Scouting Wildlife in the High Plains of Texas
Note: All images in this article were taken with a Nikon D500 body and Tamron 150-600mm G2 telephoto lens unless otherwise noted.
The high plains of Texas covers a good portion of the state geographically, from the northern panhandle to the Pecos River. Much of this area has been converted to large agricultural swaths from the historical prairie ecosystems that use to flourish here. Rural town signs proclaim populations that only include two numbers. Fuel stations are few and far between. Yet, there are jewels hidden out here if you are willing to make the drive.
Let me start by saying it was my work on an upcoming article for the Journal of Wildlife Photography that drove me to explore this area. The subject of the article is burrowing owls as they are a species of special concern across much of their range. They can be found throughout Texas year round, however during the breeding season (spring/summer) their territory in the state shrinks to the north-northwest regions as many of the owls that use the state as a wintering area return further north for breeding. This past winter, shortly after moving to San Antonio, a friend tipped me off to a pair that was overwintering in the area and I had several good sessions with them. Sadly, we are a bit too southern for them to hang around during the summers. This led me to investigate their presence further and thus, this past July, I went exploring to see if I could locate some of their breeding grounds within the state.
As with many of my targeted species trips, many hours of online research into the behavior, known locations, environmental considerations, and image reports was completed before I ever got behind the wheel. To me this is absolutely key to having a successful trip if your entire trip is focusing on a particular subject beyond just wildlife or landscapes you might come across in a location. Most non-photographers never think about this aspect of the job and assume luck plays a big roll in the number of images I capture. While I admit there have been some that had a larger element of luck to them, most wildlife images are about understanding your subject, anticipating their behavior, and setting yourself up for success by understanding the environment around the subject so you can position yourself to capture the best images in regards to lighting, wind, and background elements.
For the burrowing owls, this research led to the understanding that their breeding territories are closely aligned with those of prairie dog towns as the owls will move into abandoned prairie dog burrows. Furthermore, settling in or near a prairie dog town adds an additional layer of security as then they have many eyes looking out for similar predators, such as rattlesnakes, coyotes, foxes, and larger birds of prey.
So where are there prairie dog towns in Texas? Well, the black-tailed prairie dog in Texas historically could be found throughout much of the state. Due to excessive massacres by landowners, disease, and habitat loss/fragmentation, black-tailed prairie dogs have flirted multiple times with the endangered species act themselves. They are a keystone species of the desert grassland ecosystems and have been connected to the life webs of almost 150 other species, including the burrowing owl. Now there are only a handful of well known prairie dog towns in the state with the best known being just outside Lubbock, TX. Even here though, as these burrowing rodents outgrow the plot of land the city has specified for them, there are population mitigation actions taken to keep them from interfering with their human neighbors. But I digress...
I'm not sure what Google rabbit hole I was chasing down when I came across an old article (July 2012) about black-tailed prairie dogs being reintroduced into Caprock Canyon State Park, a park that lies between Lubbock and Amarillo and in the heart of Texas burrowing owl breeding range. From there, I decided to see if there had been any recent images of burrowing owls in that park. To do this, I often turn to Instagram (IG) and search both location and hashtags. Based on those findings, or lack there of, I will turn to Google image search. In this situation I found a handful of images on IG that peeked my interest and I decided this would be the place to focus on for this trip.
Logistics followed such as deciding when to go, reserving a camping spot, tracking the weather, and planning a menu. After that it was just a matter of packing up and rolling out. A seven hour drive, handful of gas stops, and a bag of tortilla chips later I arrived to check-in and start exploring.
I know I've mentioned it before in previous articles, but I do like getting to places about mid-afternoon so I have time to set up and get the lay of the land before feeling the pressure to photograph during the golden hour and sunset. It just takes some of that stress off my shoulders and allows for a better experience overall. On this trip, it was no different. The extra time came in handy as it allowed me time to talk with the rangers -getting detailed information on where to find the owls, wander around the prairie dog town, and observe the town's behavior concerning human presence such as how quickly they settled after someone walked, biked, or drove by.
