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Sandhill cranes return to San Luis Valley

Annual migration includes a festival in Monte Vista

In February and March, the annual spring migration of greater sandhill cranes takes place in the San Luis Valley.

In appreciation of the wildlife spectacle, the 36th Monte Vista Crane Festival will be March 8-10.

Each year, an estimated 20,000 cranes arrive in the valley from winter nesting grounds at the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. They stop to rest and refuel for their trip north to summer nesting and breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

“Everyone who lives in Colorado should take time to see this ancient and magnificent migration,” said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for 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 birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies standing 4- feet tall, having a wingspan 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.

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.

Refuge staff work throughout the year to maintain barley fields and healthy wetlands for the cranes. In early March, staff mow large swaths of barley close to public viewing areas. People can view 6,000 or more cranes gathering in one area. Common sites include the crane’s graceful courtship dance and impressive liftoffs of thousands of birds when an eagle or other predator is nearby.

Birds also gather at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of the town of Alamosa, and at the Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas.

“It is a really inspiring and beautiful experience watching the cranes,” said Ruthanne Johnson, outreach specialist for the crane festival.

Tour bookings for the festival range between 3,000 and 5,000 per year, she said. The event has a “small town vibe” and is less crowded than other crane festivals. As part of the festival, businesses participate in a “Crane Craze” promotional campaign, which includes the Lazy Crane Session ale from Colorado Farms Brewery.

“The whole town gets into crane themes and events,” Johnson said. “It is an important economic boost for the town in the winter.”

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.

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.

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.