Shooting Wildlife With a Camera

Bird and animal photography, especially in the wild, can be quite challenging.

Notice how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Notice the smooth bokeh and how the Rule of Thirds is used in placing of the green heron with space for the bird to move into the frame.© Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The name of the game in wildlife photography—whether you’re trying to capture an exotic bird in a national wildlife refuge or a giraffe in a city zoo or wildlife park—is patience.

Wild birds and animals will do what they’re going to do and no amount of coaxing will make them turn their head, look your way, open their mouth, do something cute, or move to better light.

You have to be there—and ready—when the photo op occurs. Be prepared to wait, and wait, and wait some more—it takes a long time to get good wildlife photos, even longer for great ones.

The best time for travel photography is either during the early morning or late afternoons and the same applies for birds and animals. Early morning is typically the best for wildlife photography because birds and animals are actively searching for food.

Maintaining fast shutter speeds, especially for birds in flight and small birds that move very quickly is essential—you cannot fix motion blur in post production. You need to completely freeze the action of the bird. To achieve this, set your shutter speed in a range from 1/800 to 1/1600 or even faster for birds in flight.

Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Sandhill cranes in early morning light at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A tripod or a monopod is highly recommended for early morning and late afternoon photography when slower shutter speeds are required due to less available light.

Always focus on the nearest (to the viewer) eye of the bird. It is acceptable to have a blurred tail or other parts of the bird, but at least one eye always needs to be in focus and sharp. For birds in flight, focus on the bird’s head or chest—whichever provides better contrast for the camera autofocus system.

Choose your background carefully to achieve a smooth bokeh (or boke, a Japanese word meaning blur). Photos with objects behind the bird are not as visually appealing as images with an out-of-focus or blurry background. This is achieved by a shallow depth of field when relatively close to the subject while using a large aperture.

Get up close. Use a photo blind whenever possible. One of the best blinds is your RV or car; you’re able to get relatively close to a bird or animal without departing your vehicle. Birds are generally not scared of cars and you can drive up fairly closely and take some amazing shots.

Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
You have to shoot a lot of photos to manage one or two keepers. Pictured above Rocky Mountain Goats in the Canadian Rockies. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You need a good telephoto lens to get close enough to make the image interesting. Zoom in and focus on the head of the bird or animal.

In general, good photos result from careful attention to some basic elements of composition—the placement of the objects in the photo. Frame your subject carefully, try to put the main point of attraction at 1/3 or 2/3 of the image (remember the rule of thirds).

Shoot from the birds eye level, images from the same level with your subject will look more natural and attractive.

When visiting a bird sanctuary or zoo, you may get the chance for some stunning photographs of birds and animals at close range. With patience and practice, you can really do this nearly anywhere.

When you’re in the wild, and happen across birds or animals, you need to be ready to capture the image—even if it’s at a distance. Have your telephoto lens ready. Nothing shouts louder “boring photo” more than a tiny subject in the frame, so move in closer. With wild animals such as bear or moose be sure to maintain a safe distance.

This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas.  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
This image of a green jay was taken from a bird blind in Bentsen-Rio Grande State Park in South Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Photographing wildlife requires patience and skill. If you are a beginner, try easier subjects like robins or finches in your backyard or the park and birds in the zoo before heading out into the wild. Experiment with the shutter speed until you know what will give you the effect you want.

Be patient and let the birds come to you. You won’t get the perfect shot every time but with practice your photos will improve.

Worth Pondering…

A camera alone does not make a picture. To make a picture you need a camera, a photographer, and above all a subject. It is the subject that determines the interest of the photograph.

—Man Ray

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National Trails Day: Let’s Take a Hike

In 1993 the American Hiking Society sponsored the first National Trails Day hike.

Hiking around Swan Lake in Sumter, South Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hiking around Swan Lake Iris Gardens in Sumter, South Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Over the next 20 years the event has grew to more than 2,000 events ranging from guided hikes to paddling excursions and similar outdoor adventures.

American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day is the country’s largest celebration of trails.

This year’s 22nd annual celebration will be held on Saturday, June 7. Mark your calendar to prepare for this year’s big celebration.

National Trails Day events include hikes, biking and horseback rides, paddling trips, birdwatching, geocaching, gear demonstrations, stewardship projects, and more.

Many national parks, state parks, county parks, USDA Forest Service, National Wildlife Refuges, BLM, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, US Fish & Wildlife Service, outdoor learning centers, land trusts, and state trails associations have scheduled special events to mark this special day.

To find an event near you, click here.

In a single day in 2013 on National Trails Day…

2,255 activities took place in all 50 states, Washington DC, and Puerto Rico, engaging more than 134,000 people on trails.

24,300 trail volunteers participated in 528 projects and maintained 2,084 miles of trail, resulting in $2.4 million of sweat equity.

69,000 hikers attended 1,132 hikes and covered a cumulative distance of 313,000 miles.