It also allowed me to observe where the prairie dogs were in terms of active and seemingly abandoned burrows. As the sun set a bit lower, my concentration moved from the prairie dogs to the areas of inactive burrows. While burrowing owls are one of only two species of owl that actively hunts during the day (the other being the snowy owl), I was visiting during a heat wave and burrowing owls tend to avoid the hottest hours of the day, preferring to be most active in the mornings, late afternoons, evenings, and at night. Yep, that's right. These small raptors work around the clock hunting insects and lizards by day while both nocturnal insects and small rodents become midnight snacks.
As the sun started to creep back down towards the horizon, but not yet golden hour, I finally saw the first burrowing owl emerge. In short order, another emerged next to the first. They scanned the area including the sky and seemed unconcerned with the human laying prone on the ground about 90 feet from their burrow. The local prairie dogs had resumed their normal activities as soon as I laid down shortly before the owls' appearance so I'm sure that helped.
About 25 feet from where the first two owls were, three more popped up out of the ground. It would soon become apparent that these were three of four fledglings the two adults were raising this season. The fourth was typically found in another burrow, more independent, but still relying on the parental owls while playing and practicing skills with the other fledglings.
This first evening I was able to witness hunting by both the adults and the fledglings, the fledglings practicing flight and hunting skills, as well as some general family interactions. The following are a selection of images of these behaviors.
A very unique situation happened just in the last few minutes of sunset. One of the parents let out a raspy call I had not heard in the hours leading up to this event. Immediately after that, the parent and all five other owls flew up into the mesquite trees on the far side of the field where the brush line started. So of course I followed. I figured this would give me an opportunity for a few images of them in the tress rather than just on the ground unlike my previous shots. The lighting was great for this too, so I made my way along the trail that ran that direction. When I approached within roughly 20 feet of where they were perched, they suddenly all took off and began dive bombing an area under the tree. This was so unexpected, I was caught off guard and did not get any good images of this sequence I am sorry to say. Realization as to what I was witnessing dawned as the last individual in the lineup, one of the parents judging by coloration and slight size difference, actually grabbed and hoisted a segment of a large snake just above grass height. It was enough of a glimpse that I understood this was mobbing behavior of a predator. One of the images I did catch was as this adult flew directly past me before rejoining their family in the tree line.
I swear it was chastising me for not being quicker on the uptake and almost walking into the path of a very large rattler.
I took the long way around and was able to catch one image of the snake before it disappeared further into the brush, away from the prairie dog town and the owls' burrows. Mission accomplished for the family on that front.
The following morning, bright and early, before the sun started cresting the plateau, I was once again in the owls' neighborhood, dew soaking my clothing as I laid in position. Several of the owls were already visible when I arrived. Moving slowly and carefully, my arrival didn't seem to bother them.
Only a few minutes after getting settled, one of the parents came flying back in from further afield with something in its mouth. Firing off a handful of frames as it came in for a landing, backlit by the weak morning light, I was able to capture this image.
While I wish the other owl wasn't overlapping the arriving owl, I can't help but enjoy this image for the behavior it displays. That thing in the arriving owl's jaws is not actually food. Burrowing owls have learned to bring dung, in this case a bison (I'll get to that subject a bit further down) patty, back to their burrows where they proceed to spread it around the burrow opening. Why? Well, one of their favorite meals it seems is dung beetles and by bringing the dung back to their burrow their meals find them, saving them the energy of hunting. This is a particularly helpful method of feeding the insatiable appetites of growing fledglings. Nature's own DoorDash.
As the morning moved on and the heat started to build again, the owls seemed to settle down for the day and I took the opportunity to let them rest while I explored more of what the park had to offer. The park is set on the top edge of the Caprock Escarpment, a geological formation that lends itself to a highly diverse terrain as it forms the transition between the High Plains and the rolling terrain eastward. Thousand foot cliffs, a maze of canyons and arroyos, and an assortment of ecosystems are encompassed within this area. Despite this state park being Texas' third largest park, it only covers a small portion of the area while providing visitors an assortment of exploration options and ways to interact with the land "in these here parts." For me, I opted for a short hike of a few miles along a canyon rim that looped back through another prairie dog town where I hoped to see more owls.
