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.

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.

Enjoy.

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.

Interesting Backgrounds

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes at Monte Vista

I prefer the scenery of Monte Vista over that of Bosque del Apache or Kearney Nebraska for photographing the cranes.

Blanca Peak at the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo mountains is a prominent landmark and the long sprawling flatlands that engulf the area are a perfect setting for photographing these large, beautiful birds.

These birds group together and begin moving around the area during the day in flights. This particular field is looking towards the east and in the afternoon is a very well lit scene.

I normally try to get a few shots of these large groups as they feed in the fields.  Birds gathered in mass in fields will sometimes trickle out of the setting in small groups. The trickle flow of birds in and out always provides good opportunity for photographing the cranes in flight.

If you situate yourself properly, taking sun location into account, you can find numerous opportunities for close fly-by shots of the birds exiting the field.

Sandhill Crane photography by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes Take Off

Alternately, you’ll find small flights of birds frequently joining the group. These small formations of arriving birds often in groups of 6-12, provide interesting formations to photograph as well.

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
A Flight of Sandhill Cranes About to Land

I keep a constant eye on the background areas surrounding the birds and their approach to the group. Once I know the backgrounds I want to see, I watch for birds flying in or out of that scene and then take my shots accordingly.

Remember, closer is better. Don’t fill up your camera buffer too soon on these scenes. It’s easy to start firing shots and lose ability to get shots as the bird gets closer to you. Patience on these glide in shots is a must. If you’ve positioned yourself correctly, you’ll get well lit birds with interesting backgrounds.

The Dance

Sandhill Crane photography by Gary Gray
Dancing Sandhill Cranes

From a technical standpoint, Sandhill Cranes do not pose a significant challenge.

You’ll have three major considerations for insuring the optimal quality of your photographs.

  1. Light
  2. Location
  3. Optics

Regarding the light, it is no different from any other subject matter lighting. You’ll want the sun in behind you for most shots, giving you direct sunlight on the animals. For Monte Vista, there are a number of standard shooting locations that are optimal at different times of the day as the sun moves across the horizon.

When I’m reviewing and selecting locations, I always take the sun location in consideration and I look for birds with the type of light I want to see. Even on cloudy days. Don’t pick available birds over properly lit birds. Poorly lit subjects are a waste of time. There is also no substitute for proximity. Well lit, close birds are what you are after.

Another consideration is your background.  Monte Vista is fairly simple. The Sangre De Cristo Mountains are going to be a primary backdrop. What you want is the fewest distractions and most appealing background. Let the birds appear in your preselected setting. Take your time and set your possible shots up in advance.

I would concern yourself more with your choice of lenses than your choice of camera body. To achieve the best results, I recommend you have lenses with focal lengths between 400-600mm.  Zooms or primes, it doesn’t matter. I prefer zooms as they are more versatile and generally lighter than the big primes lenses. If you are using a crop sensor body such as a Nikon D500 or Canon 7DII, that extra reach may be of benefit.  I’d keep a wider angle lens handy too, as those landscape and blastoff shots can sure look sweet with mountain backdrops.

Of course, not everyone will have a second camera body with them, but if you do have a second body, that’s where you use the wider angle lens and remember to keep it handy. Blastoffs occur without warning. If you have to look for a camera to photograph it, you’ve missed it.

My kit is a 200-500mm zoom on a Nikon D810 and a 70-200mm zoom on a Nikon D750. The D750 hangs around my neck or is within arms reach at all times. The 200-500mm is typically mounted on a gimble head to a tripod.

I keep a spare battery in my pocket close to my body so it will stay warm and ready to swap.

As for camera settings, I normally use manual aperture and shutter speeds with Auto-ISO. On the longer lens, I normally keep the shutter speed between 1/1600th  – 1/2000th a second. This freezes motion fairly well and helps to keep those birds tack sharp.

For aperture, I normally set for f/7.1 which gives me adequate depth of field for one or two birds close to one another. For group shots, you’ll want to stop down to f/9 or f/11 to keep those birds sharp. For single birds, you can go as low as you like but remember, it’s about getting the eyes sharp. Keep those eyes sharp.

If I’m using the long lens on a tripod, I turn off the vibration reduction. Sometimes the VR will actually make things worse.  I almost always use the VR when hand holding shots of the cranes.

The goal, well lit, close, sharp images.

In future posts I’ll explain the types of shots you’ll be looking for and the techniques I use to get them.

 

 

 

Back from Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes in Flight

The Greater Sandhill Cranes that migrate through Monte Vista are the same group of birds found in Bosque del Apache from December – February.

Each year, the town of Monte Vista hosts the Sandhill Crane Festival, normally around mid-March. I don’t attend the festival as it’s a bit too crowded and hectic. My trips to Monte Vista are normally during the week before or after the festival

There are hotels in Monte Vista and nearby Alamosa. I typically stay in Alamosa due to the infrastructure. Monte Vista is more of a sleepy town, and has its’ own charm; though, I’m not going there to be charmed by anything except birds.

In the coming days I’ll discuss the general concepts and techniques of photographing these magnificent creatures.

Adventures in Photography

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
A Flight of Sandhill Cranes About to Land

Back from Monte Vista. I had to cut my trip short when one of the tires on my Subaru decided to deflate with vigor.

I did learn something new as a result. You can’t buy tires for a Subaru Outback in southern Colorado without having to wait. Nobody stocks tires for a Subaru Outback.

So I ended early rather than attempt to explore the great unknown on a doughnut spare tire.

127 miles later, I found my new tires.

As for the Sandhill Cranes.  Well, I did manage a few photographs.

Check back soon.

Sandhill Cranes of Monte Vista

Sandhill Cranes by Gary Gray
Sandhill Cranes in Monte Vista

I’ll be heading to Monte Vista, Colorado this week to photograph the annual Sandhill Crane migration.

I don’t make this trip every year so it is time to update the portfolio and play with some new gear.

Stay tuned for photos.

A Bird’s Life

Wildlife photography by Gary Gray
Sandhill Crane – Monte Vista, Colorado

Each year in March, the city of Monte Vista, Colorado is the host of the Monte Vista Crane Festival. This year, it will occur from March 9th-11th.

Monte Vista is less than half a day drive for me, so this will be my next photographic adventure.

There are three main Sandhill Crane festivals that are easily accessible from Colorado.

Bosque del Apache, New Mexico, normally best in early December.

Monte Vista, Colorado, best in mid-March.

Kearney Nebraska, hosted by the Nebraska Audubon Society, March 22-25 this year.

I’ll be in Monte Vista sometime this month.  Hope to see you there.