-winged, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Kentucky, Magnolia, Orange-crowned, Yellow, and Yellow-throated Warblers, and Summer and Scarlet Tanagers add spectacular splashes of color to your viewing blind.
What follows is a region-by-region roundup of 17 private ranches that welcome birders and photographers. All provide phenomenal birdwatching.
The northeastern corner of the Texas Panhandle is home to ranches where the Lesser Prairie-Chicken is hanging on despite decades of decline elsewhere. Photographer and prairie-chicken guide Dick Wilberforce works with the chamber of commerce in the town of Canadian to coordinate tours to see the bird in early to mid-April. (Read about Pete Dunne’s visit to Canadian in “Birder at Large,” December 2004, page 20.)
The 5,000-acre Anderson Ranch is among the properties Wilberforce has access to. In 2010, owner Jim Bill Anderson received the $10,000 Leopold Conservation Award for Texas in part for his efforts to provide prairie-chicken habitat and boost the bird’s population.
Before sunrise one spring morning, Dick, who has studied the endangered birds for decades, drove me to a blind he had set up on a lek. As the sun rose, the males started booming. I watched the birds display, challenge one another, and spar all morning. Later that day, I saw Eastern Bluebirds, Hairy and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, Carolina Chickadees, and Wild Turkeys in the nearby town of Lipscomb, where the turkeys outnumber the residents.
The vast Hill Country west of Austin and northwest of San Antonio is the spot many birders go to find the endangered Golden-cheeked Warbler and Black-capped Vireo. The warbler nests only here, and the vireo’s breeding range is just slightly larger, extending west to Big Bend National Park and north to Oklahoma. (Read about Hill Country refuges where the birds can be seen in “Texas Gold,” June 2005, page 40.)
Mike Murphy’s 400-acre Los Madrones Ranch sits about 25 miles west of Austin. Golden-cheeks on the ranch use bark strips from ashe junipers to line their nests. Most ranchers cut down ashe junipers, but Mike nurtures a mature stand of the trees for the warblers, ensuring their continued presence.
He took me to a particularly good spot, and almost on cue, a male Golden-cheeked appeared a few feet away, singing his heart out to defend his territory. Other birds at Los Madrones include Ruby-throated and Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Yellow-throated Warbler, and Orchard Oriole.
I’ve also visited the Block Creek Natural Area, north of San Antonio. Two adjoining ranches, Laurels Ranch and Turkey Hollow, make up the natural area. Dave and Myrna Langford, who own the Laurels Ranch, have worked extensively to reintroduce and establish many of the native grasses once found throughout much of the Hill Country. The Laurels’ creeks, lakes, rolling hills, native oaks, and grasses provide habitat for a wide variety of birds. You might see Wood Ducks, Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, sparrows, wrens, and hawks. I photographed a Texas specialty, the Black-crested Titmouse, at the Laurels Ranch.
About 25 miles to the northwest, Black-capped Vireos nest at Quiet Hill Ranch. The species is seen here from April to August. The ranch provides a blind next to a pond and feeders that attract Painted Bunting, Summer Tanager, Vermilion Flycatcher, and other birds in spring and summer. Year-round residents include Ladder-backed and Golden-fronted Woodpeckers and Loggerhead Shrike.
Another great place to visit is 1,000-acre Red Creek Nature Ranch, northeast of the town of Junction. The picturesque property includes juniper-covered hills, rugged valleys, and two miles of a spring-water streambed. Five photo blinds are available, all of which are next to bird-feeding stations.
RANCHES AT A GLANCE
Amenities: More than 5,000 acres. Tours to see and photograph prairie-chickens offered from mid-March to mid-May, from 5:15-9:30 a.m. $100 per person with a minimum of two people and a maximum of six.
Lodging: Available nearby.
More info: (806) 323-9868, wilberforcephotoart.com
Location: Halfway between Comfort and Fredericksburg
Amenities: Several lightweight blinds. $125 per day per person, two-day minimum.
Lodging: $200 per night, maximum of two people.
