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The Making of the Meadowlark Blind at the Ljósmyndir Ranch Part 2- The 40,000 ft Plan

June 25, 2021
© Jim Miller – Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)

Greg Reid is said to have opined, “A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.”

For the Meadowlark Blind, I reordered these steps a bit. I wanted a plan to determine if the dream was even plausible.

In my past life in the Air Force, plans and discussions had a wide range of levels of details.

There was the 40,000 ft plan, plus or minus 10,000 ft (or for my international, non-imperial measurement readers, a 12km plan, plus or minus 1.5km–because if God had intended Americans to use the metric system, he would have given us 10 fingers…). It was a very high-level view with big picture concepts, but very short on details.

And then there was a plan that was “In the weeds.” A high level of detail, but if it was the first plan then some of the big picture concepts were missed.

Most plans started at the 40,000 ft view and eventually descended to a plan that made it into the weeds. And between 40,000 ft and the weeds were plans with progressively more details.

Along with plans came a basic truth about them: No plan ever survived first contact with the enemy.

To make a plan, you have to know the essential elements of what you were trying to do. And over the years, I’ve written about this, as it pertains to bird blinds, at length in other forms. The simple version, and the one that I usually talk about when I’m trying to explain what makes a successful blind, is that there are three key ingredients that make for a successful blind. But in reality, that number is really is six.

The first, which wasn’t previously on the list, is availability of birds. The best setup blind with all of the other key elements is absolutely useless if there aren’t any birds around. And initially this was a worry for me. But after many trips to the property before we started the process, I was convinced that this was not going to be a problem.

The second, and the first on my standard list, is safety. The blind has to be setup in such a way that birds feel comfortable coming up to the area. No safety. No birds.

Third element is food. Proper food for the birds that are in the area is essential to attracting them and keeping them around.

Next is water. Available water, whether in a bird bath, a shallow pond, or sometimes even a cattle trough is a big draw for birds. Dripping water has the ability to attract birds to the blind that normally would not come for food because they can hear the water. Especially in drier climates.

Fifth, which I don’t usually discuss unless it is with fellow photographers, is light direction. Many blinds on public lands suffer from the light coming from angles that are not suitable to photography. The original orientation of the blind at San Angelo State Park suffered from this. Front lighting is the goal. Otherwise the only good time to shoot is when the skies are lightly overcast and the diffused light can make up for the lack of planning. However, it must be noted the as the sun moves in the sky between the winter and summer solstices, and exaggerated by how far away from the equator you are, the more variation you will have away from true east or true west on the directional light. More on that in a future blog post.

And last, and often not contemplated, is background. While getting the subject sharp is important, a distracting background makes for a lousy image. Sometimes nature doesn’t help out here. But you do what you can do with what you have to work with. If nature doesn’t help out right away, you can always introduce more nature in the form of vegetation, or fake nature in the form of artificial backgrounds.

Six basics to contemplate at that 40,000 ft level to then be broken down to the point where the plan can be executed.

Since the initial element (presence of birds) was determined to be true, I needed to move to the next step. Convincing the birds it was safe to come and join me with an appropriate structure was next on the list.

About the Image
Lark Bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys)
Elbert County, Colorado – June 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/320 at f/14 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1072
Image Size in Portfolio: 4560×3648 (full frame)

The Making of the Meadowlark Blind at the Ljósmyndir Ranch Part 1- The Dream

June 19, 2021
© Jim Miller – Western Meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta)

Long-term readers of this blog know of my love of shooting in photography blinds. I have been shooting in blinds on public and private lands for nearly 15 years. Some may know that there was a time when I helped to maintain the blind at San Angelo State Park as part of my association with the Friends of San Angelo State Park.

I would have loved to get out to places like the Rocking R6 or La Lomita every week, but distance and wallet were insurmountable limitations. Even a regular trip to a blind on public lands like the four blinds at South Llano River State Park or the two blinds at Pedernales Falls State Park were travel hurdles that I could not get over. In Colorado, except for maybe one place in a National Wildlife Refuge, the concept of a photo blind is a foreign one.

