Photography: Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill cranes were the stars of this Colorado photography workshop, but nature provided lots of other subjects, from sand dunes to sunsets.
It was 5:30 on a chilly March morning, and we were on a mission. Eager photographers and birders were bundled up and crammed into four vehicles, along with cameras, lenses and tripods. We were racing against the sunrise to photograph greater sandhill cranes at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado’s San Luis Valley.
About 20 of us from all over the country were staying at the Zapata Ranch for a sandhill crane photography workshop. Thousands of the birds migrate through the wildlife refuge on their way from their winter home in New Mexico to their breeding grounds in the northern U.S. and southern Canada.
Michael Forsberg and Dave Showalter, professional nature photographers and two of the nicest guys around, were our teachers and tour guides for the week, helping us perfect our photography skills so that we could go home with the kind of photos we’d only seen in magazines.
In the Field
It was still dark when we reached our destination. As soon as our feet hit the pavement, we could hear their calls: The sandhill cranes were nearby. Hundreds of them had gathered on a small pond only a short distance in front of us. As the sun came up behind us, the view was stunning. The sunlit mountains cast their reflections on the water where the cranes rested, providing us with a perfect photo op.
Later in the day, we found the cranes feeding in a field. Here, we not only photographed the birds but observed and learned about their behavior. Sandhill cranes have strong family ties, and couples mate for life. Once Michael pointed out a few family groups, it was easy to see other groups of three or four—a mother, father and offspring.
But the best part of watching the cranes was getting to see their famous mating dance. Breeding pairs put on an amazing show of jumping, flapping and loud calls that make you think they’re about to engage in a brutal fight, but it’s actually their flamboyant way of courting.
Another Day, Another Photo
We spent our second day at Great Sand Dunes National Park (pictured at right), where the play of shadows and light is a photographer’s dream.Here we roamed and explored the area on our own a bit. As a beginner, I took the opportunity to learn everything I could from Dave, who spotted a neat pair of trees as we drove in. He brought out his own equipment and showed a few of us how to set up an ideal shot using gold plants in the foreground, the pair of trees in the midground and the mountains and sky in the background.
Our second photo session at the dunes in the evening was breathtaking. We took a short hike down to Medano Creek, a seasonal stream that runs through the park. It was one of the most peaceful places I have ever been. We were lucky enough to spot horse tracks directly across from the creek, allowing us to capture with our cameras the leading lines of the tracks as they stretched up and down the dunes.
We stayed out that day, cameras in hand, until the sun set on the last dune and all the fresh air made us hungry enough to want to head back to the ranch for dinner.
Memories Last a Lifetime
For me, this workshop was as much about the memories I made with a group of strangers as it was about the scenery, birds and photos. We laughed, shivered in the cold and witnessed some of nature’s wonders together. Would I go on a trip like this again? In a heartbeat.