11,000 bikers attended 140 bike rides and covered a cumulative distance of 172,000 miles.

Hiking the trails at Blanco State Park in the Texas Hill Country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hiking the trails at Blanco State Park in the Texas Hill Country. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6,400 paddlers attended 57 paddling trips and covered a cumulative distance of 38,000 miles.

1,400 equestrians attended 35 horseback riding trips and covered a cumulative distance of 16,000 miles.

Why Celebrate Trails

America’s 200,000 miles of trails allow us access to the natural world for recreation, education, exploration, solitude, inspiration, and much more. Trails give us a means to support good physical and mental health; they provide us with a chance to breathe fresh air, get our hearts pumping, and escape from our stresses. All it takes is a willingness to use them.

National Trails Day also aims to highlight the important work thousands of volunteers do each year to take care of America’s trails. Trails do not just magically appear for our enjoyment; their construction and maintenance takes hours of dedicated planning and labor. So give thanks to your local volunteers and consider taking a day to give back to your favorite trail.

National Trails Day evolved during the late ‘80s and ‘90s from a popular ethos among trail advocates, outdoor industry leaders, and political bodies who wanted to unlock the vast potential in America’s National Trails System, transforming it from a collection of local paths into a true network of interconnected trails and vested trail organizations. This collective mindset hatched the idea of a singular day where the greater trail community could band together behind the National Trails Day moniker to show their pride and dedication to the National Trails System.

Details

National Trails Day

American Hiking Society’s National Trails Day is a nationally recognized trail awareness program that occurs annually on the first Saturday of June and inspires the public to discover, learn about, and celebrate trails while participating in outdoor activities, clinics, and trail stewardship projects.

Hiking the trails at Guadalupe River State Park, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Hiking the trails at Guadalupe River State Park, Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Individuals, clubs, and organizations from around the country host National Trails Day events to share their love of trails with friends, family, and their communities.

National Trails Day introduces thousands of Americans to a wide array of trail activities: hiking, biking, paddling, horseback riding, trail running, and bird watching and more.

National Trails Day is a registered trademark of American Hiking Society.

To find an event near you, click here.

American Hiking Society

As the national voice for America’s hikers, American Hiking Society promotes and protects foot trails, their surrounding natural areas, and the hiking experience.

Address: 1422 Fenwick Lane, Silver Spring, MD 20910

Phone: (301) 565-6704

Website: www.americanhiking.org

Worth Pondering…

In every walk with nature, one receives more than he seeks.

—John Muir

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Whooping Cranes Migration to Texas Underway

Endangered whooping cranes have begun their annual 2,400-mile fall migration from Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Canada to southern Texas.

Whooping Cranes fly with long necks and long legs fully extended. Wingbeats are slow and steady. (Source: TPWD)
Whooping Cranes fly with long necks and long legs fully extended. Wingbeats are slow and steady. (Source: TPWD)

As the rare birds approach the Lone Star State, a citizen science initiative is inviting Texas residents and visitors to report whooper sightings, according to a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) news release.

Texas Whooper Watch is a volunteer monitoring program that is a part of TPWD’s Texas Nature Trackers program. The program was developed to help the agency learn more about Whooping Cranes and their winter habitats in Texas.

Since beginning their slow recovery from a low of 16 birds in 1942, whoopers have wintered on the Texas coast on and near Aransas National Wildlife Refuge.

Recently though, several groups of whooping cranes expanded their wintering areas to include other coastal areas and some inland sites in Central Texas.

This year, some of the whooping cranes from an experimental flock in Louisiana spent most of the summer months in Texas, and the Whooper Watch volunteers were able to provide valuable information about these birds to TPWD, Louisiana Game and Fish, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

This year biologists expect Whooping Cranes to start arriving in Texas in late October or early November.

The wingtips (primary feathers) are black in Whooping Cranes, but black does not extend all the way along the wing edge to the body. Wingspan is 7-1/2 feet. (Source: TPWD)
The wingtips (primary feathers) are black in Whooping Cranes, but black does not extend all the way along the wing edge to the body. Wingspan is 7-1/2 feet. (Source: TPWD)

Texas Whooper Watch will also help improve the accuracy of surveys on the wintering grounds, as the growth of the flock has made traditional census methods more difficult.

Whoopers usually follow a migratory path through North and Central Texas that includes cities such as Wichita Falls, Fort Worth, Waco, Austin, and Victoria.

During migration they often pause overnight to use wetlands for roosting and agricultural fields for feeding, but seldom remain more than one night. The typical sighting (71 percent of all observations) is fewer than three birds, but they may be seen roosting and feeding with large flocks of the smaller sandhill crane.

Whoopers are the tallest birds in North America, standing nearly five feet. The cranes are solid white in color except for black wing-tips that are visible only in flight. They fly with necks and legs outstretched.

