Late in February, sandhill cranes—the San Luis Valley’s oldest visitors—begin their annual trek from south to north, stopping off near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to load up on fuel. For millions of years, the sandhills have been spending their "Spring Break" in Colorado’s Valley of the Cranes and more recently, wildlife watchers have been drawn to wonder at this phenomenal natural spectacle.
No one really knows what the early residents of southern Colorado thought about this majestic migration of cranes, but they were paying attention to it. High on a rocky cliff face southwest of Monte Vista is a well-protected, six-foot-long petroglyph that is unmistakably a sandhill crane. So, as much as 2,000 years ago, humans were celebrating the return of these magnificent birds to the Valley of the Cranes.
Today, crane watchers come from far and wide to join this celebration at the Monte Vista Crane Festival. While the festival offers outstanding opportunities for celebrating and understanding cranes and other wildlife, the common denominator that brings visitors back year after year is the 20,000 or so greater sandhill cranes and a few thousand lesser sandhills, that really put on a show for each other and visitors, too. Besides the cranes there are thousands of waterfowl, numerous wintering bald eagles and other raptors that highlight the wildlife viewing.
The festival hosts wildlife experts, local naturalists and biologists who present educational workshops at the Monte Vista Middle School, while flocks of dancing sandhills assemble in the neighboring farm fields, just east of town. Bus tours to the nearby refuge and adjacent farmlands provide visitors with the opportunity to view this spectacle up close and personal, with a knowledgeable local guide. Special tours feature raptor identification, sunset trips to view cranes, and visits to closed areas of the refuge for Crane Festival participants.
A craft fair is held in the Ski-Hi building, which features a prominent crane mural on the outside walls. A dinner with live entertainment, a pancake breakfast, local restaurants, and concessions at the craft fair provide sustenance for happy crane watchers from as far away as Japan. Motels and B & Bs fill up weeks in advance, and the population of Monte Vista nearly doubles during the weekend of Crane Fest. Come visit the Valley of the Cranes and enjoy their annual spring return to one of Colorado’s most spectacularly scenic places.
The greater sandhill cranes you will see during the Monte Vista Crane Festival are part of the 20,000 strong Rocky Mountain flock that spends part of each spring and fall in the San Luis Valley, as they have for millennia.
In late February they start arriving from their wintering grounds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. They will be here until late March or early April eating the grain that will support them as they fly 850 miles north to their summer breeding grounds at Grays Lake National Wildlife refuge in southeastern Idaho.
It is also in the San Luis Valley that the cranes perform their courtship dance, leaping and bowing while raising and lowering their wings, and making a croaking sound to one another. Once a male and female bond they form a pair for life.
Greater sandhill cranes are about four feet tall with a six foot wingspan. They weigh around twelve to thirteen pounds and are uniformly gray except for a red patch of skin on their foreheads.
You may also see similar looking but much smaller birds in the area. These are lesser sandhill cranes, and about 1,200 of them are part of the Rocky Mountain flock. Most lesser sandhill cranes stay east of the Continental Divide in a flock of 500,000 that make a well-known migratory stop in the Platte River basin of Nebraska.
Text source: www.cranefest.com