The solution to my blind desire: Have enough land to have my own blind or find somebody who was willing to work with me to share some land for a mutual good.

It is one thing to shoot from a blind. Another thing to maintain a blind. But something altogether different to try to establish one from scratch. Tons of engineering decisions that need to be made early in the process that have long-term ramifications to the success of the blind. Many hours of contemplation and planning.

I attempted to do this once before. When living out in South Texas on a 2 acre piece of property that I called the Rock Ridge Retreat, I went through the motions of trying to get a blind established. I picked a location, got approval from the Property Owners Association, made arrangements for a structure, and found equipment for a water feature. All the pieces that would be needed to set up a blind. And then life happened.

Fast forward about five years later. A change in latitude, longitude, and altitude. A much bigger chunk of land–The Ljósmyndir Ranch. And an involved partner to help make it happen.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to talk about the making of my own blind in Colorado. I invite you to share the journey with me.

About the Image
Western Meadowhawk (Sturnella neglecta)
Elbert County, Colorado – June 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/400 at f/13 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1071
Image Size in Portfolio: 2985×2388

2021 Shooting Day #10 – Walden Ponds

June 7, 2021
© Jim Miller – American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)

The month of May progressed quickly without any significant shooting. And by significant I mean the act of pulling my Canon 7D Mark II out of the bag. I’ve shot my share of images with my phone’s camera, but nothing really nature related. But not wanting to lose another month, I ventured out to Boulder early Saturday morning to visit Walden Ponds areas.

What I call Walden Ponds is really a combination of two nature areas. Walden Ponds Wildlife Habitat, which is run by Boulder County. And Sawhill Ponds, which is run by the city of Boulder. To a relative outsider like me, the difference is effectively geography. There are fences that mark boundaries between the two areas. There are signs showing when you transition from one area to the others. But other than who pays the bills, as a hobbyist photographer who is there for the bugs and the birds there is no difference. But it is a favorite spot of mine which I have visited at least once each year that I’ve lived in Colorado.

There were two basic differences between this day out and the previous 9 I had experienced this year. First was it was a photo trip in Colorado that was actually going to yield something worth posting. And second, it was the first time this year that I was on a solo photo trip. My normal photo companion decided that the chance for snakes being out was more than she wanted to deal with. And truth be told, it was going to be hot (by Colorado standards) and hot weather shooting and hiking is not her favorite thing to do.

It was a good day of shooting, but I know I left some meat on the bone in terms of what I could have done photographically.

I started my walk running into another photographer who was doing primarily birds. He provided some great local knowledge about some places where I might find dragons and damsels, but then told me he hadn’t seen any, but he wasn’t really looking for them, either. As I walked a little further up the path and talked to another photographer, the first photographer walked by and said he just seen some damselflies. Always a good start.

As I started my walk up the path, I encountered a Tree Swallow perched on a nesting box. I got some good shots, but the meat I left on the bone was that while 420mm was good, having my 150-600mm would have been much better. Unfortunately, I haven’t invested in a tripod that can handle the gimbal head. And I won’t shoot the 150-600mm without the gimbal head.

Eventually I found a huge cache of damselflies and made quite a few shots. But I also figured out about 150 shots into the day that I had accidentally turned on about two-thirds of an f-stop worth of exposure compensation, effectively overexposing everything I had shot to that point. Not the first time I’ve done it, but I quickly set the compensation right and then locked the wheel that would cause that error. Again.

As I walked towards the south end of the property I found myself perplexed. The winds were light to non-existent. The clouds were fluffy and gorgeous. And the reflections off the ponds were landscape worthy. And the shortest lens I had was the equivalent of 420mm. I made some iPhone shots, but I had promised myself that I was going to buy a good, light, probably mirrorless camera specifically for such occasions but I had put it off because I didn’t want to spend the money. The same camera that would have come in handy last year at Rocky Mountain National Park. The same camera that would have come in handy when I found a great cactus patch in Cook’s Slough Nature Park down in Texas. Purchasing that camera just once again moved up the list.