Citizens can help by reporting sightings of whooping cranes and by preventing disturbance of cranes when they remain overnight at roosting and feeding locations.

Sightings can be reported to whoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999). Observers are asked especially to note whether the cranes have colored leg bands on their legs. Volunteers interested in attending training sessions to become “Whooper Watchers” in order to collect more detailed data may also contact the TPWD atwhoopingcranes@tpwd.texas.gov or 512-389-TXWW (8999).

Adult birds have bodies that are pure white except for a red patch on the head and a black “mustache.” Juvenile birds will have rusty feathers with the white. (Source: TPWD)
Adult birds have bodies that are pure white except for a red patch on the head and a black “mustache.” Juvenile birds will have rusty feathers with the white. (Source: TPWD)

Details

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) is one of over 545 national wildlife refuges spanning the United States and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Aransas NWR was originally established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1937 as a “refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife…”

The Refuge is world renowned for hosting the largest wild flock of endangered whooping cranes each winter.

The 16 mile auto tour loop is open.

Phone: (361) 286-3559

Website: fws.gov

Worth Pondering…

It’s now in its second year; it’s no longer a juvenile. But this one particular whooping crane doesn’t know where Aransas is. Its parents never showed it.

—Tom Stehn

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Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

To really explore a national wildlife refuge, of course, you’ll want to get out of your vehicle. But when time is limited or you want to get the lay of the land before you set out on a trail, a scenic drive should be considered.

For all us ‘let’s-check-it-out-first’ types, here’s a sampling of some super national wildlife refuge drives to whet your appetite for further exploration.

1. Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests; and is considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Bosque del Apache includes wetlands, farmlands, and riparian forests; and is considered one of the most spectacular refuges in North America and consistently recognized as one of the top birding areas in the United States. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache is Spanish for “woods of the Apache,” and is rooted in the time when the Spanish observed Apaches routinely camped in the riverside forest.

An hour from Albuquerque, a 12-mile auto loop along refuge impoundments offers great views of the Chupadera and San Pascual Mountains. From late October through early spring, see huge flocks of sandhill cranes and snow geese fly out at dawn to feed in fields and return at dusk to roost in the marshes.

In November the annual Festival of the Cranes is a premier birding event. Organized by the Friends of the Bosque National Wildlife Refuge, the 26th annual Festival of the Cranes is scheduled for November 19-24, 2013. This will be the YEAR OF PHOTOGRAPHY; plan to take advantage of the optics, camera, printing, and eco-travel expert onsite.

Wildlife to Observe: Thousands of sandhill cranes, snow geese, Ross’s geese, and ducks.

Continue reading →

Phone: (575) 835-1828

Website: fws.gov/southwest/refuges/newmex/bosque

Friends of the Bosque National Wildlife Refuge: friendsofthebosque.org

Festival of the Cranes: festivalofthecranes.com

2. Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

The aptly-named Roseate Spoonbill is one of Florida's most distinctive wading birds. Spoonbills feed on fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with its unusual shaped bill. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The aptly-named Roseate Spoonbill is one of Florida’s most distinctive wading birds. Spoonbills feed on fish, crustaceans and aquatic insects with its unusual shaped bill. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge is known for its abundant birdlife and is a major destination for birders from throughout the world. Over 320 species have been documented so no matter what season you visit, you are likely to see a variety of birds.

The peak season for birding is between October and April with optimum conditions occurring from December to February. The best place to see wildlife is along the Black Point Wildlife Drive. The 7-mile, one-way drive follows a dike road around several shallow marsh impoundments and through pine flatwoods.

Seven walking trails are routed through a variety of wildlife habitats and provide additional wildlife viewing opportunities.

The 17th Annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival is scheduled for January 22-27, 2014.

Wildlife to Observe: Waterfowl (in season), wading birds (including roseate spoonbills), shorebirds, and raptors. Alligators, river otters, bobcats, various species of snakes, and other wildlife may be visible as well.

Phone: (321) 861-0668

Website: fws.gov/merrittisland

Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival: spacecoastbirdingandwildlifefestival.org

3. Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, Oklahoma

Mount Scott at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: panoramio.com/kecid)
Mount Scott at Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: panoramio.com/kecid)

Take a three-mile drive to the top of Mt. Scott for a stunning panoramic view of the Wichita Mountains. Interspersed between mountain peaks, visitors may view some of country’s last untilled native prairie, where bison and cattle roam among the cross timbers—remains of dense growth of oaks and greenbriar that once covered parts of Oklahoma and Texas.

Every September the Annual Bison Roundup culls the animals for testing and separation into groups for sale, donation, or return to the herd.

Another scenic driving option is SR-49, which extends about 20 miles through the refuge. Both roads are part of the Wichita Mountains National Scenic Byway.

Wildlife to Observe: Texas Longhorn cattle, bison, elk, deer, coyotes, red-tailed hawks, prairie dogs, turkey, bobcat.

