In March of '08 I heard a story on NPR about the annual sandhill crane migration that takes place in southern Colorado every spring. Ecstatic at the opportunity to get out of my pre-spring doldrums I went to work researching the timing of the migration and how I could get there. Unfortunately the story aired at the end of the '08 migration and there was no way for me to get down to Monte Vista before they moved on. So instead of of getting overly bummed about it I thew a note in my Google calendar about it and set a reminder for January.
Fast forward to January of '09 and, just as I had suspected, I had completely forgotten about the sandhill crane migration. That is until my reminder fired off an sms message and it all came flooding back. This time I had plenty of time to prepare and was able to get everything set for the trip, planning to head down there a week before they had their festival so that it wouldn't be too crowded. My friend Stepan and his dad ended up joining me and Friday night after work we headed out of Boulder, bound for Monte Vista. I'm fairly certain that between the three of us and the lenses that Stepan and I had from Pro Photo Rental that the gear inside the car was worth more than the car itself. I personally brought my D300, a monopod and a tripod. For lenses I opted to swap out my lenses with three excellent lenses from Pro Photo Rental: a Nikkor 24-70 f2.8, a Nikkor 70-200 f2.8, and a Nikkor 200-400 f4 and just to top it off a 1.4 extender. If I had all the money in the world I think think this would be my dream lens set but, since I don't, getting them as a rental from Pro Photo Rental when I can is a great alternative.
After arriving we decided to get up before sunrise and catch the cranes as they took off for the morning. Four hours later my alarm went off and to this day I'm not sure how I was able to dress myself. Before the sun was up we were all in the car and headed down to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. They have a one lane dirt road through the refuge setup for viewing and we started around it, unsure of what to expect. We came across 2 small bodies of water, each containing about 50 cranes and decided to set up here. We hauled the monopods and the long lenses out and started shooting, thinking this was the majority of the birds. As the sun rose on a cloudy morning we were corrected by the thousands of birds that were lifting off from all around us and flying away from us. That's right, away from us. Perfect positioning for a nice butt shot, of which I have one for every animal I've ever tried to photograph, it's like nature's little joke. Once we realized what we had done we scrambled back into the car and drove around the refuge but by then it was to late, the birds had flown down to their feeding grounds just to the south of us in the rye fields. Not wanting to give up we drove south to where the birds were feeding and started shooting. Five minutes later white flakes filled the sky and we called it quits.
After such a disappointing morning we weren't too eager to go back out to the cranes and so the group decided to head out to Penitente Canyon to hike and photograph the rocks. This turned out to be a good way to spend the rest of the morning and we all got some good shots. By the time we got back to town I was exhausted, so much so that I ordered something I didn't even want for lunch, so I suggested that we take the middle of the day to crash back at the hotel. I think the other two were just as tired as I was because I got no argument from them and in no time I heard snoring coming from their rooms.
We all got up late in the afternoon, some with more prodding than others, and found that the skies had cleared and we could actually get treated to a nice bit of light at sunset. So, in true keystone kops fashion, we piled into the car, drove out to the birds, set up our tripods, hooked cameras into lenses and started shooting. This time things went much better, the birds were in the sun and we were treated to a nice backdrop of the mountains. We shot for about half an hour when all of the sudden hundreds of birds took off into the sky. I was so shocked I had to be told to stop staring and take photos, it was very cool. As we got closer to sunset we went back to the reserve to try and catch the birds flying back and parked where we should have parked in the morning. We were treated to many fly overs but as it turns out we really should have parked where we had been in the morning, not the last lesson I'll learn the hard way.
We had a pretty good first day and by bedtime had a solid plan for what to do in the morning and the weather looked like it would cooperate this time.