In the spring, the San Luis Valley is noted for the arrival of tens of thousands of Greater Sandhill Cranes (and a few thousand Lesser Sandhill Cranes, as well). Celebrate the migration of these wonderful birds with thousands of other bird aficionados at the annual Crane Festival weekend, held in early to mid-March and centered at the Monte Vista Refuge.
You can ride a bus to the Refuge with a guide to locate some of the best viewing areas. The morning “fly-out” and late afternoon “fly-in” tours are free, but a donation is requested. Or, drive your own vehicle out to the Refuge, and park in one of several wildlife viewing areas. Don’t forget your binoculars and camera with zoom lens! The setting is spectacular, with the Sangre de Cristo mountains on one end of the valley, and the San Juan mountains on the other.
These amazing birds may fly at elevations as high as 30,000 feet (along with commercial jets), and average 45 miles per hour. When thousands take off from the wetlands in the early morning, the sight and sound is unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. As writer Aldo Leopold so eloquently described in A Sand County Almanac:
- “High horns, low horns, silence, and finally a pandemonium of trumpets, rattles, croaks, and cries that almost shakes the bog with its nearness, but without yet disclosing whence it comes. At last a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wing they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky, and settle in clangorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.”
Up until around 2002, in the midst of the thousands of Sandhill Cranes, it was possible to spot a larger crane, standing nearly 5 feet tall, with snow-white feathers, black wing tips, and red and black head. This was the rare Whooping Crane, brought back from the edge of extinction. Efforts to increase the wild populations of this majestic bird with a wingspan of 7 ½ feet have been very creative. Whooping Crane eggs were transferred to Sandhill Crane nests so the adoptive birds would learn to migrate with the large Sandhill flocks. The Whooping Cranes adjusted to their new families a bit too well. Instead of wanting to mate with other Whooping Cranes (and increase their population), they were attracted to Sandhills instead. Oops.
The next effort was to teach Whooping Crane chicks to follow an ultra-light aircraft and learn their migration pattern from the little plane. Birders sometimes refer to these birds as “ultra-Cranes”. The ultra-light imprinting method seems to be succeeding in flocks that spend summers in Wisconsin and then winter in Florida. The good news is that the cranes aren’t trying to mate with ultra-light planes or hang-gliders. To follow the progress of this project, go to the website www.operationmigration.org.
The last of the Whooping Cranes known to migrate through the San Luis Valley was declared dead by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2002. He (she?) was 19 years old. Maybe we can borrow an ultra-light and a few Whooping Cranes from another part of the country.
When you’re not out bird watching, visit the crafts booths set up at the Ski Hi community complex, view rescued raptors up close and personal, or attend a workshop on birding, local ecology, and other interesting topics. Most workshops and lectures are free to the public, and require no advance registration.
For more information, contact:
Monte Vista Crane Festival
P.O. Box 585
Monte Vista, CO 81144