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Photography In The National Parks: Padre Island National Seashore In Early Summer

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The rosy glow of sunrise, Padre Island National Park / Rebecca Latson

Not too long ago, I wrote an article about my trip to Padre Island National Seashore, providing you with photo tips and general advice for your own visit there. The article’s images were spring-centric because I’d visited this national seashore in April. I returned in June, on assignment with the Traveler, and discovered that Padre Island sports a slightly different face for early summer than it does for early spring. I thought I’d add this as a continuance to my previous Padre Island article - a sort of Chapter 2.

From spring to summer, now is the time to plan a photographic trip to Padre Island.

Moonset and sunrise over the dunes, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

The first thing you’ll notice, if you choose to spend a few summer days there, is that the heat and humidity have upped their game. You are going to sweat unless there is a nice sea breeze.  Pack accordingly and include sunscreen. The mosquitoes also make an appearance, and please believe me when I say each one of those things is as large as a chihuahua. Don’t assume, like I did, that there is always going to be a beach-side breeze to blow away the skeeters. There won’t, so bring your mosquito wipes or spray with you.

Flowers bloom year-round, some of them the same as what you would see in the spring: common sunflower, purple morning glory (aka “railroad vine” or “Brazilian bayhops”), firewheel (aka Indian basket), and the tiny, blue day flower. If you own a Texas wildflower identification book, bring it with you.

Railroad vine (aka morning glory), Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

Day flower, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

During an early June visit, you’ll see gulls and pelicans and skimmers along the shore or sailing over the Gulf of Mexico. Pelicans are great subjects in flight on which to practice your panning skills, as are skimmers. Just make sure your camera’s focus mode is set to track moving subjects.   

Skimmer sailing over the Gulf of Mexico, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

In the small ponded areas across the road from the Malaquite Visitor Center, flocks of birds, such as egrets, herons, and ducks, like to congregate. If you decide to take a closer look, watch your step. The tall grass hides small mounds and spotted ground squirrel holes, and you’ll be bushwhacking in rattlesnake territory. Because of the summer heat, you’ll mainly see these birds out in the open during the early morning and late evening, when the temperatures are a little more ambient. There’s also a nice, new, large bird blind overlooking a small pond off the side of the road not too far from the Park Service headquarters.

A nice, shiny new bird blind, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

A closer look at the bird blind, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

For more information about where to birdwatch and what species you might see, click on this link. Pack your bird book next to your Texas wildflower book, or choose one of the bird identification books available at the visitor center.

After entering the park and passing through the ticket booth, look to your right, where you’ll see parking for the short, ¾-mile nature trail through the dunes and grasslands. Whatever time of day you choose to roam the paved loop trail, you’ll be certain to hear birdsong as you enjoy views of the prairie. Your chances of spotting wildlife are much better either very early in the morning or very late in the evening.

Ready for a stroll along the nature trail, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

Prairie grassland, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

Depending upon when you plan your trip, you might arrive during a full moon or a new moon, either of which offers some interesting photo ops, if you are willing to stay up very late or get up very early for night sky photography. Clumps of sargassum line the beach, and there are ghost crab holes (some of which are quite large) in addition to the humps and hollows created by daytime beach-goers. So, bring your flashlight or headlamp. Headlamps are more practical if you are carrying a tripod and camera gear.

Moon, sky, stars and sand, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

Moon, sky, stars, and sand, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

It goes without saying that Padre Island sunrises are spectacular, as are those moments just prior to sunrise, when the water remains a shadowy pink-blue color and a line along the lower horizon lights up with pastel-to-saturated blue, purple, pink, orange, and golden hues. Keep your camera on a tripod, lower the ISO to 160-200, set your aperture to f/7.1 – f/9, play around with your shutter speeds (the longer the shutter speed, the more light your camera takes in), and make sure you set your camera’s self-timer to a 2-second delay to remove camera shake.  You’re guaranteed to capture haunting, serene images of the morning. As the sun climbs above the horizon and the daylight becomes brighter, utilize your grad ND filter to prevent the sky from “blowing out” (becoming overexposed) while you expose for the landscape below the horizon line. Note: If your lens has image stabilization, make sure to turn that off while your camera is on a tripod.

Dawn's glowing horizon, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

To add a neat reference point for your sunrise (or sunset) images, walk south along Closed Beach, of which Malaquite Beach is a part, toward the barricade separating the pedestrian-only section of the seashore from the car-and-pedestrian portion (all 60 miles of it). Turn your head to the left and look out into the Gulf to spot the two prongs of a lone tree sticking out from the surf. It’s been wind- and water-polished for heaven only knows how long, and pelicans and cormorants like to perch there.

A pelican sunrise, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

If you plan your visit in the summer, you may be fortunate enough to witness something else quite unique to this place: the release of nacho chip-sized, sand-encrusted, dark gray Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchlings. This is what makes Padre Island National Seashore extra special, and it’s an event you and your camera shouldn’t miss, particularly since this is a record year for this national seashore, with 216 nests out of 348 Kemp's ridley nests recorded in Texas. 

During the spring and early summer, sea turtle patrols rescue turtle eggs from nests vulnerable to predators such as ghost crabs, fire ants, coyotes, and rattlesnakes. The eggs are incubated within special, safe surroundings and the hatchlings released back into the Gulf of Mexico. Unless the endangered sea turtle hatchlings "frenzy" during the night and require release then, the early morning releases (6:45 a.m.) are open to the public, and as many as 1,000 people show up to watch these babies crawl across the sandy beach to reach the water and then power through the waves for a life at sea.  People even plan their vacations around these public releases by reviewing the table of projected release dates on the Padre Island National Seashore website (yes, there's still time for you to plan a trip there this summer for a public release). There is also a hatchling hotline at 361-949-7163 to contact for further information regarding releases.

A Kemp's ridley sea turtle hatchling heading out to water, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

860 attendees at this particular morning's release, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

At the end of the day, after your seashore visit, remember to wipe down your camera and lens with a damp cloth followed by a dry cloth. You want to keep your photo gear clean of sand and sea salt carried by the wind.

This little article hopefully has whet your appetite for a visit to this exceptional stretch of “undeveloped barrier island” during the early summer. While at this national seashore, please remember: Don’t feed the animals (you’ll read about why you shouldn’t feed the sea gulls in a future article) and pack in what you pack out, leaving no trash behind.

I’ll be writing another, more-detailed story about my own experience photographing the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle hatchling releases, so be sure to keep checking with the Traveler. To learn more about the five species of sea turtles that visit, forage, and nest at this national seashore, click on this link.

Looking south along the beach, Padre Island National Seashore / Rebecca Latson

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