Monte Vista Sandhill Cranes After Action Report

Greater Sandhill Crane, Monte Vista Colorado. 2022.
Sandhill Crane during the Spring migration in Monte Vista, Colorado.

Another annual pilgrimage to Monte Vista for sandhill cranes has finished.

2022 was a fairly normal year. The bird count was good but not the highest I’ve ever seen. The weather was cooperative with morning temps in the 20’s and highs during the day in the upper 40’s – 50’s. With the exception of the final morning, the skies were generally blue and clear.

I was fortunate enough to have several friends contact me with on the ground reports from Monte Vista the week before my scheduled visit, so I knew in advance how the birds were behaving and where they were located.

I typically plan this trip for the week following the annual Sandhill Crane Festival held each year in Monte Vista. The birds are there for a couple of months, but the festival is normally held around the peak of bird count, so the week after is almost always good and with fewer people around to contend with. Plus there’s less of a struggle to find lodging or get meals due to lower head counts in the area. I spent three days, day one being the drive down and day three being the drive home. A good plan in hindsight, as we had a snow storm roll into the Denver area late in the afternoon on the third day, and I avoided getting caught in it on the drive home by a few hours.

The drive to Monte Vista is about 200 miles from my home in Littleton and takes about 4 hours. It’s one of my favorite drives too, taking me south along highway 285 over Poncha Pass and then on to Monte Vista along the western slope of the Sange de Cristo Mountains. It’s very beautiful and there is very little traffic along this remote route.

Conditions on the ground during my trip were suitable with most of the snow having melted of and the fields mostly dry. The Sange de Cristo Mountains had a nice blanket of snow on their peaks, making for a beautiful backdrop. The lakes and ponds were still half frozen though, which dictated the bird’s roosting habits.

I made this year’s trip solo. Some years I work alone, other years I travel and photograph with a friend. The logistics of working alone vs with a friend are a little different. Honestly, I enjoyed working alone this year. My planning is more detailed and my concentration is better when I have only myself to deal with. I tend to take a more leisurely approach working alone too. Just me and my camera, I don’t have to worry about what someone else wants to do nor coordinate a combined effort. But, when working alone, one can find a rut as well as a groove, as there is nobody to bounce ideas and thoughts off of. Six one, half a dozen the other.

I approached this trip with the idea that I would get more environmental photos if possible, so I situated myself and worked with that concept in mind. Over the years I have accumulated thousands of bird in flight photos of the cranes, and I didn’t really want to mess with those shots too much this year. It worked out to my advantage though, as the bird in flight photos were not as abundant this year anyway, due mostly to bird locations and orientation to the sun. Oddly enough though, my favorite photo from the trip was a bird in flight photo, one the the very few I made.

Sandhill Cranes in flight at sunrise.

As for my photographic gear this year, I traveled with two cameras and three lenses. I used my Nikon D810 with the 200-500mm lens and used my Nikon D850 with the 70-200mm lens. My third lens was the 24-70mm, and it never made it out of the camera bag.

I came home with about 1,400 photos and I’ve gleaned about a dozen stock photos from the trip, so all things considered, I did okay with my image results. I’m still looking through them at this time, but most of the good stuff has been identified and edited. The remainder will be sent to the archives and I can comb through them at a later date when I have nothing better to do.

As for my next adventure, I don’t know yet. I’m giving some serious thought to visiting Sandwash Basin for wild horses sometime in mid to late May, but that hasn’t been nailed down yet. In the time being, I’ll be scheming and plotting different things. I have no sense of urgency though.