The highlights of the day…

The Tree Swallow, in spite of not having enough lens, was a highlight. The last time I made a good image of a Tree Swallow was back in Ohio in maybe 2010. If memory serves, it was shot through the passenger side of my Ford Escape heading into one of Dayton’s MetroParks, shot with my Canon 30D and the same lens/extender combo I was shooting with at Walden Ponds.

The damselflies were also very good. Much work to do with them to get them how I want them.

The biggest bird of the day was a Great Blue Heron, perched in the top of a tree. Again, having the longer glass would have made things better. But at that point in the walk, I may not have had the energy to make a good image of him if I’d been carrying the longer lens and the heavier tripod/tripod head setup.

And last, but certainly not least, was the American Bullfrog that leads off this post. I would have missed him, had he not splashed in the water after catching a breakfast snack. I was able to get very close to him in two different poses before he finally tired of me and headed off for other pastures.

Great day of shooting. Followed by heading off to work on another project. And that other project is where my next blog post will (should) take us.

About the Image
American Bullfrog (Lithobates catesbeianus)
Boulder County, Colorado
Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 300mm f4 L w/1.4x teleconverter
Tripod
ISO 400, 1/160 at f/11 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1067
Image Size in Portfolio: 2691×3363

2021 Shooting Day #9 – William B. Pond Recreation Area

June 6, 2021
© Jim Miller – Vivid Dancer (Argia vivida)

For those who follow this blog regularly, you will notice that I’ve left out Shooting Day #8. That was a shooting day at Rocky Mountain Arsenal NWR. It was more of a scouting trip than a dedicated photo shoot. But since I did make a few images and it did go into my shooting database, it is did count as a shooting day. I should be making a return trip to RMA NWR in the next couple of weeks so hopefully the scouting trip gave me some insight and better images next time.

The end of April found my shooting companion and I out in Northern California. A family get-together, long delayed by Covid considerations, was finally able to happen.

Normally when I go out for a family event I leave my photography gear at home. If the purpose of the trip is family, then I try to keep it concentrated on family.

But on this trip I made an exception. I really wanted to bump my States with a Portfolio Image count up one. And with some really pretty shots of dragonflies and damselflies coming out of the Sacramento area and with us flying into Sacramento, I bent my self-imposed rule a little bit. Plus I wanted another run at traveling with the Think Tank Camera Bag.

My shooting companion and I flew into Sacramento late Thursday night which gave us the chance to be up early Friday morning, somewhat refreshed and ready to go. After a quick conversation over breakfast at the Black Bear Diner, we decided our target for the morning was going to be William B. Pond Recreation Center, technically in Carmichael, as part of Sacramento County’s American River Parkway.

Two hiccups on this particular visit. First was the entry fee to get into the park. The cost was reasonable, but it was self-pay. Unfortunately, I wasn’t carrying enough cash to cover the $5 fee. So we had to turn around, find an ATM, break the $20, and then return to the park. Failure to plan on my part.

Hiccup number two was nature-related. My shooting companion and I were walking up the trail, scanning the environment for dragonflies and damselflies when I spotted something that lacked both wings and legs but was moving under its own power. About the time I said, “Snake…”, she had spotted it as well. Neither of us brought our snake boots on this particular trip because of the size they take up in the suitcase. I recognized the species and knew it was harmless, but there is no such thing as a “harmless snake” for my shooting companion. Off to the car she went, but still encouraging me to get the shots I wanted.

I walked another 100 yards or so and I found what I was looking for. In a clearing just off of one of the ponds at the recreation center (along with the very strong odor of Cannabis from the folks fishing at that pond… gotta love California), was a small cluster of vegetation and rocks that had quite a few damselflies.

