Thursday, July 10, 2008

Paid Blind Review: The Petersen Ranch

First a couple of notes. This is the first of my paid blind reviews. My goal is to give an unbiased account of my experiences. These reviews are going to run longer than my normal initial blind reports for a couple of reasons. First, unlike other places where there are multiple blinds, there's no good way to separate them. And second, and probably most importantly, I look at a trip to one of these areas as an investment both in time and money and I want to be more detailed in my descriptions.

Full Disclosure: I paid the full advertised fee for this blind visit. I did not disclose prior to the visit that I would be doing a review, though I have mentioned it in the weeks after the visit. I have no financial relationship with any photographer mentioned in this blog entry nor with the Petersen Ranch.

Location: The Petersen Ranch is located in the heart of the Texas Hill Country. It is located between the towns of Fredericksburg and Blanco. A general location is listed on their website. When you pay your deposit you get a more detailed set of instructions on how to get there.

Fee: The fee for the day is $125 for use of the blinds. This is in line with all of the members of the Hill Country Nature Photography Alliance. An additional fee is required for a guide if you're going to be hiking the canyons or heading down to the springs--check the ranch website for more information. Workshops are also done at the ranch with the cost of the visit to the ranch built into the workshop fee. Photographers such as Kathy Adams Clark and Larry Ditto are just a couple of photographers who have offered workshops on the ranch.

Lodging: At the time of my visit, lodging was not available at the ranch. Lodging is available in the nearby communities of Fredericksburg, Blanco, and Boerne. I chose to stay near Blanco at the Ghost Creek Ranch Guest Cabins. If I'm traveling alone I'm more of a "Give me 4 walls, a bathroom, and a door and I'm happy"sort of person. But my traveling companion is more upscale than I and we went with Ghost Creek. It turned out to be an outstanding choice and if circumstances are similar the next time I go out to the area we will be sure to utilize these facilities again.

Visit Date: I visited the Petersen Ranch on April 19th, 2008.

Blind Setup: Actually the answer is blinds set up. There are 4 active blinds at the Ranch. These were designed by Sean Fitzgerald, a professional photographer who has been out to the ranch numerous times to include during his involvement during the 2006 Images for Conservation contest.

Blind Station #1 is the Carrion Blind. It is setup with the intention to catch vultures and other scavengers for a meal of dead mammal. Bob was at work nuking that morning's "meal" when I arrived at the ranch and he put it out when he got me into the blind. That morning a combination of lack of early birds and lack of patience resulted in no shots from the blind, though by the time I got done with Blind #2 the meat had been consumed over at Station #1. There is room for theoretically up to 6 photographers at this station.

Blind Station #2 is the Morning Blind. It is set up for 6 shooters in two separate blinds. Directly in front of the blinds in the photography area is a number of natural perches for birds to land on, a water area for birds and animals to drink from, seed feeders, and the remnants of a tree that has small holes bored in it for a protein mixture for woodpeckers and others that will feed from that type of food. The key with this blind is that everything is close. The camo covering the sitting area is a necessity and allows for very intimate portraits of the birds.

Blind Station #3 is the Afternoon Blind. It is set up very similarly to blind #2 but is pointed in an orientation that is best for afternoon light.

Blind Station #4 is the Pavilion blind. Really this is a really big deck with camo type curtains and a number of places for birds and other animals to feed from and perches for them to land on. My guess is that you could probably get most of a small photography club into the pavilion and this is where many teaching professionals will gather their students because it is so conducive to teaching. Seed, nectar, grain, and protein feeding stations are situated around the pavilion to bring in a large range of bird and mammal species. What was most outstanding about the Pavilion blind during April was that there was a flock of Wild Turkey that came out both in early morning and late at night to feed and otherwise show off. We're not talking one or two but closer to a dozen. I'd never seen that many in one place in my life and they were reasonably tolerant of me.

Bob Petersen reports that additional blinds will be put up next year.

Other Photo Opportunities: There are over 800 acres on the Petersen Ranch. 800 acres in the heart of the Texas Hill Country--what a playground! Unfortunately when I visited I was still recovering from a broken wrist so I did not feel comfortable hiking through the backwoods. The mammal, reptile, flora, and landscape possibilities are nearly endless. I'd recommend looking both at the picture archives on the ranch website as well as Sean Fitzgerald's site to get a wider view of what's available (take a look at the "30 days, one texas ranch" portfolio).

Equipment Used/Recommended: I carried both my 10D (with 70-300IS mounted) and my 30D (with 300mm f4 IS USM L mounted). I carried/used both my monopod and tripod. I brought and used my circular polarizer. I could have used a longer lens than my 300mm and/or had my teleconverter, but I did okay with 300mm.

I had not purchased my LensCoat gear for the 300mm f4 L IS USM so I'd be curious to see another time how much of a difference that made with my wildlife shots.

I brought my laptop but spent most of the day shooting so I didn't use it until I got back to the room.

Observations/Lessons Learned: First and foremost, the trip to the ranch was outstanding. Easily in the top 5 of my lifetime photo shoots in terms of being rewarding photographically and teaching me about myself as a photographer. The ranch owner, Bob Petersen, is an outstanding host and steward of land.

You need to work up to a day or more in the photo blind. I shot from day break to 11 am or so, moved to another spot to relax a bit, and then shot from about 3 pm until I had completely lost the light at 8pm or so. I was so tired by the time I got on the road back to Ghost Creek Cabins that I stopped for about ten minutes in Blanco to make sure that I was safe to drive the next 15 minutes or so to my destination.

The more I thought about it afterwards, the more I favorably compared the mental strain of composing each shot and contemplating f-stop/shutter speed combos and any necessary exposure compensation to a marathon session of computer programming. The primary difference is that the code will wait for you while you down some Dew or Red Bull. The birds won't.

Species spread was very good on my visit. The most photographically inclined birds were Mourning Doves, American & Lesser Goldfinches, Purple Martins, Ladder-Backed Woodpeckers and the Wild Turkeys. I saw many other species of birds, but there had been a shift in the omnivores from strictly seeds to almost strictly protein sources (insects) as the insects started coming out in abundance. Plenty of wildflowers to be seen as well, even in the off year for flowers that we've experienced in this part of the world. A few butterflies, but that's really pretty early in the season for a good show of them.

Easily, I'd do this again.

Image: American Goldfinch (Male), The Petersen Ranch, (c) 2008 Jim Miller

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