Phone: (580) 429-3222

Website: fws.gov/refuge/Wichita_Mountains

Friends of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: friendsofthewichitas.org

Please Note: This is Part 4 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 1: Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 2: Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

Part 3: Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

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Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

To really explore a national wildlife refuge, of course, you’ll want to get out of your vehicle. But when time is limited or you want to get the lay of the land before you set out on a trail, a scenic drive should be considered.

For all us ‘let’s-check-it-out-first’ types, here’s a sampling of some super national wildlife refuge drives to whet your appetite for further exploration.

4. J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Aerial view of "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS/Susan White)
Aerial view of “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge (Credit: USFWS/Susan White)

The J. N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge is located on the subtropical barrier island of Sanibel in the Gulf of Mexico. The refuge is part of the largest undeveloped mangrove ecosystem in the United States. It is world famous for its spectacular migratory bird populations.

The four-mile-long Wildlife Drive is presently closed for repaving with an anticipated reopening of October 1.

The Sanibel Island route winds through mangrove forest, cordgrass marsh, and hardwood hammocks, offering close-up views of wading birds, shorebirds, seabirds, waterfowl, and raptors. Bicycling is also popular on Wildlife Drive, part of the island’s system of multi-use trails.

In October the annual “Ding” Darling Days is a premier birding event. Organized by the Friends of the “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge, “Ding” Darling Days is scheduled for October 20-26, 2013.

Wildlife to Observe: Roseate spoonbills, wood storks, reddish egrets, little blue herons, yellow-crowned night-herons, anhingas, white pelicans, red knots, marbled godwits, bald eagles, otters, bobcats, and alligators.

Phone: (239) 472-1100

Website: fws.gov/dingdarling

Friends of “Ding” Darling Wildlife Refuge: dingdarlingsociety.org

“Ding” Darling Days: dingdarlingsociety.org/dingdarlingdays

5. Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington

river-s-tour1The 5,300-acre Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge contains a lush mosaic of wetlands, grasslands, riparian corridors, fir forests, and Oregon white oak woodlands.

On the shore of the Lower Columbia River, a 4.2-mile gravel loop road crosses fields, wetlands, sloughs, and forests—easily the refuge’s most popular visitor destination.

An auto tour provides a sense of the refuge landscape while making it easy to spy birds and other wildlife, especially at an observation blind. The River ‘S’ Discovery Auto Tour route is a one-way 4.2-mile loop on graveled road that is open every day to vehicles during daylight hours.

An Informative Audio Tour CD is available at the Visitor’s Station at the entrance to the Discovery Auto Tour Route and also at the refuge headquarters.

Organized by the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Birdfest is scheduled for October 5-6, 2013.

Wildlife to Observe: Migrant bird species such as sandhill cranes, as well as resident bird species such as mallards, great blue herons, and red-tailed hawks. Coyote, raccoon, skunk, beaver, and river otter are occasionally seen.

Phone: (360) 887-4106

Website: fws.gov/ridgefieldrefuges/ridgefield

Friends of Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge: ridgefieldfriends.org

Birdfest: ridgefieldfriends.org/birdfest

A wonderful bird is the pelican...  © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A wonderful bird is the pelican… © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Please Note: This is Part 3 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 1: Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 2: Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

Part 4: Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Worth Pondering…

A wonderful bird is the pelican
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week,
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.

—Dixon Lanier Merritt

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Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

To really explore a national wildlife refuge, of course, you’ll want to get out of your vehicle. But when time is limited or you want to get the lay of the land before you set out on a trail, a scenic drive should be considered.

For all us ‘let’s-check-it-out-first’ types, here’s a sampling of some super national wildlife refuge drives to whet your appetite for further exploration.

6. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, Delaware

Stretching eight miles along Delaware Bay and covering 16,251 acres, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for wildlife. (Credit: USFWS)
Stretching eight miles along Delaware Bay and covering 16,251 acres, Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge provides habitat for wildlife. (Credit: USFWS)

Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge, located along the coast of Delaware, is mostly marsh, but also includes freshwater impoundments and upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife.

A 12-mile wildlife drive cuts across man-made pools, salt marshes, mudflats, woodlands, and upland fields. Spring brings migrating waterfowl, wood warblers, and shorebirds. Summer draws herons, egrets, avocets, black-necked stilts, and terns. Fall and winter months provide resting and wintering grounds for Canada geese, snow geese, and a mix of waterfowl. Birds of prey are seen all year long.

The wildlife drive passes five short walking trails, three with 30-foot-high observation towers.

Wildlife to Observe: Snow geese, northern pintails, warblers, dunlins, dowitchers, avocets, black-necked stilts, yellow warblers, purple martins, red tailed hawks, and bald eagles.

