Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, is located in Commerce City, Colorado. A wildlife sanctuary of 15,000 acres makes for great wildlife viewing and photography. Rocky Mountain Arsenal wasn’t always a wildlife sanctuary, hence the word Arsenal in the name. You can read more about the arsenals history here if your interested. I’m here to share my experience in photographing birds and other wildlife at the arsenal. Along with several clips of video footage I’ve taken over the years.
Tips for Great Wildlife Photographs at Rocky Mountain Arsenal
- Use a long lens, 300mm minimum, more preferred. I use the Nikon 300mm f/4 with Nikon’s 1.4x autofocus teleconverter.
- Your car makes a great blind. Bring some kind of stabilization so you can photograph out of your car window. You can cover more ground driving the loop. Although I’ve gotten several great photos hiking as well.
- Bring mosquito spray, especially if your hiking by the lakes.
- Get there at sunrise, best option. Right before sunset, second best option.
Bird Photography – Bird Watching – Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
Photographing Raptors at Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge
There are several species of hawks that frequent the refuge. I’ve seen pretty much all of the common hawks of Colorado there out of the several trips I’ve made. However, I’ve only gotten a couple of decent photographs where I could get close enough to capture the detail. Like this beautiful Swainson’s Hawk posing just minutes after sunrise.
I’ve seen and photographed several Great-Horned owls here. You don’t necessarily have to get there early morning to see them. I’ve seen them in trees hanging out mid-day. They are not the easiest to spot either. Notice how well the Great-horned owl pictured below, blends in with his surroundings.
If you are bird watching, or just wanting to photograph Rock Wrens, then I recommend looking by rocks. Not as noisy as House Wrens, but pretty easy to spot. If you see rock structures, and a bird on one, there’s a good chance that it’s going to be a Rock Wren.
Several bird houses are located around Lake Mary, attracting Tree Sparrows. While almost impossible to get a good picture of them in flight, it’s very simple to get great bird photographs of them when hanging out by active bird homes.
From my experience here Lark Sparrows are pretty quiet. I’ve attempted to get footage of them and their song multiple times but always come up empty. Got plenty of great bird photographs of them though.
Grass-hopper sparrows aren’t the loudest songbirds, but their song is very distinct. This makes it easier to know if their around or not. Spotting them can be a little tricky due to their small size. But they often like to perch on flowers and make a bunch of noise. Long lenses for these birds. They will not let you get close to them, just like most wildlife.
In summer time Bullock’s Orioles can be easily spotted when they are around. They don’t really blend in with their surroundings do to their bright colors. Very easy to spot, and also can be very noisy. Awesome birds to photograph.
At the time this photograph of a Blue Grosbeak was taken, it was a lifer for me. One thing I love about the arsenal is the wildlife loop you can drive. You get to cover more ground and better your chances of finding the more uncommon birds. Especially since there are fences almost the entire drive, which birds love to perch on.
Brown Thrashers are one of the most diverse birds when it comes to their songs. I think I’m pretty good at picking up bird songs, but these throw me off quite a bit. I was lucky enough to see this Brown Thrasher out in the open perched on a fence. Not something I see everyday here in Colorado. Some may even say it’s a rare bird for the state.
Wildlife Photography at Rocky Mountain Arsenal – Mammals
Some of the common mammals of the arsenal include Prairie Dogs, Coyotes, Mule Deer, White-tailed deer, Racoons, Bison and Rabbits. Black-footed ferrets can also be found at the arsenal as they were reintroduced in 2015.
You should have no trouble seeing Prairie dogs. When you drive into the Arsenal take a right, and keep driving straight past the 4 way street. There are several Prairie dog towns. Photographing them is pretty difficult if you don’t have a long lens. Although using your car as a photo blind can get you close to them, no one really wants a photo shooting down on them. This of course is my opinion. I’ve always needed a lens of 300mm or more to get decent photographs of Prairie dogs.
I’ve been to Rocky Mountain Arsenal about 10 times. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen deer every single time. Shouldn’t be a problem if you want to get some good photographs of deer in the wild. They will often travel in groups, and really don’t seem to mind people being around.
Coyotes on the other hand, I haven’t seen every single trip. It’s pretty much a hit or miss. They blend in extremely well over the flat lands of the arsenal and can be difficult to spot. Binoculars may aid you in spotting wild coyotes in the open fields of the arsenal.
Video Footage of Wildlife at Rocky Mountain Arsenal
I’m very new to taking video footage of wildlife. I’m using a DSLR, Nikon d7000, and my normal wildlife lens at 420mm with the teleconverter. I use the Rode Video Mic, and honestly I don’t think its that great for recording wildlife due to the fact it picks up wind noise pretty bad.
If you are wanting to see Bison, the best time is early in the morning. They tend to be closer to the fence and better for those wanting to view Bison. I took this video of a herd of Bison at Rocky Mountain Arsenal.
Getting close to enough to get good footage of Grasshopper sparrows is no easy task. I was able to get a little closer but the wind was howling too much at this point and the Rode Video Mic does not do wind well, even with the so-called ‘wind screen’ on it. I was fully camouflaged and so was all of my camera gear. Not sure how much it helps but it doesn’t hurt anything.
Black-billed Magpies singing (making racket) on a fence. Footage taken from my car on the self-guided wildlife tour. As always, Rode Video Mic was used.
After taking about 15 videos of Western Kingbirds, I finally got one where he was vocal. Putting on quite the dance to while singing.
These are my highlights of several trips to Rocky Mountain Arsenal Wildlife Refuge. I’m also not the best at IDing birds. I take steps to make sure I get the ID right but sometimes I’m wrong. If you notice a bird id is incorrect please leave a comment or message me so I can update it appropriately.
Fred Hennig says
I am going to be in the Denver area for a couple days during mid October. At one time I was told the Rocky Mountain Arsenal wildlife park was a good place to photograph mule deer from the car. Is it still that way. Can I expect to see bucks?
You have a good chance of seeing Mule Deer there from your car, especially if you arrive around sunrise/sunset. They are pretty active around that time. 🙂