Monte Vista After Action Report

Sandhill Crane Blastoff. Migrating Greater Sandhill Cranes in Mo
Sandhill Cranes during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado. Sandhill Crane Blastoff – March 2021

As the old saying goes, “Time flies when you are having fun.”

In the case of the COVID pandemic, I would suggest that time stands still when you aren’t having fun. Case in point, Monte Vista Sandhill Cranes.

The last official photography road trip I did was in March of 2020 to photograph the Sandhill Crane migration in Monte Vista with my good friend Jim Esten. Fast forward to March of 2021 and Jim and I returned to the scene in Southwestern Colorado. A full year later, picking up where we left off. The course of the pandemic had altered our attitudes and methodology to a large degree. This year we drove separately, lodged separately, and dined on fast-food at drive throughs and Mexican carryout. Not miserable, but less than optimal for a couple of old farts who enjoy a nice hot meal at a restaurant after a day of photography. We survived the limited food selections with mild grumbling.

This year I had my first opportunity to test out my new Lexus RX350 on an extended road trip. The Lexus is a much more comfortable and economical vehicle to drive than my 11 year old Ford Explorer. My music soundtrack was provided by Radio Paradise, so I was able to maintain a nice aura of laidbackness while on the road. The heated seats and comfortable ride made for a pleasant drive down and back. Much better than a old car breaking down on the road in the middle of nowhere, such as I experienced a few years back.

Toyota provided our transportation.
Icy snow and cold windy weather in Monte Vista. Two old farts with similar tastes in automobiles. Comfort is important.

My photography kit this year was the Nikon D850 and the Nikon D500, along with the Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 VR, Nikkor 70-200mm f/4 VR and the Nikkor 200-500mm f/5.6 VR. Simple and effective, I used the D850 for the wide angle shots and the D500 with the super-telephoto zoom on the birds in flight. It worked out perfectly. I continue to be impressed with the Nikon D500. It just nails the flying birds and I can rip off more photos in a continuous burst than any person should be allowed to do. Hardly anything was out of focus and when it wasn’t in focus, it was my fault and not the camera.

The weather this year was typically challenging. We woke up the first morning, greeted by an inch of icy snow and mostly clear blue skies. The wind was howling though. With a major snow storm brewing for the bulk of Colorado and looming only a few days away, we experienced the front edge of the weather front during the whole trip and temperatures stayed in the upper 30’s and below freezing at night. We were lucky enough to finish up our trip and make it back to Denver, some 200+ miles away, before the blizzard hit us.

As for the birds, I can’t recall a year in recent memory with such an abundance. Monte Vista cancelled their annual Sandhill Crane Festival this year because of the pandemic, but I don’t think the birds got word of that fact. As a result, the normal crowds were thinned out quite a bit and there were only a handful of die-hard photographers out there to deal with. A pleasant situation, as we weren’t having to fight for parking or shooting locations as we would during a normal year.

Most of the birds were congregating on the east side of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge this year. Generally, they were at least 100 meters away from our position, but the constant flow of flights of birds provided us with a lot of good photo opportunities for birds in flight. My main goal this year was to add blastoff photographs to my portfolios and the birds did not disappoint. We witnessed several blastoffs of thousands of birds and the blastoff photos rolled in like delivery trucks. Mission accomplished.

To top the week off, before we returned home on the last morning, we visited a local bakery I had been alerted to by a friend. A place called Worth The Drive Bakery, situated in the remote ranch-land south of Monte Vista. Worth The Drive Bakery is an Amish, family run business, open only two days a week, Thursdays and Fridays. And yes, it was worth the drive too. We got there within a half hour of opening and loaded up on enough freshly baked treats to blow our health.

All things considered, it was a great trip with over 3,300 photos, and with great company. I’m looking forward to next year’s return to Monte Vista. It’s become a tradition for me.