The vegetation was all pretty low, so it was going to require every bit of flexibility I have left to get down onto the ground and manipulate the tripod so I could get the shots I wanted.

Highlight of the morning was the included image of a Vivid Dancer damselfly. Strikingly blue little creature that behaved for me long enough to get the shots that I wanted. Also present were Emma’s Dancer damselflies.

With about 125 shots on the card, and knowing that my shooting companion was waiting on my return, I wandered back to the parking area. As I returned, she was doing some shooting of her own, experimenting with some of the vegetation that was growing on the edge on the American River and enjoying the general atmosphere of the park.

The result of the day was a new damselfly species in the portfolio and state number 12 marked off on the States with a Portfolio Image long-term project–the first of 2021. Glad I bent my rules.

About the Image
Vivid Dancer (Argia vivida)
Sacramento County, California
Canon 7D Mark II, Canon 300mm f4 L w/1.4x teleconverter
Tripod
ISO 400, 1/640 at f/13 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1047
Image Size in Portfolio: 3801×3041

Texas Photo Swing Epilogue #2

May 16, 2021
tags: ,
© Jim Miller – Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

So now a little more than two months later, I’m still feeling the glow of this particular trip. This will be a bit of a scattered blog post. Think of this almost as a stream of consciousness.

My thanks again to Butch & Zita Ramirez and Pliny Mier for hosting us at the Rocking R6 Ranch and La Lomita Wildlife Photography Ranch, respectively.

As of this writing I have only 15 images fully processed and put into the portfolio, though I have selected the ones I do want to process. Only the first day of the trip at Crescent Bend Nature Park has been fully processed, though I am quickly making my way through the day at the Rocking R6. The images that I like the most I have in a specific trip photo album at Flickr.

The best food on the entire trip was Ziggy’s Roadside Barbecue in Brackettville. The best complete dining experience when it came to food and atmosphere and whatnot was Doc’s Seafood in Corpus Christi (just beyond the JFK Bridge). The Crab-stuffed Flounder and the Yellow Tuna Fish Tacos were absolutely marvelous and eating with the harbor providing the backdrop pushed Doc’s over the top as the best stop. Honorable mentions go to the Surfing Crab in Corpus Christi and Rudy’s Country Store and BBQ (Nakoma location) in San Antonio. But all in all there was not a bad meal the entire trip.

Lodging throughout the trip was very good. We stayed at a variety of brands, from La Quinta to Hampton Inn to SpringHill Suites. None were exceptional. None were horrible. SpringHill Suites in San Antonio was very accommodating in allowing us to stay longer when Mother Nature put our travel plans into disarray.

We had every intention of making it to Warbler Woods, Mitchell Lake Audubon Center, and Rockport. Those will have to be stops for next time.

Speaking of stops for next time, as we’re getting ready to leave Corpus Christi I was contacted by a friend, fellow photographer, and fellow retired Airman about another set of photo blinds on a private ranch. Unfortunately the rest of our trip was planned out by then so we weren’t able to pivot to get out to that ranch. But he said the next time we’re out we’re welcome and we certainly make that happen. At a bare minimum, it was good to talk photography and “retired” life for a while with my friend.

My Think Tank Photo Airport Security v3.0 bag performed flawlessly. Everything I had hoped for and more. My only complaint: It just barely fits in the overhead compartments on Southwest planes if there is anything more than a laptop in the front pocket. And when I am “loaded for bear” the effort to lift it up. But that is an issue of genetics and not enough upper body workouts. I am very glad I made the purchase.

Other than how badly the vegetation and the early emerging insects had been hurt by the big Texas freeze, the only other disappointment was the rental car. Enterprise Rent-A-Car failed repeatedly. What we reserved wasn’t available when we got to the airport. We lost about an hour that night while they delayed, deferred, tried to get us into a more expensive car, and then gave us something to get us to the hotel that night. We lost a couple hours having to go back to the airport to retrieve something resembling what we had reserved. And then we had some nervous moments on the road to Corpus Christi when the vehicle was handling poorly and we diagnosed it as the tire pressures were too high (nominal cold pressure was 33 PSI, TPMS and the manual tire gauge read all four tires about 50 PSI). Enterprise will be our absolute last choice in the future for renting a car.

