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Out in the Field-The Sneak Preview

June 21, 2014
Black-capped Vireo

© jmillerphoto.com – Black-capped Vireo

I mentioned in my write-up from Sunday’s visit to Mitchell Lake Audubon Center that I had received a call asking me to come out and preview a new shooting location.  Yesterday was my opportunity to go out and do that preview.  And all I can say is “Wow.”

The shooting location is a ranch establishing photo blinds.  It is called Transition Ranch and it is out in Kinney County, about 40 minutes from the heart of Uvalde, Texas.

As noted, this was a preview of the location.  It is still a work in progress, getting the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  But if this is the preview, I can’t wait for this ranch to go live.

Currently there are two blind sites on the property.  One for morning shooting called the First Canyon Blind.  And a second for afternoon shooting called the Windmill Blind.  Neither blind structure is fully constructed.  But as I found later, in the big picture it really didn’t matter.  In their current shape they are meeting the objective of any blind:  Conceal the photographers and diminish the bird’s circle of fear.  And even better, the light hitting the subjects at these blinds is outstanding.

© jmillerphoto.com - White-winged Dove

© jmillerphoto.com – White-winged Dove

One of the first things we did when I arrived was talk about the property and the goals that Sandy and Leslee are moving forward with.  The goals are simple:  Create memories that give people joy.  And when folks leave, hear that they came for the photography, but left with much, much more.  I know I’m foreshadowing, but I think they’re definitely on the right rack.

After talking at length about the overall concept, Sandy took me down to the first blind.  Weather conditions were not ideal–cloudy with the hint that rain was coming.  Had this been a normal weekend day where I had considered going shooting, I might have stayed home.  But as I looked through the viewfinder and saw the aperture/shutter speed recommendations, I knew this would still be very workable.  It might require boosting the ISO a bit if it degraded, but otherwise we were good because the light was hitting where it needed to hit.  We got set up, modified the camouflage sheeting in front of the blind to get our lenses through, and waited for the action to start.

It didn’t take long and the first swing was a home run.  I was on image number four of my first card when down plopped a Black-capped Vireo (Vireo atricapilla) onto a nearby branch.  Holy cow!  An endangered species and a Texas photographer’s dream subject.  It waited a moment to pose, dropped down to get some water, popped back up onto a branch to pose again, and flew off.  We didn’t see it again, but once was enough.  My aim was true and the images were pretty.  Image #11 on the day became an instant wall paper candidate.

As the morning progressed the list of birds making their rounds continued to lengthen.  In spite of the cloudy conditions, the light worked very well because light direction was first and foremost into the decision making process of setting up the blind.

Northern Bobwhite

© jmillerphoto.com – Northern Bobwhite

After a while we moved to take a quick preview of the second blind before heading in for lunch.  After lunch we took a field trip to where Sandy is talking about establishing a third blind and where there is a dandy pond with the start of a very good dragonfly and damselfly population.

We then returned to the second established blind area.  Again, this blind is a work in progress.  It was effectively a metal skeleton and some camouflage material in front to act as the hide.  No roof yet, though the materials for it arrived while we were there.

This blind is established just outside of a wash, or effectively a intermittent stream bed that flows when adequate rain shows up (and dries up nearly as quickly).  The rocky stream bed with accompanying cacti and other naturally occurring flora makes for a great backdrop here, not to mention it provides a solid 18% gray to help exposure meters work the way they’re supposed to.  This is a nice contrast to some of the other ranches offering photography blinds where dirt is the dominant ground cover.  Not saying either is good or bad, but it is nice to have some variety.

In spite of the “Under Construction” nature of the blind structure, this area was photographic gold as well.  The highlight here were the Northern Bobwhites (Colinus virginianus) that made their appearance shortly before the thunderstorm started to roll in.  But there was a wide range of birds that came in here as well, many of which were not present at the other blind.

The Golden Hour light at the Windmill Blind was tasty, but sadly it remains just an appetizer rather than a full meal because the thunderstorms started to come with a vengeance.  That Golden Hour was really more like just a few minutes.  I can’t wait for the main course.

After making a quick run to the First Canyon Blind to see how the backlighting was going to work in the evening we finished up the photographic work and headed in.  Sandy said at the end of the day that it was as slow as he’s ever seen the blinds.  1,350 images says that if this is slow, I don’t know that I could handle a bumper crop day (but I’d sure smile all the way through while trying to keep up).

I also had the opportunity to preview the casitas that they have setup for visiting photographers.  Wonderful little cabin-like/b&b-like structures to wind down in after a long day shooting.  Outside the casitas is a pool and hot tub to warm up or cool off as appropriate after a day with your eye attached firmly at the back of a camera.  Wonderfully unique grilling facilities are within the casitas area as well, giving it a West Texas resort feel.

Olive Sparrow

© jmillerphoto.com – Olive Sparrow

Sandy & Leslee’s hospitality was incredible.  I can’t put into words how great of a time I had and how welcome I felt the entire time I was there.

As with any work in-progress, there are things that need to be worked.  Sandy asked for my honest opinions and I provided them to him.  But the list was small and pointed because he is so far down the right track that he’s nearly reached the destination.

On the photography side, what matters with the blinds is that the light is good and the birds are coming in.  Those two together are the biggest elements you need.  Everything else will come with time.

The elements are also there to make lasting memories.  My Black-capped Vireo is an amazing memory, made more vivid because I was able to execute on the image because the prep work had been done properly.  Spin this into a couple of days of sharing stories from the day, bragging about images, and enjoying a cool breeze around the casitas with a beverage in your hand and still catching the aroma of great food cooked on the grill.  Wow, that is just one of those things that would stick in the mind forever–especially with those gorgeous pictures on the wall from the trip.  Yes, they’re on the right path.

Transition Ranch is supposed to open up sometime in the fall.  When I have a good date I will post that information here.  And I’ll likely be first in line to be a paying customer.

About the Images:  Standard gear was employed on the tripod and without flash.  The Black-capped Vireo was the absolute highlight.  Tech specs were ISO 400, 1/500 sec at  f/7.1.  If I had it to do over again, I would have closed down the shutter to f/11 and taken the hit on shutter speed.  See also wishes and fishes.  The White-winged Dove (Zenaida asiatica) walking on the lichen covered rock was at the Windmill Blind.  Tech specs were ISO 400, 1/400 sec at f/9.  The Olive Sparrow (Arremonops rufivirgatus) was back at the First Canyon Blind.  Technical specs were ISO 400, 1/200 sec at f/8 but required a little extra effort to get the exposure right in Lightroom and Photoshop.  And the Northern Bobwhite was also at the Windmill Blind.  His ladylove was with him as well, but she was considerably more shy.  Tech specs were ISO 400, 1/200 sec at  f/10.

Full Disclosure:  No money changed hands for this particular trip.  The property is not yet open to the public and there is no pricing structure published.  And the next time our schedules can mesh, we’re having Sandy and Leslee over for dinner and long discussions about photography.

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