With so much attention being paid to the entirety of America’s bird species, this might be a good time to take a closer look at a few individual birds. A cardinal, perhaps, with wings stretched wide for a soft landing; or a ruby-throated hummingbird, frozen in mid-flight, its tiny, feathered body floating against a deep blue sky.

These birds, like other common species Texas photographer Howard Cheek captures with his trusty Canon, are neither rare nor particularly relevant to the Conservancy’s day-to-day work in Texas. What they are, though, is beautiful. In front of Howard’s lens, ordinary birds like buntings, waxwings and finches are revealed in vibrant, crystalline glory. In the process, they serve as reminders of the very point of conservation — to preserve all the beauty of the natural world for future generations to enjoy.

As a photographer, Howard (the winner of The Nature Conservancy’s 2008 Photo Contest) has been blessed with heaping portions of skill, patience and ingenuity. As a Texan, he’s been blessed with one heck of a backyard — six acres of wildlife habitat in the Hill Country he has tirelessly adapted to attract wildlife. Using nothing more than hand tools and elbow grease, he built raised beds planted with fruit trees and flowers to attract birds and insects. He hand-trenched an 80-square-foot pond fed by an underground hose to entice deer, rabbits and other four-legged subjects.

The Texas Hill Country lies under the Central Flyway, one of four major migratory bird routes in North America. By virtue of his location and lots of hard work, Howard has managed to amass a stunning portfolio of nature photography. By simply stepping outside, setting up and waiting, he can expect to see any of hundreds of birds species passing overhead. And often, a bird like the cardinal seen in “Waterhole Landing,” which was chosen as the Conservancy’s contest winner from more than 14,000 entries, finds the temptation of fresh, clear water in Howard’s backyard too great to pass up.

Lucky for us.

(Image: Female cardinal just before touching down. Credit: Howard Cheek.)

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