And two months after we’re contemplating when next year’s trip will be, what it will entail, and how long it will be. It’ll be a fun planning process.

About the Image
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)
We
bb County, Texas – March 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/320 at f/10 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1059
Image Size in Portfolio: 4231×3385

2021 Shooting Day #7 – Crescent Bend Nature Park

May 15, 2021
© Jim Miller – White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)

My shooting companion and I got off to a very slow start on Monday. Really in the big picture we were enjoying the found time and the lack of a timeline to go do something.

Eventually we got off our backsides and decided not to completely waste the day. And Crescent Bend seemed like the best choice.

Even though I got more shots fired off on Monday, honestly the light wasn’t nearly as good and the bird variety was meh.

Still, a bad day shooting is better than a good day doing most anything else. And it was far from being a bad day shooting.

By the time the day was out, I was convinced that my shooting companion was somewhat hopelessly hooked on bird blinds. Over dinner at 54th Street Grill near the hotel, the two of us were already talking about what we wanted to do the next time we came down to Texas.

By early the next morning we would be turning in the car, heading to the Southwest Airlines ticket counter at San Antonio International, and then sitting at the gate area. Which is where I wrote the epilogue that started this arc of blog posts.

Still some loose ends to tie up, but that will wait for another blog post.

About the Image
White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica)
Bexar County, Texas – March 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/320 at f/10 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1060
Image Size in Portfolio: 4151×3321

2021 Shooting Day #6 – Crescent Bend Nature Park

May 12, 2021
© Jim Miller – Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)

*DING*

The phone’s screen read, “Your flight from SAT to DEN has been cancelled.”

Shooting Day #6 should not have happened in Texas. By the time we drove up to the blind on Sunday afternoon we should have been back in Denver.

Should have been.

Instead, Mother Nature decided that my shooting companion and I needed a couple of extra days in the Lone Star state. Mother Nature dumped around 2 feet of snow on the greater Denver area, paralyzing the city’s transportation grid. That included Denver International Airport which almost never, ever closes because of weather.

Almost never.

If there was any consolation, at least Southwest Airlines cancelled our Sunday flight on Friday afternoon, giving us some time to figure out what was next without the anxiety of wandering around Saturday wondering if we would fly on Sunday. With the new flight scheduled for Tuesday, we plotted what was next.

That next was Sunday afternoon, and it turned out to be back at Crescent Bend Nature Park. A couple of the places I would have liked to have gone were closed, either because of the results of the freeze or the inability to achieve social distancing. Another would have worked well, but I didn’t feel like I had it in me for the long walks that would have been required to go from place to place.

Sunday morning was dreary, but by early afternoon things brightened up enough to try to get back into the blind.

Crescent Bend was a good choice.

Plenty of good birds to be found and pleasantly filtered/diffused light made for some good shots. For me, the highlight of the day was catching a Carolina Wren. I have plenty of pictures of Bewick’s Wrens, but Carolinas always seem to elude me.

Not on this day.

Of the bursts of shots I made, I have three I’m happy with. That includes two of a particular bird drying itself after a good bath. I’ve processed two of the three shots. The third will be there soon. I still can’t keep up with processing.

About the image:
Carolina Wren (Thryothorus ludovicianus)
Bexar County, Texas – March 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/160 at f/11 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1053
Image Size in Portfolio: 3664×2931

2021 Shooting Day #5 – Corpus Christi and Port Aransas

May 10, 2021
© Jim Miller – Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)

After a decidedly long trip from the previous day’s misadventures, we headed down to Corpus Christi and Port Aransas. This really hadn’t been planned as a shooting day. My traveling companion had never been down to the Gulf Coast, so this was an opportunity to enjoy what the coast had to offer.

