Sandhills and Sand Dunes ~ Zapata Style

Buddy Jacoby traveled from Florida for a bucket list opportunity to photograph sandhill cranes.

Some 27,000 of the world’s 80,000 Greater sandhill cranes stop in Colorado’s San Luis Valley on their migration route between Bosque Del Apache and the Greater Yellowstone. The spectacle happens from mid-March to the end of the month and draws birders and photographers from all over the world. The Valley is enormous – 125 miles long and 65 miles wide – and bordered by the mighty Sangre De Cristo Range to the east and the La Garita Range to the west. And it’s not easy to fit the character of the place in a box; agriculture dominates, mostly potatoes and cattle, there’s a significant Spanish presence, it’s a climber and recreational Mecca, and the windswept valley created Great Sand Dunes National Park. There’s grit, character, culture, and wild for everyone. Michael Forsberg asked me to assist with a new sandhill crane photo workshop at the Nature Conservancy’s Zapata Ranch and I accepted without reservation. Mike has published two epic books: “On Ancient Wings” and “Great Plains”. He’s a force in conservation, a fellow in the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP), and one of the top photographers anywhere. He’s also a heck of a nice guy, a salt-of-the-earth Nebraskan who’s helped me a lot along the way. Mike’s wife and business partner, Patty and their two beautiful girls also made the trek to Colorado.

Golden grass catches last light with a backdrop of the Blanca group in the Sangre De Cristo Range, Zapata Ranch

I came in a day early to scout and get the lay of the land after more than a few years between visits. I finally met Tess Phillips-Leach, who runs guest services at the ranch for the Phillips family. Marla and I have made a few trips to the ranch, most recently to photograph bison five years ago. Prior to that, the lodge was adjacent to a golf club (before TNC bought it) and it was a different scene altogether… but that’s another story. Something changes when you turn onto the dirt road leading to the lodge. There’s a palpable calm in the cottonwood gallery forest on the edge of high desert, a road leading to sanctuary. The lodge is nestled in the giant trees and spread out across the property. There’s a walking trail where the golf course used to be, mule deer browsing all around, wildlife on the fringe of forest and plain. I found some bison that blustery evening and marveled at billowing clouds over the Crestones at sunset.

A Greater sandhill crane banks in mid-air.

Fresh coffee in hand, I set out across the valley to Monte Vista NWR, where most of the cranes are concentrated. John Rawinski, out naturalist guide and author of “Birding Hotspots of South-central Colorado” said they had peaked just a few days prior, so I expected good numbers. In pre-dawn, purply light I could see roosting cranes on icy wetland and stringers of cranes flying across the vertical faces of the Sangre De Cristos, all seemingly on their way to the Gunbarrel, where I was standing. It became almost comical as wave after wave of cranes arrived – two, three, seven at a time. I made images in brisk morning air, warmed slightly by the rising sun, and knew our guests would be happy.

The group arrived that afternoon and got settled at the lodge before dinner. They came from Florida, Michigan, Oregon, Nebraska, and Colorado, Ohio and Georgia. You could feel the energy and excitement at dinner, folks that had traveled cross-country for this oportunity, all getting acquainted over a gourmet bison feast. Mike went over the schedule, I happily shared the crane news, John talked about the viewing experience and we retired to “the Barn” for a slideshow by Mike.

Michael Forsberg

If you ever get a chance to see a Michael Forsberg slideshow, drop everything and go. Patty does a masterful job with multmedia and Mike tells the story. One image after another of Great Plains “lingering wild” brought audible gasps from the audience. Conservation is at the heart of everything Mike does, but you never feel like you’re being lectured. This talk, in a small venue in the San Luis Valley, was the best I’ve ever seen.

We assembled at dark-thirty and carravaned across valley to photograph the cranes. Any first morning anxiety dissapated quickly in the cold morning air as Greater sandhills arrived on schedule. Motor drives whirred and lenses were swapped to capture closeups and grand landscapes with these funny-looking, awkward, yet graceful, gray birds with the red patch on their head. We followed the cranes as they moved from roost to feed on grain, then back to wetland to feed on invertabrates that make up 10% of their diet. Our tour had just begun and the group had already made many lifelist images! For some reason, these birds are more accessible than in Nebraska (where there are 500,000 birds), where blinds are required to make close-up images. At Monte Vista, the food source and wetlands are right next to the roads and the cranes use this compact area to get the fuel for the rest of the migration. It’s a perfect scenario for wildlife photography.