Phone: (302) 653-9345

Website: fws.gov/refuge/Bombay_Hook

Friends of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge: friendsofbombayhook.org

7. Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Four short (less than 0.5 miles each) and two longer (1.5 – 4 miles) hiking trails are available adjacent to the wildlife drive or Refuge headquarters. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Straddling the Pecos River, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is a wetland oasis inhabited by a diversity of wildlife. Located where the Chihuahuan Desert meets the Southern Plains, Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge is one of the more biologically significant wetland areas of the Pecos River watershed system.

The eight-mile Wildlife Drive/Auto Tour Loop is one of the better ways to observe wildlife.

Four short trails and two longer hiking trails are available adjacent to the Refuge Headquarters and Wildlife Drive.

Organized by the Friends of the Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, the 2013 Dragonfly Festival will take place on September 7.

Wildlife to Observe: Take advantage of the overlooks for great views of flocks of sandhill cranes and Ross’ and snow geese, or to spot the coyotes and red-tail hawks criss-crossing the wetlands. Drive slowly and watch for basking spiny softshell turtles, coachwhip snakes, and checkered whiptail lizards. More than 100 species of dragonflies and damselflies (Odonates) have been documented.

Continue reading →

Phone: (575) 622-6755

Website: fws.gov/refuge/Bitter_Lake

Friends of Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge: friendsofbitterlake.com

Dragonfly Festival: friendsofbitterlake.com/2013-dragonfly-festival

8. National Bison Range, Montana

The largest North American land mammal in existence, American bison were a key species of the Great Plains—their grazing habits helped establish the distribution of grasslands in the Plains. The current bison herd is maintained at approximately 350 animals. (Credit: USFWS)
The largest North American land mammal in existence, American bison were a key species of the Great Plains—their grazing habits helped establish the distribution of grasslands in the Plains. The current bison herd is maintained at approximately 350 animals. (Credit: USFWS)

Follow the one-way steep and winding 19-mile gravel road up Red Sleep Mountain for stunning grassland views with herds of bison, antelope, elk, big horn sheep, and deer. From the top, see the Mission Mountain range of the Rockies and enjoy panoramic views of Mission Valley. You can also access two short walks. In general, the Red Sleep Mountain Drive is open from mid-May to early October.

Due to the steepness of roads and tightness of switchbacks, no vehicles over 30 feet in length are allowed on Red Sleep Mountain Drive. They may access the shorter West Loop, Prairie Drive, and Winter Drive. No trailers of any kind may travel Red Sleep Mountain Drive.

Wildlife to Observe: Antelope, elk, mule deer, bison, mountain sheep, eagles.

Phone: (406) 644-2211

Website: fws.gov/refuge/national_bison_range

Please Note: This is Part 2 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 1: Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 3: Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

Part 4: Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Worth Pondering…

A bird does not sing because it has an answer.  It sings because it has a song.

—Chinese Proverb

Read More

Top 10 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

To really explore a national wildlife refuge, of course, you’ll want to get out of your vehicle. But when time is limited or you want to get the lay of the land before you set out on a trail, a scenic drive should be considered.

For all us ‘let’s-check-it-out-first’ types, here’s a sampling of some super national wildlife refuge drives to whet your appetite for further exploration.

10. Seney National Wildlife Refuge, Michigan

Photographers do a wonderful job at capturing the beauty of Seney National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: fws.gov/Dawn Kopp)
Photographers do a wonderful job at capturing the beauty of Seney National Wildlife Refuge. (Credit: fws.gov/Dawn Kopp)

Seney National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1935 as a refuge and breeding ground for migratory birds and other wildlife.

The refuge is located in the east-central portion of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, halfway between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan.

A seven-mile ride along Marshland Wildlife Drive leads past wetlands and open water and through deciduous and coniferous forests in the Great Manistique Swamp, an old lumbering area. The road passes three wheelchair-accessible observation decks with viewing scopes.

The tour route is open during daylight hours from May 15 through October 15. The route does not accommodate large recreational vehicles. Bicycles are permitted on the auto tour route.

Wildlife to Observe: Beaver, river otters, bald eagles, osprey, common loons, Canada geese, sandhill cranes, trumpeter swans, black bear, turtles, and songbirds.

Phone: (906) 586-9851

Website: fws.gov/refuge/seney

9. Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge, North Dakota

The diverse habitat types found on Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge—mixed grass prairie, river valley, marshes, sandhills, and woodlands—support an abundant variety of wildlife. (Credit: USFWS/Marlene Welstad)
The diverse habitat types found on Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge—mixed grass prairie, river valley, marshes, sandhills, and woodlands—support an abundant variety of wildlife. (Credit: USFWS/Marlene Welstad)

The 19-mile Refuge Backway follows the gently rolling hills of upland prairie, offering excellent views of the wooded draws of the Des Lacs Valley with great scenery and wildlife viewing opportunities. More than 250 species of birds, including waterfowl, raptors, and many other migrants, have been seen there, along with deer, moose, and other mammals.

