Sandhill Cranes of Monte Vista

Sandhill Crane Happy Dance

A small gallery of edited photos from this years Sandhill Crane migration in Monte Vista, Colorado.

Waiting For The Wind To Die Down

We had pretty good weather this year. Morning temps were hovering just below freezing but rose to the mid 50’s during the day. On the second day we had some high winds which kept the birds from moving around much, but when they do decide they want to move, they will gather in small flights and take off.

Flight Of Cranes Heading Out For The Morning

The real trick is to position yourself in such a way as to catch them taking off with good light and a good background. Easier said than done, as they will adjust their direction based on where people are located.

Sandhill Cranes Tend To Trickle Out In Small Groups

On the last morning in Monte Vista, we found thousands of cranes and geese gathered in a large field near a road. They were far enough from us to allow them to make their exit route in our general direction, thus giving us the opportunity to photograph many of the flights with great morning light as they rose up into the sky near our position.

On Glide Path Approach For A Landing

My primary photographic mission on this year’s trip was to get photographs of the cranes in flight. On that account, I call this year a major success.

The results from the Nikon D500 were very good. I’m not used to using a high frame rate camera and the D500 was ripping off shots at 10 frames per second. The end result was to generate 20-30 photo bursts of just about every scene and the photos added up quickly. In four sessions I managed to accumulate just about 7,000 photos. Weeding them down, I found about 200 images that were out of focus, mostly of the flying birds where the camera never got a really good tracking result. Another 200 or so images of the birds flying with part of the animal clipped off in the frame to do my sloppy tracking as they flew by, but that’s kinda normal.

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

I’ve got the base catalog down to about 6,500 images now and have been mining the best shots for the stock portfolio. In general terms, I normally like to get between 5-10 usable shots from any given session. I count sessions by morning or afternoon, so we had two morning sessions and two afternoon sessions.

Most of the photos were taken using a tripod and gimble head, but I did manage to do some hand-held work. While it’s obvious that the 36 megapixel Nikon D810 was pulling in more resolution, the 20.7 megapixel D500 made up for the difference by providing a lot more in the way of frames to choose from due to nearly double the frame rate with an effective focal length out to 750mm.

I used only 2 lenses on the trip. The Nikon 200-500mm ED VR, mounted on the D500 most of the time and the Nikon 70-200mm f/4 mounted on the D810 for the wider shots. I never felt lacking for reach or versatility. I’m fairly satisfied with the kit I was using and it should continue to serve me well into the foreseeable future.

My friend Jim was using a Sony A9 II mirrorless with a 200-600mm lens. From what I observed, it too was quite up to the task, though I think Jim was still playing with the setup, image quality and functionality as a wildlife camera appeared to be quite good. Shooting at 20 frames per second, I’m quite sure Jim has a few photos to sift through as well.

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.


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.