At times the sky was filled with sandhill cranes

Back at the ranch, the wind whipped up and we all kicked back, retreating to view thousands of images from just a few hours prior. Our routine was established and the group solidified, a family gathering of like-minded folks, all of different backgrounds, yet bound by the same thread. Duke Phillips talked to us about the ranch and the Phillips ranch management philosophy in this “one-of-a-kind arrangement.” TNC owns the ranch and the Phillips manage the bison herd, ranch, and visitor experience for profit. It’s a family business, staffed by the Phillips and their extended “family”, a close-knit, hard-working group, completely focused on conservation, sustainable ranching and a premier visitor experience. Oh yeah, and having a great time doing it! Zapata, and the sister Chico Basin Ranch are managed holistically for the health of the ecosystem, the people who make their living on the land, and all of the wild and domestic creatures. I’ve been on a few ranches, and I’m thunderstruck by the Phillips model. Photo workshops are part of an effort to diversify and share the ranches with the public – people become passionate about places they know. The Phillips also offer a painting workshop, horse riding trips, wildlife viewing, concerts, you name it. The ranch is a place to soak in nature any way you choose, a sanctuary.

Duke Phillips and Tess Phillips-Leach

With all the awful stuff happening in the world, it’s uplifting to work with such kind people and I’m touched by a group that came together and bonded. We worked hard and there wasn’t a complainer in the bunch. I’m struck by the peaceful way of the Phillips, the joy in a hard day’s work. I’m amazed at Mike’s talent, his kind way of instructing, and John Rawinski’s immense bank of San Luis knowledge from 31 years in the valley. I tip my hat to our photographers who worked like pros and kindly supported one another throughout. And boy, did they make images! We closed out the week with a slideshow celebration of photographs by participants and it put a lump in my throat to see so much beauty and creativity all at once. Congratulations to our group for all you achieved during the week. We enjoyed your company, the laughs we shared, and look forward to the next time. We wish you well on your photographic journey.

Whatever the recipe, there’s no denying that the Phillips set the tone for a memorable and successful workshop that felt like a gathering of old friends. Thanks to Duke, Janet, Tess, David, Asta, Chef Mike for the the amazing gourmet food, Mike and Patty Forsberg, John Rawinski, the rest of the staff, and all of our photographers. You guys inspire me and I can’t wait to come back, this time with Marla.

Elise and our group with big glass and motor drives humming

Bison graze on golden grass below Colorado icons Crestone Needle, Crestone Peak, and Kit Carson Mountain. The Zapata Ranch is adjacent to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve, which expands the conservation area significantly.

6 thoughts on “Sandhills and Sand Dunes ~ Zapata Style

  1. Being with you and the rest of the Zapata family and photographers was a lifetime experience that I am sincerely thankful to have experienced. Dave – you not only have the wonderful photograph skills but also have the ability to express yourself to others that truly tell a story. It was an emotional event for me and you greatly enriched the pleasure of the opportunity – Thank You! And I even made the cover – how cool is that? I can’t tell you how much fun it was to spend 3 days with my brother, sharing photography opportunities, with no TV, newspapers, or other non-essential distractions – just nice people relaxing, doing what they enjoy and having fun! IT WAS GREAT…..

    1. You made my day, my friend. Thanks for the kind words! It was a special week spent with a special group of people. And it’s a privilege to spend time in nature with you, Mitch, and Rick. Until next time brother Buddy…

  2. Dave – thanks for the great time. I hope to run into you again. I hope to get back up and see Tess and the ranch in May and hopefully catch the irises in blom.

    If you need any sunglasses/glasses etc and are in the Pueblo area drop into my office and I’ll get you a discount. Rocky Mountain Eye Center,

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