Also along the Backway is the trailhead for Munch’s Coulee National Recreation Trail, a mile-long loop with a universally accessible section; the trail provides panoramic views and opportunities to see wildlife close-up.

Des Lacs National Wildlife Refuge was officially named one of America’s top 500 Globally Important Bird Areas (IBA) by the national non-profit organization, American Bird Conservancy (ABC), in recognition of its significance in the ongoing effort to conserve wild birds and their habitats.

Wildlife to see: Mergansers and snow geese in the spring and fall, several species of grebes in summer, as well as wild turkeys, white-tailed deer, and moose.

Phone: (701) 385-4046

Website: fws.gov/jclarksalyer/deslacs

Details

National Wildlife Refuge System

The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp. Robert Steiner, an artist from San Francisco, Calif., is the winner of the 2012 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. (Credit: fws.gov)
The 2013 Federal Duck Stamp. Robert Steiner, an artist from San Francisco, Calif., is the winner of the 2012 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest. (Credit: fws.gov)

The National Wildlife Refuge System protects wildlife and wildlife habitat on more than 150 million acres of land and water from the Caribbean to the Pacific, Maine to Alaska.

National wildlife refuges provide habitat for more than 700 species of birds, 220 species of mammals, 250 reptile and amphibian species, and more than 1,000 species of fish. More than 380 threatened or endangered plants or animals are protected on wildlife refuges.

Each year, millions of migrating birds use refuges as stepping stones while they fly thousands of miles between their summer and winter homes.

The Refuge System is a division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service within the Department of the Interior.

Phone: (800) 344-WILD (9453)

Website: fws.gov/refuges

Please Note: This is Part 1 of a 4 Part Series on National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Part 2: Super National Wildlife Refuge Drives

Part 3: Great Scenic Drives On National Wildlife Refuges

Part 4: Top 3 National Wildlife Refuges Scenic Drives

Worth Pondering…

He clasps the crag with crooked hands;
Close to the sun in lonely lands,
Ringed with the azure world, he stands.
The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls;
He watches from his mountain walls,
And like a thunderbolt he falls.

—Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Eagle

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Eyes on Texas

With 267,000 square miles of amazing opportunities and unforgettable destinations, an RV visit to Texas is always exciting.

Our Texas RV Travel Bucket List continues.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Big Bend National Park

If it’s solitude you seek, you’ll find it here. Besides serving up quiet in big, Texas-size portions, Big Bend boasts geologic wonders, unique wildlife, and plenty of room for hikers and campers to spread out.

The park, which earns its name for the sharp turn the Rio Grande takes in its midst, sprawls across an astounding 801,163 acres of arid plains and mountains in far-west Texas. The Indians thought this land was the Great Spirit’s rock storage facility; the Spaniards called it “El Despoblado,” or “the uninhabited land.” However you see it, Big Bend is not soon forgotten: It’s a place of mystery and timeless beauty.

Chihuahuan Desert vegetation—bunchgrasses, creosote bushes, cactuses, lechuguillas, yuccas, sotols, and more—covers most of the terrain. But the Rio Grande and its lush floodplains and steep, narrow canyons form almost a park of their own. So do the Chisos Mountains; up to 20 degrees cooler than the desert floor, they harbor pine, juniper, and oak, as well as deer, mountain lions, bears, and other wildlife.

The National Park Service operates three developed front-country campgrounds: Chisos Basin Campground, Cottonwood Campground (near Castolon), and Rio Grande Village Campground.

The concession-operated Rio Grande Village RV Campground (with full hook-ups) is also located at Rio Grande Village.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge's grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through Aransas National Wildlife Refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge

The Aransas National Wildlife Refuge is special for many reasons. It is home to America’s tallest bird, the highly endangered whooping crane. One of the rarest creatures in North America, the whooping crane is making a comeback from a low of 16 birds in 1941.

Each winter the refuge plays host to huge wild flocks of whooping cranes whose bugle-like call echoes across the marsh. Productive tidal flats provide clams and crabs for the whoopers to eat. These cranes can often be seen from the observation tower from late October to mid-April.

With a spectacular wing span of 8 feet, the cranes reach speeds of 30 mph and travel 400 miles a day along their 2,600-mile migratory route between summer nesting grounds at Wood Buffalo National Park in northern Alberta and wintering grounds at the Aransas refuge.

The refuge also provides an important resting, feeding, and wintering grounds for more than 390 migratory and native species including pelicans, egrets, herons, roseate spoonbills, and many other birds.

A 16-mile one-way driving tour takes visitors through the refuge’s grassland, oak thicket, freshwater pond, and marshland habitats, providing excellent wildlife viewing opportunities. Additional activities include hiking, birding, picnicking, and fishing. Six leisurely hiking trails totaling 4.3 miles are available.

