The cranes are flying

A quartet of sandhill cranes wings across the dry hills of northern New Mexico on the birds’ annual spring migration toward the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado. An estimated 25,000 or more cranes will stop in Colorado before heading to summer nesting grounds farther north.

Sandhill cranes are common winter visitors around Delta, and in the spring nearby Fruitgrowers Reservoir attracts hundreds more. The birds feed on waste grain from harvested fields as they refuel in preparation for the spring migration.

Imagine hosting each spring a month-long party with 20,000 or more guests of honor.

Guests who constantly fly in and fly out, raucously spending their days eating, drinking, dancing and courting and then one day up and leave without warning or thank you.

It’s the Monte Vista Crane Festival, a spree best thought of as spring break for sandhill cranes: a time to cruise, carouse and find a mate.

“Tall, leggy, single male with great wingspread seeks a lifetime mate with similar interests.”

You get the picture.

“It’s quite a sight,” crane festival chairman Greg Thompson said. “These are marvelous birds, and when they fly in you can hear their calls for miles.”

“We’ve been in the deep-freeze around here for a while, so this is kind of a celebration of both their return and the return of spring,” said Thompson, who has been festival chairman since 1994. “I guess it gets in your blood. It’s really spectacular.”

This year’s Monte Vista Crane Festival, the 30th annual, is March 8–10, an event-filled weekend of tours, seminars, art shows and guest speakers.

Twice-daily bus tours led by crane-savvy volunteers take visitors on crane-sighting and photography expeditions.

The featured speaker this year is Ted Floyd, a well-known author and editor of Birding magazine.

The cranes, mostly Greater Sandhill cranes with a sprinkling of Lesser and Canada sandhills thrown in, are headed north after wintering along the Rio Grande River in New Mexico.

The cranes arrive in waves, with prior records estimating as many as 27,000 of the slate-gray birds with that distinctive red cap stopping for a refueling break in and around the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley.

“It’s time when the birds bulk up on barley grain and other foods and for the adults to come together to form their lifelong pair bonds,” said Pat Gonzales, deputy project leader for the Alamosa/Monte Vista/Baca National Wildlife Refuge Complex.

Cranes have been flying through the valley for thousands of years, Gonzales said.

“There is a petroglyph of a crane on Dog Mountain, inside the refuge,” he said. “Our archaeologist said it might be 10,000 years old.”

Many of the Greater sandhills are headed to summer breeding grounds around the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem in Wyoming, Idaho and Montana, although some of the 5-foot-tall birds will spend their summer and raise their one- or two-chick broods in western Colorado.

It’s still early in the migration, Thompson said.

“I think the refuge estimated there are about 7,000 birds in the valley right now,” he said Thursday. “But each morning you see more and more of them flying around.”

Birders come from all over Colorado and as far as Japan to witness the morning fly-out and evening return along with festival-led daily tours of birds feeding in the nearby grainfields.

“We usually have the cranes around here for four to six weeks, and in recent years we’ve seen a lot of people coming early or after the festival to photograph the birds and avoid the other people,” said Thompson, adding the festival can draw as many as 15,000 crane lovers “if the weather is nice.”

“Sometimes it can get kind of windy here in the spring,” he added wryly.

The festival also is a welcome and important economic boost for communities in the San Luis Valley, Thompson said.

Information and registration is available at


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