More info: (830) 995-2147,www.blockcreeknaturalarea.com/ranches.htm#laurels
Los Madrones Ranch
Location: 8 miles north of Dripping Springs
Amenities: 400 acres. Four photo sites and blinds that hold one to four people each. $125 per day per person.
Lodging: $105 per night on weeknights, $120 per night on weekends.
More info: (512) 264-1741, www.losmadrones.com
Quiet Hill Ranch
Location: 25 miles northwest of Fredericksburg
Amenities: One blind that seats six, hiking trails, wheelchair-accesible. Day-use fee is $30 per person. No extra charge for blind and trails for overnight guests.
Lodging: $140-$160 per night for double occupancy (two-night minimum).
More info: (830) 669-2253, www.quiethillranch.com
Red Creek Nature Ranch
Location: 15 miles northeast of Junction
Amenities: 1,000 acres. Five photo blinds. $90 per day for two people.
More info: (325) 475-2901, redcreeknatureranch.com
Location: Halfway between Comfort and Fredericksburg
Amenities: Two-acre lake, year-round feeding stations, and photo blinds. $125 per day per person, two-day minimum.
Lodging: $125-$150 per night, maximum of two people.
More info: (830) 995-4174, www.blockcreeknaturalarea.com/ranches.htm#turkey
El Potrero Ranch
Location: 12 miles south of Kingsville
Amenities: 130 acres. Two photo sites. $175 per day for one person; $125 per day per person for two or more people.
More info: (361) 455-2647, www.imagesforconservation.org/travel/el-potrero-ranch
Location: 4 miles south of Refugio
Amenities: 3,500 acres. 10 photo blinds, trails, and tours by reservation only. Birding trips: $105 per day per person.
Lodging: Available nearby.
More info: (361) 529-6600, www.fennesseyranch.com
Amenities: Four units covering 825,000 acres. Birding and wildlife tours by reservation, no blinds. Prices range from $22.95-$195 per person.
More info: (361) 592-8055, www.king-ranch.com/nature_tours.html
Location: 15 miles north of Rio Grande City
Amenities: Waterholes, ponds, feeding stations, and photo blinds. Run jointly with neighboring Dos Venadas.
Lodging: $135 per night, with variable meal plans.
More info: (956) 486-2504, camposviejos.com/index.htm
Location: 10 miles west of Linn
Amenities: Photo blind, $100 per day per person; with guide $175 per day per person.
Lodging: $30-$150 per night per person.
More info: (956) 481-3320, www.cozadranch.com
Location: 20 miles north of Rio Grande City
Amenities: 336 acres. Waterhole, bird feeders, and photo blinds. Run jointly with neighboring Campos Viejos. $125 per day per person. Guides available for $100-$150 per day.
Lodging: At Campos Viejos.
More info: (956) 686-2612, www.dosvenadas.com
Amenities: 300 acres. Blinds with waterholes and feeders. $175 per day for one person; $125 per day per person for two or more people.
Lodging: $280 per night per person at a nearby ranch. Fee includes lodging, meals, and photography guide.
More info: (956) 381-1264, www.martinrefuge.com
Laguna Seca Ranch
Location: 19 miles north of Edinburg
Amenities: 700 acres. Four ponds, 5.5 miles of trails, feeders. $140-$200 per day.
Lodging: Available nearby.
More info: (417) 459-5113, photographysouthtexas.com
San Jose Ranch
Location: 41 miles southeast of Laredo
Amenities: Two partially buried photo blinds, waterholes.
Lodging: $150 per night for two people; $25 per night for each additional guest.
More info: (956) 740-0988, www.ranchcasitas.com
Santa Clara Ranch
Location: 9 miles west of McCook
Amenities: 300 acres. Partially buried photo blinds, waterholes, and a spring-fed pond. $100 per day per person.
Lodging: $50 per night.
More info: (956) 787-6808, www.santaclararanch.com
Location: 12 miles west of Encino
Amenities: 3,200 acres. Trails, observation deck with camo netting, two lakes, blinds. $125 per day per person.