San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Mission Nuestra Señora de la Purisima Concepción de Acuña. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The chain of five missions that were established along the San Antonio River during the 18th century stands as a reminder of Spain’s most successful attempt to extend its New World influence and control. Representing both church and state, these missions were charged with converting the local Native Americans, collectively called Coahuiltecans, into devout Catholics and productive members of Spanish society.

More than just churches on the Spanish Colonial frontier, the missions also served as vocational and educational centers, economic enterprises involved in agricultural and ranching endeavors and regional trade.

Before the Spanish came, there were no horses in Texas and no gunfire, except for the raiding Apache. A vast frontier had never been touched by a wheel or felt the blade of an iron ax.

Among other contributions, the missions planted the roots of ranching in Texas. Indian vaqueros tended huge herds of cattle, goats, and sheep. They marked stock with branding irons like the ones used in Spain and Portugal as early as the 10th century.

Texas Spoken Friendly

Please Note: This is part 10 of an on-going series on our Texas Bucket List

Worth Pondering…

You may all go to hell and I will go to Texas.

—Davy Crockett

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Laissez les Bon Temps Rouler! Let the Good Times Roll!

Let the good times roll from frogs to crawfish to an All-American Road.

Colorful frog murals adorn numerous buildings throughout Rayne. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Colorful frog murals adorn numerous buildings throughout Rayne. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rayne

Things are really hopping in Rayne, the Frog Capital of the World and the Louisiana City of Murals.

When the railroad came to the coastal prairie in the 1800s, the community was called Pouppeville but was rename Rayne, to honor the engineer who laid the tracks.

Rayne and frogs go way back, too. In the 1900s, three Parisians—Jacques Weil and his brothers operated a profitable export business shipping a local delicacy—frog legs—to restaurants all over the country.

Colorful concrete frog statues have joined Rayne’s many frog murals as another attraction for visitors. The concrete figures painted by local artists were erected on a foot high granite pads at varying locations about the city.

Hop on down to the Rayne Frog Festival the second full weekend in November (November 7-9, in 2013) and have a “toadally” awesome time. The “Big Gig” showcases music throughout the weekend featuring national recording artists, regional bands, and local talent. Signature events include frog racing and jumping and selection of the Frog Derby Queen. Attendees can enjoy frog legs as well as local Cajun specialties.

Rayne will always be unique. St. Joseph Cemetery is listed in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as the only cemetery in the United States facing north-south. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Rayne will always be unique. St. Joseph Cemetery is listed in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as the only cemetery in the United States facing north-south. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Rayne will always be unique. St. Joseph Cemetery is listed in Ripley’s Believe it or Not! as the only cemetery in the United States facing north-south.

The City of Rayne RV Park features 737 sites with water and electric hook-ups. Sewer is available at designated sites. The park is adjacent to the 20,000-square-foot City of Rayne Civic Center and an ideal location for RV rallies.

Rayne is still hopping. Come see for yourself!

Breaux Bridge

The origins of this charming town span back to 1771, when Firmin Breaux purchased the land and later built a footbridge across the Bayou Teche. Travelers were often given directions to “go to Breaux’s bridge.”

Officially founded in 1829, Breaux Bridge is today best known for its Cajun culture and crawfish cuisine. In fact, it was here that the delicious dish crawfish étouffée was first created.

The city known as the “Crawfish Capital of the World” pays tribute to this freshwater crustacean with the annual Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival the first weekend in May (May 2-4, in 2014).

At the Crawfish Fest, you’ll find them prepared just about every way possible—boiled crawfish, crawfish bisque, crawfish pie, crawfish étouffée, and fried crawfish, to name a few. You’ll also find an array of other Louisiana favorites.

The origins of this charming town span back to 1771, when Firmin Breaux purchased the land and later built a footbridge across the Bayou Teche. Travelers were often given directions to “go to Breaux’s bridge.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The origins of this charming town span back to 1771, when Firmin Breaux purchased the land and later built a footbridge across the Bayou Teche. Travelers were often given directions to “go to Breaux’s bridge.” © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitors will find a charming downtown with shopping and delicious restaurants, such as Café Des Amis, which hosts its famous zydeco brunch on Saturdays.

Lake Charles

Lake Charles is a thriving destination that caters to many tastes from glitzy casinos and the quiet greens of award-winning golf courses to hunting and fishing adventures and over 75 festivals, ranging from the area’s family friendly Mardi Gras to the Contraband Days Pirate Festival.

Performing arts are alive in Lake Charles with theatre and musical groups, including the Lake Charles Symphony. There are five diverse museums, one of which houses the largest display of Mardi Gras costumes in the world, in addition to charming art galleries.

Natural wonderlands abound: Allow a full day for the Creole Nature Trail, a 180-mile All-America Scenic Byway accessed from Lake Charles. The marshland, bayous, and coastal shores along the Gulf of Mexico teem with wildlife including alligators, birds, and three wildlife refuges.