Unfortunately, while I did see more owls, they were much further from the established trails and the prairie dogs that surrounded them were much more sensitive to human presence. Not wanting to put additional pressure of the critters, especially for images that would be subpar anyway due to distance, I made my way back to camp for some lunch and a siesta, because, why not?
The afternoon wore on and I made my way back to the area of burrowing owl family I had been photographing. It was another session of laying still in the short grass, fighting not to move around too much as ants crawled over me. Thankfully they were not the type of ant that bites first and asked questions later. These were native ants just exploring the object that had suddenly obscured parts of their territory or travel paths. A good puff of breath normal sent them on their way unharmed. I still prefer the ants over the male tarantulas that wonder around during summer days trying to find a mate. Of the several I saw, I actually did abandon my post to move out of the path of a very determined one who refused to change course around me. Not cool!
This evening session was filled with similar behaviors as I had witnessed the day before. There was more preening, sibling squabbling, hunting practice, and hunting practice with your sibling as the target.
One of my favorites is this shot of the owl, wings spread wide, against the dark background. Taken just as the sun dipped below the escarpment ridge using a high ISO, it allows all the fine details of these birds to stand out.
The sun set in a cloudless sky but the fireball along a distant ridge was too much for me to pass up taking a shot. While not perfect nor epic by any real definition of those words, this image will continue to remind me of the amazing sunsets of all types we witness here in Texas.
Side story: It is always interesting to photograph in an area that is generally more visible to the common park goer. In this case, due to proximity to the campground, I had a lady stop me on my way back to my spot and comment about how long I had been just laying out there by the field. She said she was starting to get worried and was going to come check on me if I had been out there much longer. I laughed and thanked her for her concern and then used this as an opportunity to spread the word about burrowing owls. She had no idea they were even there, never mind the species' declining numbers and need for protection. It was a good talk and she was really excited to view them more carefully the next day armed with her new knowledge.
My last morning in the park, I was once again up before sunrise, communing with nature and laying out at the edge of the owl field. On this morning we had some beautiful orange light to start the day off right. The owls were already active when I showed up. Several were perched in the trees closest to the field.
In the warmth of the dawn light, one of the fledglings flew to join one of the adults and the two took a moment to strengthen their familiar bond with a bit of grooming.
Three of the owls gathered near their burrow after an exceptionally hyper and ill-restrained dog came through the area. From there, as the landscape warmed with the rising sun, they started hunting insects on foot. Their quizzical head tilts and halting movements as they followed grasshoppers and beetles that were starting to stir was humorous to say the least.
While I could have stayed there several more days at least just watching the daily lives of these small, charismatic raptors, I did have a longer drive to get home that day. But Nature had one more stop for me to make before leaving this area.
Remember the bison patty the owl brought back to decorate its porch with? Well to have bison patties, you have to have bison and Caprock Canyon State Park is home to the last remaining wild herd of Southern Plains bison. The bison have a lineage that includes being direct descendants to those used to repopulate Yellowstone National Park. There is a very rich history behind this herd, but at this time, their key roll is to help restore and return the desert grassland ecosystem to how it was historically within the park.
To do that, the herd has been granted access to almost the entire park. There are plenty of signs as soon as you enter stating that you are driving through open range and to watch for bison crossing. Yet, I had only caught a glimpse of a single one a handful of times. No big herd as many images alluded to. That was until I came over one of the last hills on the way out that final morning.
It seemed as if they had come to bid me farewell. Scattered on either side of the road, several actually stepped into the street at I slowed down. Of course I had to stop. And then I backed up to an area where there was a pull out so I could take advantage of this final photo opportunity. The light was still nice on them as they milled about. You could tell pre-rut had started by the way the bulls were starting to carry and posture themselves throughout the herd. Everyone from calves born earlier this spring to matronly cows were represented in this display of beastly bodies. It was an excellent note to leave on and just reaffirmed my desire to revisit the area again next year.
Do you want to join me? Let me know if this would be a photo adventure you would want to take part in and I will happily add it to my schedule. That being said, I hope you have found this to be another interesting read.
Until next time, cheers!