Wild Colorado: A State for Great Photography

Animals are so used to humans in Rocky Mountain National Park you can bore them at times.

What’s the first thing to pop into your mind when you think about Colorado and photography? It could be the great fall color that happens every year at the end of September and beginning of October. Maybe it’s the vast abundance of wildflowers that start to bloom in early spring and throughout the summer. Mountain landscapes are another popular subject. The wildlife that’s available, though, is more abundant and diverse than just about anyplace else you can think of.

No matter what part of the state you visit, there is some kind of animal or bird waiting to get it’s picture taken. With eight national wildlife refuges, one of the top national parks in the country for wildlife viewing, and lakes for waterfowl all over the state, Colorado is a wildlife photographers dream. And, for most of us, it’s a lot closer and easier to get to than Alaska.

No matter the month, wildlife can be found at almost any venue visited, but locations in much of the high country are only accessible during the summer months. Even then, with limited access, there is still wildlife to be found. A good example of this is at Rocky Mountain National Park. While the park is usually quite crowded during the summer months, when the road from the east to west side is open typically from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the off months can bring about some great wildlife photography opportunities.

In early December, the bighorn sheep are gathered together down low from their high summer ranges for their annual rut. While most of the activity occurs just outside the park boundaries between Estes Park and the park entrance, people are amazed at how close the sheep allow people to come to them and observe their behavior. At the same time, the mule deer mating season is going on and there are several spots within the park where bucks have a small harem of does with smaller bucks in the vicinity trying to get some of the action.

While the elk-mating season is completed at this time of year, the bulls have formed bachelor groups and can be found regularly at several spots. And if you’ve ever wanted to see a huge gathering of elk, there are numerous spots where hundreds of cow elk and their young frequently congregate. Both of these can be easily found at any time from late fall until last spring. Other wildlife easily found during this period includes coyote (east side) and moose (west side). A fresh snow is a great time to be at the park as the coyotes can be found in several spots stalking and pouncing on voles.

Many urban parks are home to fox

The summer months, though, is when the park comes alive. With access to both the east and west sides of the park by driving over Trail Ridge Road, a day trip offers the chance for elk, deer and coyote on the east side and a trip to the west side for the big draw of moose. Moose were introduced in northern Colorado in 1978 and their population has flourished so much that groups are being relocated to other parts of the state. The population in Rocky Mountain National Park is quite healthy and the west side of the park in Kawuneeche Valley is one of the best areas in the state to find them. Elk are also abundant on the west side of the park.

Another animal not found in too many states, but pretty much a guaranteed spot during the summer months, is the mountain goat. Goats were introduced in 1947 to expand the hunting opportunities in the state, but they are hunted more with a camera now than with a gun. There are several spots in the state where the goats can be found, but the most reliable is on Mount Evans, located south of the town of Idaho Springs off of Interstate 70 just west of Denver. With the road leading to the top of the mountain being the highest paved road in North American, reaching more than 14,000 feet, the road is open only from Memorial Day to Labor Day. And even during that time, a snow could close the road for a day or part of the day until it’s cleared.

The early part of the season is the best to drive up the winding mountain road as the adults still have most of their winter coat on and the young babies are out. Late season is also a good time as the adults have completely shed their previous winter coat and are very pretty to photograph. During the middle of the summer, the adults look a bit scruffy as their coats are very patchy with clumps of old hair contrasting with their new coat.

Also found on the Mount Evans road are several bighorn sheep, although I’ve only seen ewes and young but no rams, marmot, pika, long-tailed weasels and sometimes some golden eagles soaring overhead.

Many city parks and rural areas as well have a very good red fox population. Probably the best and easiest place in the country to photograph foxes is at Prospect Park along the Wheat Ridge Greenbelt in the west Denver area. Every year when the baby foxes start coming out, a dozen or more photographers can be seen set up for their playful activities. Any morning you show up here, you’re sure to see several foxes along the bike paths and back horse trails.

Mount Evans is the prime spot to see mountain goats and in early June is a good time to see the babies.

Ever been to Bosque del Apache during the peak of sandhill crane activity and wondered where they stop off on their northern migration to their summer breeding grounds? The answer is the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the south central part of the state. The crane opportunities are just as good or better here than they are at Bosque with almost all of the cranes found in New Mexico stopping here both on their migration to and from Bosque del Apache.

Like at Bosque, the refuge has several grain fields they grow specifically for the cranes. Farmers also leave grain awns in the field for the cranes to feed on. In addition to the cranes, great horned owls, hawks and even some bald eagles can be spotted on the refuge.

While bald eagles are tough to get great photographs of, there is a healthy population of them in the state. During the winter months, more than 800 call Colorado home and in 2001, 52 nesting pairs were counted throughout the state. Many other raptors can also be found in the state including red-tailed, Swainson’s, and Ferruginous hawks.

If you like other birds, including waterfowl, Colorado is a place you have to go to at least once. With more than 150 species counted during the 2007 Great Backyard Bird Count, the photo ops are almost limitless. Nesting waterfowl can be found all over the state and some areas have some very unique species that can be photographed from close viewing range. In the Denver area alone, there are black-crowned night heron and cormorant rookeries, wood duck nests and just about every type of duck you can think of being available.

So, if you’re looking for a place to go to get a bunch of wildlife photography on a trip, think about all that Colorado has to offer. And depending on when you go, there’s probably a landscape or nature shot or two you can find. No matter what time of year you visit.

Each year several workshops featuring wildlife around Colorado are offered. To see upcoming scheduled trips visit http://www.firstlighttours.com/photography_workshops.html.

By Andy Long

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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