An Early Morning Visit to Aquarena Springs

Aquarena Springs is located on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.  The springs constitute one of the largest outflows of the Edwards Aquifer.  There are over 200 springs making up the complex.  Today the springs lie at the bottom of Spring Lake.  The lake empties into the 3.8 mile long San Marcos River which makes its way to the Blanco River.

The springs and the river below have significant environmental importance.  For instance, the springs provide critical habitat for five endangered species, including the Fountain Darter, the Texas Blind Salamander, the San Marcos Salamander, the San Marcos gambusia, and Texas Wild Rice.

Historically, archeologists believe the area around the Springs is one of the oldest continually inhabited site in North America. Sediment cores indicate that humans lived here 11,500 years ago, and there is evidence the area has been occupied during every known period of human habitation in Central Texas. In historical times, the Cantona Indians called the Springs Canocanayesatetlo, meaning “warm water”.  Another Indian term for the area was Canaquedista, meaning “headwaters”.

Over the years there have been a variety of developments around the springs.  I would say that most were not particularly good given the permanent changes that were made to the springs.  Much more historical information regarding the springs can be found at,, where I borrowed the historical information above. Note that this article refers to the springs as San Marcos Springs.

My purpose for visiting the springs was to find and photograph large wading birds.  Spring Lake has a wonderful boardwalk that skirts the northern shoreline of the lake thereby providing unrestricted views of the lake and its inhabitants and visitors.

This was my first photographic outing since Connie and I returned from our winter trip to Yellowstone National Park.  I was getting a little antsy for a photography fix.  I left home before sunrise, a rarity for me.  By the time I arrived at the springs and gathered my gear the sun was just high enough in the sky to provide some wonderfully warm lighting.  As I made my way to the boardwalk I could hear a lot of activity on and around the lake.  There were several warblers working the trees and bushes at the lake’s edge.  I spotted over 50 Black Vultures roosted in the trees on the far side of the lake.  Many were so well hidden I had to look for movement in order to see them.

There was but one Great Egret working the shallows of Spring Lake looking for some breakfast.  This beautiful bird was not really in the mood for a photographer this early in its day.  As I slowly made a turn on the boardwalk that put me in the open, the bird took flight and moved further offshore.  I tried to not be disappointed and set up for some long shots.

Great Egret in the early stages of acquiring breeding plumage.  Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/400 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200


I am not a fan of cropping.  There are too many things that can go wrong while cropping.  For instance, any noise or grain that may exist in the image will be magnified.  I was fortunate with this shoot that the light was so good I was able to shoot at a low ISO thereby minimizing the grain.  My school of thought has always been to use a longer lens or get closer to the subject.  I am not in any danger of getting any longer lenses and I would have needed waders and waterproof gear to get closer in this instance.  There would have likely been a fine involved as well.  The original image shows the bird as a much smaller less detailed creature.

Over time, the bird became a little more tolerant of my presence and began working its way closer to me.  That was somewhat short-lived, as a volunteer who was doing his due diligence in making sure there was no trash in the lake along the boardwalk appeared with a bucket and a long-handled net.  The bird moved away again.  I spent several minutes chatting with the volunteer who seemed to have a pretty good idea of what birds frequent the lake.  He did not, however, understand that quiet and slow movement are two necessary components to getting closeup photographs of birds.

Even though the bird tended to remain too far out for isolated photos, I was able to get some nice, not great shots.
Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/250 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200.  My tripod was key to obtaining a sharp focus on these images.  At 600mm I was asking a lot of my equipment with a 1/250 second exposure.

As I slowly worked my way around the boardwalk, the Great Egret began giving me far more interesting looks.  Unfortunately, those looks kept getting further and further away.

Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/125 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200


Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/160 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200


Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/320 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200.  There was just enough of a tailwind as the bird was landing to ruffle most of its feathers.


There was only one other bird that was close enough for a decent shot.  It was a Lesser Yellowlegs.  This image is also cropped so you can actually see the bird.

Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/320 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200


I contemplated waiting around for more activity, but in the end, decided it just wasn’t in the cards for this day.  On my way back to the car I did find a few interesting and more obliging subjects.


This subject required no cropping in post-production. While the look was brief, I was able to get a few nice images.
Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/320 sec, 600 mm,  ISO 200


An Eastern Phoebe made a brief appearance on the ground giving me just a second to snap this image.
Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/500 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200


As I was arriving at the Visitor Center and the much-needed restroom, I spotted this Titmouse working high overhead to find berries to eat.
Nikon D610 with Sigma 150-600mm f 5.8- 6.3, 1/500 sec, 600 mm (cropped), ISO 200

While this was not the best outing for photography, it was none the less a wonderful start to my day.  I thoroughly enjoyed being out in nature and observing natural things.  As a bonus, I got in some great practice with my camera and learned more about the art of photography.  It was a wonderful few hours.






11 thoughts on “An Early Morning Visit to Aquarena Springs”

  1. . I thoroughly enjoyed your early morning description and pictures! Quite refreshing. Thanks for sharing with us.

  2. Great stuff, Frank. You have a talent for photography and you must be a patient man to get those shots. First I heard of Aquarena Springs. I will go check out that area sometime.

  3. Since I live in San Marcos not far from Aquarena Springs, I couldn’t wait to see what you wrote and photographed. As usual, I wasn’t disappointed.
    Your photos of the egret in flight are fantastic! I also loved the close-up photograph of the titmouse! Many of them frequent my bird feeder and build nests on my back deck.
    Thank you, Frank!

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