Wildness Incarnate

“The Crane is wildness incarnate. High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks… a new day has begun on the crane marsh. A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place. Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.”  -Aldo Leopold

This coming March, Ranchlands photographer Madeline Jorden will be teaching a photography workshop centered around one of the ranch’s most fascinating seasonal guests, the Sandhill Crane.

One of the oldest species of birds still living, the Sandhill Crane undertakes an epic migration every spring and fall between their wintering grounds in Mexico and the American Southwest and breeding grounds throughout the Rocky Mountains, Canada, Alaska, and even across the sea to Siberia. In September of 2018, Madeline decided to join them on this journey, following along on the ground below on a bicycle. When asked what it was like to travel from Montana to Utah with only her bike and the birds for company she responded that it was “the experience of a lifetime,” – saying, “It’s kind of hard to put into words, but I went on that trip hoping to learn something new about the idea of landscape and migration and history. I was aware of the physical and cultural presence of Sandhill Cranes throughout my journey, from streets and geographical features named after cranes, to meeting farmers whose fields are grazed by cranes annually. It also gave me a more tangible sense of the scale of their habitat.”

The Rocky Mountain population of these beautiful birds converges every March in Colorado’s San Luis Valley for several weeks. Enormous groups of cranes, numbering in the tens of thousands, create one of the most remarkable wildlife spectacles in North America. “I’ve seen cranes all over the country, but seeing them at the Zapata and in the surrounding San Luis Valley is one of the most special,” says Jorden. “First, there’s the sheer volume of the number of animals that gather there in the spring, and secondly, visitors to the Zapata have the really unique opportunity to see cranes on the Medano amongst our herd of conservation bison–a vision of the way things ‘used to be’ in North America. I don’t know of anywhere else you can see that.”

An art history major during college, Madeline has spent much of her life immersed in the arts. But it wasn’t until after years studying art, and developing a deep appreciation for all different forms of visual expression, that she discovered a partiality for photography. Upon moving to Colorado to work and live on the Chico Basin ranch in 2014, documentation of personal experiences through photography became increasingly important to her. “Moving out to the ranch for an internship after a life spent in urban environments was a pivotal moment for me, and I used photography as a medium to process a lot of that shift and personal growth once I arrived.”

I recently asked Maddie what originally drew her to the Sandhill Cranes, what about them inspired her to do a photo workshop that centers around them specifically.  “I’m really fascinated by animal migrations in general, and the idea that other species read or know a landscape in ways that are so different from the human point of view. Where we see state lines, international borders, and city limits, they see winter habitat, summer habitat, and often, human development rapidly encroaching on their historical homes. When you take cranes, for example, who are one of the oldest species of birds on the planet–their fossil record dates back at least 2.5 million years–it really puts the human footprint into perspective. They lived on this continent for hundreds of thousands of years prior to our arrival… just imagine all the changes they’ve seen to the landscape, especially within the past century.”

Each day of the workshop will be spent photographing in different locations around the San Luis Valley, including at Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge, the Great Sand Dunes National Park, and Madeline’s personal favorite locations on the Medano-Zapata. In addition to witnessing the stunning vision of the crane migration, you will also have the opportunity to photograph our resident bison herd, mountain landscapes, and other wildlife.

“Photography can be a powerful tool for sharing a certain perspective,” says Maddie. At Ranchlands, we’ve found platforms like Instagram to be really effective in building an audience and sharing the story of conservation and ranching through the medium of photography. Especially since so much of what we do here is so visually compelling, it can be a great way to capture people’s attention to try and convey some of the messages of tradition and landscape conservation that we want to share.”

Get more information about the 2021 Sandhill Crane workshop here.

Join the Conversation


  1. Love the idea of this photography workshop. It sounds like it may be aimed at professional photographers. I am decidedly an amateur. What kind of equipment is desirable/required?

    I am in a high risk group for COVID19 due to my age. I would not be able to attend a March 2021 workshop in the absence of access to a safe vaccine. Will you be offering this course annually?

    1. Hey Catherine! The workshop is definitely appropriate for photographers of all skill levels, and a small enough group that participants all receive individual attention. We have offered this workshop for the past several years so will likely have it again in the future!

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