Monte Vista – After Action Report

Photograph of Sandhill Cranes with cattle and with the Sangre de Cristo Mountains as a backdrop.
Sandhill Cranes landing in a field of cattle.

Every photography trip is different. This year’s Monte Vista trip was no exception.

The story starts over a week before my friend Tim and I leave town.  I normally schedule this trip for the week following the annual Monte Vista Sandhill Crane Festival.

Mother Nature had a different idea.

The “Bomb Cyclone.”

Spring snow storms are nothing new to Colorado. I normally assume we will be subjected to them through mid-April and in years past we’ve had them as late as May. It’s a part of life here in the Rocky Mountains.

The weather reports were dire. As a result I postponed my trip for a week, assuming the cranes would still be plentiful and the conditions more suitable for photography.

The bomb cyclone though, was a bit of an anomaly. Colorado experienced a record low pressure and major dump of snow, which effectively paralyzed most of the state for a few days before moving east and hammering the rest of the mid-western United States.

Upon arriving in Monte Vista, it was immediately apparent the crane population was low, very low.  There are a number of areas near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge where the cranes tend to congregate in large number each year. This year… nothing. Not a single bird in what would normally be a bonanza sighting area. A drive through the refuge and there were no birds there either. Spending the better part of our afternoon there the best we could do was find a few birds in very small groups scattered around the area in different remote locations.

This weather was severe enough to force thousands of Sandhill Cranes to abandon their normal migration stop over weeks early. It also caught many bird watchers and photographers off guard as well. The locals we spoke with were reporting that the bomb cyclone was so severe that some folks were stranded for a couple of days. The snow and wind was devastating to the bird population. Most of the birds just flew away to some place unknown. The birds that remained were staying farther from the refuge than normal. A bird population that would normally be between 35 – 50 thousand birds had dwindled to a few thousand.

By the time Tim and I arrived, the weather had improved and the snow had melted, but the birds were gone.

We spent the evening of our first day waiting for the cranes to return to roost as they do every evening. What we experienced was nothing. Most of the remaining birds appeared to be flying to the north for their evening roost, so we jumped into the SUV and explored the surrounding San Luis Valley for where they may be hiding.  We found a few hundred birds and that was it.

We made a decision to try more exploration of the surrounding area in the morning, hoping to find enough birds in suitable locations before it was time to check out of our hotel. If we could find them, we’d stay the second night. If we couldn’t find them, we’d check out and call it a trip. Fortunately, we found enough birds to remain and continue the photography. The up side being that most of the locations were new to me and I was able to get photographs in locations that were different from my previous trips. It also helped improve my knowledge of where the birds could be found beyond the refuge.

The end result, it was a good trip for both of us. While we didn’t get to see the massive number of birds normally available, I did manage to get enough good photographs to make the trip worthwhile.