Using Photo Blinds Where Wildlife Gathers


It’s a quiet morning in my photo blind at a waterhole on a ranch in Mexico. Suddenly, a troop of coatis wander down for their morning drink. Quickly, I am composing, focusing and firing away. Coatis, especially in a group, are not a common sight. The coatis leave and the calm returns. Welcome to the quiet valleys and the panicked peaks of wildlife photography.

Coatis on a ranch in northern Mexico.

You can improve your success rate for photographing unique wildlife species like coatis by using photo blinds near water sources. Wildlife from insects to mammals need water, so setting up an inconspicuous photo blind at a water source can greatly improve your chances to photograph portraits, behavior and interaction of animals when they come to drink.

To set up your own blind, first research the area. Make sure you have legal access, and certainly do not interfere with the animals’ ability to reach water. Done responsibly, your photo rewards can be outstanding.

Setting up blinds takes forethought and work. Scout your locations for light direction and background clutter. Avoid wildlife access points to the water, make the design compatible with the surroundings and provide plenty of room. Allow for easy viewing and setting up your gear. Also be sure to account for the weather.

A family of nutria—an introduced species—rest on a floating mass of duckweed in a swampy pond on nature conservancy property in Louisiana. Arrange your blind to photograph at eye level when possible.

To capture great images, especially with smaller animals, arrange your blind to photograph at eye level. This may mean laying in a bag blind (not fun for several hours at a stretch) or digging a trench to lower your viewpoint.

An easier route is to find a location offering established blinds. Several private ranch owners in south Texas, for example, have specially designed photo blinds at waterholes on their properties and offer wildlife photographers the opportunity to capture spectacular images. Most blinds are on the property of landowners who are either wildlife photographers themselves or work with wildlife photographers who help set up the blinds and offer guide services. Some properties even offer lodging and meals so you can stay on site, minimizing travel time and other inconveniences. I have visited many of these ranches. The blinds are well-established, and the wildlife is acclimated to their presence.

A photo blind at a private ranch in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas.

Ranch owners charge daily fees for the blinds but offer many benefits for photographers. The blinds are oriented for best light. Backgrounds are clean and devoid of hotspots. You may not have the ability to get these conditions with your own setup. Backgrounds are also typically set back from the plane of the subject, allowing images that isolate the animal with a more pleasing backdrop.

Blinds are usually designed with plenty of room for large lenses on tripods with flash for fill if needed. You can create frame-filling songbird images with 500mm to 600mm lenses or behavior images of mammals with smaller zoom lenses. I prefer the newer 80-400mm or 200-500mm zoom lenses, possibly with a teleconverter. These lenses have tremendous flexibility. One day a single bobwhite came to drink. My lens at 500mm isolated the bird. Suddenly, a covey of bobwhite arrived. Quickly zooming back to 200mm, I captured a great group behavior image.

A covey of northern bobwhites drinking at a pond on a private ranch in south Texas.

Wildlife in south Texas needs extra water due to the heat, so most blinds are at waterholes. Animals visit often to drink, and birds bathe throughout the day. Native berry and food plants are planted at many of the waterholes. Wildlife becomes acclimated to these blinds and the food sources, offering opportunities to capture behavior of species not normally visible during the day like squirrels, field mice and opossums. A pregnant Mexican ground squirrel visited for berries one day and made a great subject.

A pregnant female Mexican ground squirrel feeds on berries at Santa Clara Ranch.

These ranches offer opportunities to photograph reptiles to large mammals, and you may get lucky—one of the key elements of wildlife photography—and capture interaction or unique behavior. From blinds like these, I have photographed everything from javelina mothers and their babies to one of the most unique animal interaction images I have ever taken, a diamondback rattlesnake striking a green jay. One morning I was photographing green jays drinking at a pond when suddenly one started screaming. Looking up, I saw a western diamondback rattler with its fangs stuck in the neck of the jay. I photographed this life-and-death action from the strike to the diamondback swallowing the jay, one of the most interesting animal interactions I have ever witnessed. Amazingly, I was standing right where the diamondback was not 10 minutes before. He must have seen me and, thankfully, ignored me.

A western diamondback rattlesnake strikes a green jay, one of the most interesting animal interactions I have ever witnessed.

If possible, work from a blind near a small tree, a great perch for birds coming to drink and bathe. I photographed 40 different species, like a windblown long-billed thrasher that used one tree near my blind. Note that many birds are migratory in Texas, so research when to go for best results.

While I’ve spent a lot of time in Texas, similar opportunities can be found around the country. Other sources for photo blinds at water sources include many national wildlife refuges and state wildlife areas that provide blinds free of charge. Regulations govern their use and most require advance reservations. The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) has installed photo blinds at over 35 national wildlife refuges in 27 states. Contact NANPA or a specific refuge for information. Most national wildlife refuges protect migrating waterfowl but also allow hunting during migration, so be adaptable.

While some refuges offer permanent blinds, all allow movable blinds: your car. Working from your car is often the best option for migratory waterfowl photography. The refuges typically have a one-way driving loop to reduce auto traffic. The birds are accustomed to cars, and you can photograph from your driver-side window. You need telephoto lenses to isolate birds for portraits or individual behavior, and using a bean bag or window tripod mount helps stabilize your equipment.

A great egret, a brown pelican and a double-crested cormorant perch on a small sandbar in a large estuary in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge in Florida.

Migratory waterfowl visit national wildlife refuges during migration. For most refuges on the Central or Pacific Flyways, October through December is a great time to visit. Bosque del Apache, near Socorro in New Mexico, is a waterfowl photographer’s dream. Tour route roads are wide enough to pull off to photograph and not block other vehicles. Waterfowl and songbird populations can explode during late fall and winter with huge sandhill crane populations (and a whooping crane or two). The cottonwoods can also be spectacular at this time, offering a landscape photo break.

The Sacramento NWR complex near Willow, California, is a major stopover point on the Pacific Flyway for Canadian, greater white-front and snow geese, and various duck species. A photo blind is available by reservation. Using your car as a blind on the auto tour routes can be very rewarding.

East Coast photographers should check out J.N. Ding Darling NWR near Fort Myers, Florida. There is an excellent auto tour route for car blind photography. You can also walk the dike roads looking for subjects. Many of the birds are year-round residents, with many tropical species. Nesting is common at the refuge, and great blue herons are often seen with young and can easily be photographed from your car.

Don’t overlook state and local wildlife areas. South Padre Island on the Texas coast has a Birding and Nature Center with boardwalks over the tidal flats and native plant areas surrounding water sources. South Padre is a major stopover point for migrating warblers from Central and South America. Usually mid-April to early May has the greatest population of these beautiful songbirds. You can photograph from the boardwalks, which shield you from the birds to some extent. Reddish egrets are popular, colorful subjects.

In addition to using a blind, you can always set up on the ground near a waterhole and use your “pretend to be invisible” blind. Stay quiet and minimize your movement, and you will be amazed by what flies in.

Mother and baby javelinas at Martin Refuge, south Texas.

Whether you find an established photo blind, pack your own or shoot from your car, enjoy the congregations that water sources offer for wildlife photography.

To see more of Dave Welling’s work, visit

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