Springtime in the Rockies

Greater sandhill cranes during their migration in Colorado.

Spring weather in Colorado can vary dramatically from year to year, month to month and even week to week. I’ve been planning to travel to Monte Vista for a few days following the annual Sandhill Crane Festival, as I normally do.

The reports I’ve been hearing from other photographers indicate the bird count this year is high.

The weather reports, however, have been less encouraging. The week of the 11th appears to be shifting to a pattern of cold and snow, which doesn’t make for good bird photography. Birds don’t like flying in bad weather. Mountains don’t look pretty under cloudy, dreary conditions.

End result, I’m pushing my trip off for a week. Instead of the 11th – 13th this year, I’ll be heading there around the 18th – 20th. Hopefully, the weather will have improved by then.

The bright side of all this is that traditionally the week starting March 15th seems to be the historical peak for the bird counts.

For those of you interested, there is a web site called eBird that keeps historical migration counts for all major bird species in North America. Here’s the table for Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista.

Monte Vista Spring Migration Stats for Sandhill Cranes

Mark that website. There is a lot of information there concerning all bird species and if you are into birding or bird photography, you’ll find it quite useful.

Me, I just want to get a good few days of photography in without a bunch of problems. The up side to the delay is I can get out to the local spots for a little mind/camera tuning.


Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista, Colorado
Mass Liftoff of a Flock of Sandhill Cranes Near Monte Vista, Colorado.

There are three major areas within shouting distance of Denver for photographing Sandhill Cranes.

Kearney, Nebraska, Bosque del Apache, New Mexico and Monte Vista, Colorado.

I’ve been to each of these locations over the years and I’ve found my personal preference to be Monte Vista, Colorado.

Kearney, Nebraska is a major convergence point for the Lesser Sandhill Cranes, with upwards of 500,000 birds traveling through in late March every year. While the bird count is high, it’s a bit more difficult to get close to the birds along the Platte River near Kearney. The birds have a knack for avoiding humans and pretty much keep themselves at a distance from human activity. There are areas where one can get close, such as the Rowe Sanctuary, but for the most part, close up action requires you photograph the birds from a blind at a cost. Pay to play is the best way to get shots in Kearney.

Bosque del Apache in New Mexico is another splendid location for photographing the Cranes, with peak season being the first week of December each year. The problem with Bosque is that it’s so popular, the photographers show up in the thousands. All one has to do is spend a morning on the “flight deck” in Bosque and the full effect of having a large number of photographers gathered in a small spot is immediately apparent. It’s just too busy for my tastes.

My favorite location for photographing Sandhill Cranes is Monte Vista, Colorado.

Monte Vista hosts an annual Sandhill Crane Festival and I normally go there the week following the festival to avoid the crowds. Ground Zero for the festival is actually the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, which is about 7 miles south of the town of Monte Vista, on highway 15.  Monte Vista has a population of about 4,500 and is about 250 miles from Denver.  It is in the San Luis Valley in Rio Grande County, South Western Colorado.

What I find particularly attractive about Monte Vista is the surrounding landscape. The Great Sand Dunes are not far away and also offer another scenic location for photography. With the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the east as a photographic backdrop, the location is far more scenic than Nebraska or New Mexico in my opinion.

Lodging is available in the Town of Monte Vista and in nearby Alamosa. The remaining area is fairly sparsely populated so traffic is seldom a problem.

This year, I’ll be in Monte Vista photographing the Sandhill Cranes on March 11, 12 & 13.

Maybe I’ll bump in to you. I always meet up with someone I know.

Below are a few sample photos from my previous trips to Monte Vista.


Sandhill Crane Migration Near Monte Vista, Colorado.


Sandhill Crane Doing the Stick Dance.
Greater Sandhill Crane Browsing for Breakfast
Sandhill Cranes doing their dance during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado.
Sandhill Crane spreads its wings to fly at dawn near Monte Vista, Colorado.
The Sandhill Crane mating dance, near Monte Vista, Colorado.

Winter Doldrums

Sandhill Cranes during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado.

While I don’t mind Winter in Colorado, it’s still my slowest time of year for photography.

I spend most days puttering around the house, taking care of the odd chores, here and there. Meet up with friends for lunch. Visit with family. Play with the dogs. Watch a lot of movies. Things like that.

But, there is still work to do and plans for the making.

I try to spend an hour or two each day sifting through the photography catalogs. I have thousands and thousands of photographs to browse through. The idea is to find at least 10 images a day to upload to the stock agencies. It does get a little repetitive, particularly with some of the wildlife photos. How many different duck shots does one really need? Well, as it turns out, the more the better. I sell a duck photo at least once a week and though there are some repeats, often times it’s a different shot. So I add them up and figure any given photo has to potential to earn $100 over time, many have far exceeded that number, so it’s never an exercise in futility to identify and prepare an image for micro-stock sales.

The goal this year is to have at least 3,000 images online, making money. Here it is late January and I already have over 2,700 photographs online. There’s no emergency. I haven’t really begun working in earnest this year and I’m already close to being done with that project. Yet still, I take the time to do it. At least 10 shots a day. Usually listening to the radio in the process. It makes those cold winter days go by gently.

The next adventure I have actually scheduled is a return to Monte Vista, Colorado to photograph the Sandhill Crane migration. I’ve done this trip many times, last year being the most recent. Last year was an abortion though, as I had to knock off just as I was getting started due to a mechanical issue with my car. What I learned last year was invaluable though. First, always take a pickup truck to Southwest Colorado, as they don’t sell tires for passenger vehicles down there. Nobody owns Subarus. Everyone owns a pickup truck and that’s about all you’ll find tires for. What I also learned is that I can get different shots of the same locations if I put my mind to doing that. Don’t just keep getting the same photos over and over, look for specific images that I don’t have and concentrate on getting those. What little I accomplished in 2018 was based on that premise, and those images have been selling. I’m greedy though. I want more. I’m bored too. I want to get out and spend a few days working from my pickup truck and eating junk food. It’s a way of life.

The Sandhill Cranes move through Monte Vista each year in early-mid March. They even have a Festival to celebrate the occasion, but I avoid the Festival, usually going the week after the Festival concludes.

I’ve made my hotel reservations. I’m planning my shoot list. That will take me a few days to finalize. Then it’s back to editing stock photos.

Winter is a quiet time here in Colorado.