Cranes make annual return to the San Luis Valley; festival scheduled
MONTE VISTA, Colo. — In the San Luis Valley nature is again putting on one of its most memorable displays: the spring migration of Greater Sandhill Cranes. In appreciation of this wildlife spectacle, area organizations, businesses and wildlife agencies are holding the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 8-10.
“Everyone who lives in Colorado should take the time to see this ancient and magnificent migration,” said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for the Southwest Region of Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “This is one of only a few great wildlife migrations in the United States that people can easily see. The sights and sounds are absolutely amazing.”
The cranes started arriving in mid-February, flying from their winter nesting ground, primarily in New Mexico. The large wetland areas, wildlife refuges and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds. The cranes stop in the valley to rest-up and re-fuel for their trip north to their summer nesting and breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Cranes are among the oldest living species on the planet: Fossil records for cranes date back 9 million years.
The birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies standing 4-feet tall, having a wing-span of up to 7 feet and weighing in at 11 pounds. Besides their imposing size, the birds issue a continuous, distinctive and haunting call. At this time of year cranes are engaged in their mating ritual and the birds perform an elegant hopping dance to gain the attention of other birds.
The birds are abundant in areas near the town of Monte Vista and wildlife watchers can see the birds most readily in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, about 5 miles south of town of Colorado Highway 15. Birds also gather at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of the town of Alamosa, and at that Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas.
The cranes are most active at dawn and at dusk when they’re moving back and forth from their nighttime roosting areas. But in the middle of the day they graze gracefully in the grain fields of the Monte Vista refuge.
Be sure to dress warm, as winter still reigns in the valley.
During the three days of the festival, free tours are offered at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the birds are most active. Visitors take buses to various spots on the wildlife refuge, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers talk about the migration and the refuge. If you want to take a tour, be on time because the buses leave promptly.
The number of cranes in the valley peaks in mid-March; but many birds linger through the month. So even if you can’t go the weekend of the festival there’s still plenty of time to see the birds.
Birdwatchers who travel on their own should be cautious when parking, getting out of vehicles and walking along roads. People are also asked to view birds from a distance with binoculars and spotting scopes, and to observe trail signs and closure notices.
Many other bird species – including eagles, turkeys, and a variety of raptors and waterfowl – can also be seen throughout the San Luis Valley. Look in the many cottonwood trees for owl nests.
The festival headquarters and starting point for the tours is the Ski Hi Park building located near U.S. Highway 160 on Sherman Avenue on the east side of Monte Vista. Visitors can pick up maps, schedules and information at the headquarters. Besides the tours, a variety of workshops are put on by bird, wildlife and photography experts. An arts and crafts fair continues through the weekend at the headquarters building.
Approximate distances to Monte Vista: Denver, 220 miles; Colorado Springs, 182 miles; Salida, 85 miles; Vail, 175 miles; Durango, 135 miles; Grand Junction, 230 miles.
For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, see: mvcranefest.org; or https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista. For more information on State Wildlife Areas in the San Luis Valley, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo.
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