"In south Texas ... the natural desert is covered by chaparral and a host of spiny plants united by a common vendetta against all things that bleed."
—Pete Dunne, The Feather Quest
WE'RE HUDDLED IN 12-FOOT-TALL CATTAILS along an old oxbow bend of the Rio Grande near Mission, Texas, enjoying 100 percent humidity, 100-degree heat, hungry chiggers, and methane spewed by decaying plants. Each session in the bird blind we built here begins before sunrise. Armed with a two-way radio for emergencies, we slather on insect repellent and strip down to as little clothing as possible, though headbands to keep the sweat off our cameras are de rigueur.
It's all in a day's work during the Valley Land Fund photo contest, a three-month competition that pairs photographers with local landowners and offers cash prizes to the teams whose photos best celebrate south Texas's biodiversity. The contest promotes local ecotourism and rewards landowners for conserving habitat; many have restored water sources and stopped clearing native brush and killing species they used to consider varmints.
The first year we entered, we won the grand prize for the 150 images we submitted. This time, while scouting our host rancher's property, we spotted what looked like a hook-billed kite, somewhat rare in the area. It turned out to be a snail kite. While widespread in South America, this medium-size hawk is endangered in the United States, and this was only its second official sighting in Texas.
To document our find, we constructed our luxurious hot-box blind on stilts above the river. Least bitterns skittered across the roof, and through the small hole in the front of the blind we spied on kingfishers, great egrets, and tricolored herons. Over several weeks we photographed the snail kite devouring crawdads (not snails as its name suggests), preening, and enjoying the rancher's Texan hospitality.
Birders and other nature lovers often go to such great lengths to document and protect rare species. We didn't win cash for our snail kite photos, but we prize the images we captured because they embody the contest's mission to safeguard wildlife and habitat. —Wendy Shattil and Bob Rozinski