Photography was not the first order of business. But photographic opportunities presented themselves. Lunch on the water turned into a nice chance for pelicans that were patiently grabbing the scraps from fish being cleaned by the shore. Walking on the beach presented an opportunity for a few sea birds. Eventually by the end of the day we ended up at Leonabelle Turnbull Birding Center, but all in all we made very few images over there as the light was not good at that time of day.

It wasn’t going to set any records for just about anything, but it was still a shooting day. And it certainly was a far better shooting day than the visit to Cook’s Slough.

We would travel back into San Antonio the next day. Weather forecast was not favorable for shots on the way back into town and our agenda were full for mid day and early evening. No photography possible. The following day was going to be doing touristy things in San Antonio, which pretty meant that unless I was going to add to my collection of River Walk images that it would not be a shooting day. The following day would be getting onto a plane and headed back to Colorado. But 5 days of photography was a good break from the normal. I was satisfied.

But the story of this trip wouldn’t end that way.

About the image:
Brown Pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis)
Nueces County, Texas – March 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/640 at f/14 – No Flash
Portfolio Image #1051
Image Size in Portfolio: 3568×4580

The Shooting Day That Wasn’t

May 9, 2021
tags: ,

After an enormously successful day at La Lomita, our plans for the following day was to go up to Kickapoo Cavern State Park, about 20 miles north of Brackettville and then head towards the coast to do some beach time the following day.

It was a good plan. It would have been a better plan had I paid attention to TPWD’s website which was fairly specific in saying that the park is only open from Friday mornings until Monday afternoons. Which, of course, I did not pay full attention to until we arrived at the gate of park and found it locked. I was bummed because I wanted to check out the bird blind there, but life is what happens when we’re busy making other plans. Another day. Another trip. Better planning.

For what it is worth, we very much enjoyed the drive up there. Also for what it is worth, the photography likely would not have been all that great because we were dodging light rain and pretty overcast skies the entire way up to the park.

In this rain cloud there was a silver lining. We stopped for lunch at Ziggy’s Roadside BBQ as we wandered back through Brackettville. Without a doubt it was the best barbecue that we had during our entire trip. I had the smoked turkey. My shooting companion had the brisket. Both were incredible. It is certainly out of the way, but it is well worth the trip.

With our nutritional needs more than met, we wandered back down the road for the coast. Shooting day #5 would have to wait for another day.

2021 Shooting Day #4 – La Lomita Wildlife Photography Ranch

April 18, 2021
© Jim Miller – Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)

The day after our unsuccessful day at Cook’s Slough Nature Park, my shooting companion and I headed to spend the day with my good friend Pliny Mier at the blinds at La Lomita Wildlife Photography Ranch on the east end of Uvalde.

Going to La Lomita is another nearly annual treat for me. I think the only year that I missed was my first year in Colorado, but I had three or four visits the year before so things all balanced out. I was supposed to be out for the grand opening weekend, but life is what happens when we are busy making other plans.

As usual, a day at the ranch did not disappoint. The diffused morning light was very pleasant and the birds were very active. After a quick break at mid-day and our usual visit to Oasis Outback BBQ & Grill for lunch, we headed back out for a very productive afternoon session.

It was a narrower species spread than I had experienced last year–only 10 species over the course of the day. But what was there was outstanding.

The Green Jays put on quite a show in the morning and the afternoon. The Cardinals were exceptional and numerous. And it was mighty fun to see the Olive Sparrows again in the afternoon.

As usual, it was an outstanding day of photography and a great chance to catch up with Pliny. Can’t wait until next year so we can do it again.

About the image:
Green Jay (Cyanocorax yncas)
Uvalde County, Texas – March 2021
Canon 7D Mark II, Tamron 150-600 (Gen 1)
Tripod w/Wimberley gimbal head
ISO 400, 1/320 at f/8 – No Flash

Portfolio Image #1046
Image Size in Portfolio: 4012×3209

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