In West and South Texas, a number of ranches have opened up their doors to serious photography. Almost always the blind has been set up by a professional nature photographer, often used while that pro was shooting for a competition. The blind areas are fed daily and usually have some form of water to help attract birds that are not looking to hit the seed or suet.
While you can't buy happiness, you can't have access to these blinds without ponying up some cash. I have seen anywhere from $75-$275 for a single day, though the upper end of the spectrum usually is because you have to pay for a guide to get you where you need to go--multiple photographers will lower the per shooter price a bit.
So is it worth the price? From my limited experience I would say an unquestionable yes. The reasons for this:
- Earlier start time vs. State Park blinds. Ranch owners seem to be more flexible than the State is about getting photographers in when they can do their best work. Yes, admittedly if you're camping in the parks you can get in at the best light. But for what I do this adds an extra layer of planning.
- Blinds are set up for photographers. This is where I think I'm going to get in trouble with my hardcore birdwatching friends. With the exception of San Angelo S.P., the state parks that I've been to have wildlife viewing areas that cater to birdwatchers. This is, in itself, okay. Birdwatchers outnumber photographers by a large factor. The driving forces behind setting up these blinds have been birdwatchers. Photographing in these blinds can be a compromise at best. The blinds at the ranches are set up for photographers. Better angles. Better light. Bette use of time.
- More photographers at a time. San Angelo is the best of the blinds I've been to, and they can accomodate three inside the blind and maybe a couple more outside. Maybe. The norm is one. In the popular places (South Llano River S.P. as an example, a couple of the blinds can only get 1 photographer. Usually there are more people interested than that. With the ranch blinds you know that you're going to have a place to shoot.
- Local knowledge. While I think I'm doing a pretty good job providing some knowledge of these blinds, I am far from being an expert. On the ranches the owners know what's common and what's not. They know where the Wild Turkeys have been coming down and when because they are there every day. You can't beat local knowledge.
In short, I'm a big fan of paid photo blinds. For the serious or want to be serious photographer it is well worth the price of admission. I have a review of a recent trip to the Petersen Ranch coming shortly.
Full disclosure: I have no financial interest in any ranch in Texas (or anywhere else for that matter).
Image: American Goldfinch (Male), The Petersen Ranch, (c) 2008 Jim Miller