These lands and waters support 28 species of mammals, more than 400 species of birds, millions of monarch butterflies, 35 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 132 species of fish.

The most popular entrances to the Creole Nature Trail All-American Road are off I-10 in Sulphur (Exit 20) and just east of Lake Charles at Louisiana Highway 397 (Exit 36).

Although the Creole Nature Trail is primarily a driving route, there are several stops where you can take advantage of a stroll. Each of these excursion areas provides excellent wildlife and birding photography opportunities.

The Creole Nature Trail features four wildlife refuges, three national and one state: Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, Cameron Prairie National Wildlife Refuge, Lacassine National Wildlife Refuge, and Rockefeller Refuge.

Please Note: This is Part 7 of an on-going series on Louisiana Cuisine/Travel Ideas

Worth Pondering…

What we admire—and secretly covet—is their love of good food combined with a zest for life that they proudly call joie de vivre.

—Linda Carman

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Great Birding Destinations

For great birding destinations, you can’t beat national wildlife refuges.

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open an hour before dawn and closes an hour after dusk, to enable visitors to be on hand when the birds begin and conclude their daily activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges situated along the country’s four main flyways—Atlantic, Mississippi, Central, and Pacific—are natural bird magnets. Some refuges have been designated Globally Important Birding Areas—sites that provide essential habitat for one or more bird species.

Which refuges are best for birding? The answer depends on where you RV and the species of birds you wish to see.

Following are five of our favorite national wildlife refuges.

Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Mild winters, bay waters, and abundant food draw more than 400 bird species to Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Among them: the whooping crane, one of North America’s rarest birds. The only wild flock of whooping cranes makes Aransas Refuge its winter home. You can hear the birds trumpet across the marsh.

In winter, many other birds feed on fish, blue crab, and shellfish in the coastal marsh. The refuge’s oak hills provide important habitat for neotropical birds, such as orioles, grosbeaks, and buntings, migrating between North and Central America.

For Aransas National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge thrills birders in late fall and winter when sandhill cranes, snow geese, and Arctic geese arrive by the tens of thousands.

At dawn, hushed visitors gather to watch geese and cranes lift off as one from their marsh roosts. At dusk, visitors gather to watch the birds return.

Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
Visitors to Santa Ana are often greeted with the raucous cry of the drab brown, scrawny-looking, turkey-like bird called a plain chachalaca, a bird that reaches its northern limits in the Valley. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The annual Festival of the Cranes (this year’s event is November 19-24, 2013) features many birding tours, talks and wildlife experiences for all levels of experience.

For Scenic Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge on the southernmost stretch of the Rio Grande is a top birding destination, home to species such as green jays, chachalacas, and great kiskadees.

The refuge is important habitat for birds from the Central and Mississippi flyways that funnel through the area on their way to and from Central and South America. Other bird species, like the groove-billed ani, reach the northern limit of their range in this area.

Hundreds of thousands of migrating raptors—including broadwing hawks, northern harriers, and peregrine falcons—fly over the refuge in spring and fall. Santa Ana Refuge’s rarest raptors, the hook-billed kite and gray hawk, are seen occasionally.

Abundant spring warblers include: golden-winged warbler, magnolia warbler, northern and tropical parula, American redstart, palm warbler, and yellow-breasted chat.

An ebird Trail Tracker station shows visitors what birds are being seen when and where.

For Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge species list, click here.

… Continue reading →

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Hundreds of bird species, migrating to and from Central and South America, funnel through Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, at the southern tip of Texas, making this Central Flyway starting point one of North America’s most biologically diverse regions.

Many bird species also reach their northernmost range here along the Rio Grande. More than 250,000 ducks use the refuge in peak season in November; an estimated 80 percent of the North American population of redhead ducks winter in the area.

The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved
The colorful green jay is usually seen in brushy areas and dense woods in the lower Rio Grande Valley.. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge is a vital stopover for migrating neotropical songbirds, such as painted buntings, Bullock’s oriole, and various warblers and hummingbirds.

The refuge is also well known for its raptors, including migrating peregrine falcons in the spring and fall. The once-rare aplomado falcon can be seen hunting the refuge’s grasslands.

For Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

… Continue reading →

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, on Florida’s east east coast near Cape Canaveral, is world-famous as a birding destination. More than 320 species have been documented here.

From December to February, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds use the refuge as a rest stop or winter in refuge impoundments. During warmer months, resident wading birds, shore birds, songbirds and raptors forage in refuge marshes, open waters and forests.

The Scrub Ridge and Pine Flatwoods trails offer your best bets for seeing the Florida scrub jay, a species found only in Florida. The Oak Hammock and Palm Hammock trails provide great viewing for a variety of songbirds and raptors. Two other hiking trails—Cruickshank and Wild Birds trail—provide wildlife viewing platforms and photography blinds.

For Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge bird checklist, click here.

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

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