Lodging: $50 for first night, $40 for second night, $30 for each additional night.
More info: (361) 568-3440, tacubayaranch.com
Note: Some Rio Grande Valley ranches require or suggest hiring a local guide who knows the ranches well and can help with species identification and photography. Top-notch local guides include Larry Ditto (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Hector Astorga (email@example.com).
The Coastal Bend covers the middle section of the Texas Gulf coast, from about San Antonio Bay to Corpus Christi to Padre Island. Birds of the region include Crested Caracara, Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Mottled Duck, sparrows and pipits in winter, and migrating warblers in late spring.
North of Corpus Christi, near the town of Refugio, you’ll find 3,500-acre Fennessey Ranch. It offers guided birdwatching tours in spring and fall, and its Fennessey Sharp Shooters Photo Club offers photographers access to the ranch’s blinds and trails.
This fall, participants in the Hummer/Bird Celebration in Rockport in mid-September will be able to join hummingbird tours on the Fennessey. In addition, a Hawk Watch Field Day is scheduled for September 23, promising sightings of migrating raptors.
Southwest of Corpus Christi, King Ranch covers 825,000 acres, making it the largest private ranch in the United States. It boasts an astonishing 356 species of birds — more than half of the Texas state list. Many Texas specialty birds are resident — Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl, Tropical Parula, Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Audubon’s Oriole, Botteri’s Sparrow, and White-tailed Hawk — enough for the American Bird Conservancy to name it a Globally Important Bird Area.
The ranch offers full- and half-day nature tours, including several that focus solely on birds. In winter, 100-species days are not uncommon.
Just south of King Ranch is 130-acre El Potrero Ranch. Its two photo blinds offer views of caracaras, vultures, songbirds, doves, and hummingbirds.
The Lower Rio Grande Valley near the Mexico border and the brush country just north of it are high on all birders’ must-see list. Besides the top-notch public birding sites like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge and Falcon State Park, several ranches open their gates to birders and photographers.
At Dos Venadas, a 370-acre ranch located 20 miles north of Rio Grande City, I hoped to see Olive Sparrow, Great Kiskadee, and Crested Caracara, all Texas specialties, and I wasn’t disappointed. At my first blind, a pair of Olive Sparrows foraged and bathed in a small pond, and at another blind, kiskadees dove for leopard frogs and minnows.
Cardinals, several dove species, Golden-fronted and Ladder-backed Woodpeckers, Curve-billed Thrashers, a Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Black-crested Titmice all stopped to drink. I watched Scaled Quail dust-bathe, and at a raptor blind, I saw a pair of caracaras flying to and from a snag and a mockingbird dive-bombing a regal but unsuspecting Harris’s Hawk.
Ranch owner Steve Bentsen has reintroduced local native plants for birds that rely on thorn-bush habitat, and he’s planting native prairie grasses to attract Horned Larks and grassland sparrows. Since 2009, Dos Venadas and neighboring 1,000-acre Campos Viejos Ranch have collaborated to serve bird photographers. Together they offer lodging, access to a variety of habitats, and several blinds.
A short drive east of Campos Viejos is the 300-acre Santa Clara Ranch, where I snapped photo after photo from owner Beto Gutierrez’s large blinds at small waterholes and a beautiful natural pond. In addition to the Audubon’s Orioles, I saw several other Texas specialties. A pair of Green Jays chatted away on an overhanging branch, a Long-billed Thrasher sat preening and roosting right in front of me, several Black-crested Titmice flew in, White-tipped Doves bathed, and Olive Sparrows foraged.
I took my best Pyrrhuloxia photo here, a beautiful male taking flight from the pond. Because Beto’s blinds are partially underground, I could watch a Black-throated Sparrow bathe at eye level, a fascinating perspective. A striking Swainson’s Hawk came in several times to drink, and a juvenile Verdin foraged for berries on a nearby bush.
A pair of roadrunners hung out at one of the blinds, and I had fun watching them chase lizards. Northern Mockingbirds, the state bird of Texas, were everywhere. The finishing touch was a covey of Northern Bobwhite that lined up perfectly for a drink at a small waterhole.
Southeast of Laredo, John and Ana Puig recently opened their San Jose Ranch to birders and photographers. From their spacious blinds, you can find Crested Caracara, Painted Bunting, Green Jay, Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, Couch’s Kingbird, and other beauties.
Farther south, near the town of Mission, sits John and Audrey Martin’s 300-acre Javelina Ranch. In the 1980s, they were among the first Texas ranchers to welcome wildlife photographers, and they’ve been recruiting more ranchers ever since.
From their viewing blinds, I’ve watched Groove-billed Ani, Painted Bunting, my first Varied Bunting and Green Kingfisher, Plain Chachalaca, Lesser Goldfinch, Gray Catbird, Green-tailed Towhee, and Bronzed Cowbird.
Water sources keep the birds coming back, especially in the last year, which has seen little rainfall in South Texas. The list of birds I’ve seen drinking and bathing here includes Scissor-tailed Flycatcher, a striking male Blue Grosbeak, Northern Harrier, adult and juvenile Sharp-shinned Hawks, and a young, curious Cooper’s Hawk that studied me as I sat in the blind studying him.
It was fun to watch a Great-tailed Grackle try to stuff too many grubs in its beak, and my patience really paid off when an Altamira Oriole began feeding on grubs and katydids just a few feet away.
Large or permanent water sources on many of the ranches offer excellent views of wading birds and waterfowl, including Great Blue, Green, and Tricolored Herons, Laughing Gull, Blue-winged Teal, and Snowy and Cattle Egrets. I’ve spent hours at the Javelina Ranch watching a Green Heron catch fish and frogs and perform all sorts of antics. On ranches with running streams, you’re apt to see Belted and Green Kingfishers.
North of Edinburg and just west of Highway 281 is the 700-acre Laguna Seca Ranch, which has four ponds, several blinds, and more than five miles of trails to explore on foot or by car.
Cozad Ranch, located a bit farther to the north, is another good spot to photograph caracaras, Green Jay, Painted Bunting, and other birds.
And west of the town of Encino, in the far northern section of the Rio Grande Valley, lies 3,200-acre Tacubaya Ranch. It was recently opened to visitors, who can stay in its lodging facilities and use its blinds. Tacubaya offers the chance to see caracaras, Least Grebe, Scissor-tailed and Vermilion Flycatchers, bobwhite, and buntings in slightly different habitat from that in the southern Rio Grande Valley. The ranch also attracts lots of beautiful butterflies and moths.
Spending hours in a blind is not boring. It gives me the opportunity to see unique behaviors of birds and other animals. I’ve watched a Belted Kingfisher eat leopard frogs, a Golden-fronted Woodpecker feed on flower pollen of a prickly pear cactus, a caracara drink from a pond, a pair of Northern Cardinals exchange food, a Cactus Wren build its nest in a giant opuntia, a bathing Harris’s Hawk call to a mate, and a male Vermilion Flycatcher display to a female — all behaviors I might never have seen on a hike in a refuge or park.
Ranchers with intimate knowledge of their resident wildlife can help you find specific birds. One owner guided me to a perched Common Nighthawk and a roosting Eastern Screech-Owl, perfectly camouflaged in a dead mesquite snag. I spent five minutes staring at the snag before I finally saw the little owl. Without the rancher’s assistance, I would not have seen either bird.
Approximately 95 percent of the land in Texas is privately owned, and much of the native habitat has been lost to development. Cattle ranching is not as profitable as it once was. The fees ranchers charge for blinds and lodging help defray costs and keep wildlife habitat protected.
It is a winning situation for everyone. The rancher receives financial assistance, and you see or photograph birds and other wildlife found nowhere else in the United States.
Dave Welling (www.agpix.com/davewelling) has been a professional wildlife photographer for more than 20 years. His photos have appeared in National Geographic Kids, Natural History, Outdoor Photographer, and other magazines.