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Biodiversity: Sandhill cranes return to Colorado

San Luis Valley a spring hotspot for birders

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Sandhill cranes soar through the Colorado sky. Photo courtesy Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — In one of North America’s great migrations, thousands of sandhill cranes are making their way north from winter habitat in New Mexico, en route summer nesting and breeding grounds in northern Idaho, western Wyoming and northwest Colorado.

Along the way, they stop in the San Luis Valley of south-central Colorado to refuel, and to begin a seasonal courtship ritual, an annual ritual celebrated each year with the annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 8-10.

“Everyone who lives in Colorado should see this migration stopover at least once,” said Rick Basagoitia, area wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife in the San Luis Valley. “The sights and sounds are truly amazing,” he said, explaining that state and federal biologists team up each year with the local community to provide viewing and interpretive opportunities for visitors.

The birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies, standing up to four feet tall and with a wingspan of up to seven feet. Cranes are among the oldest living species on the planet: Fossil records for cranes date back 9 million years.

Once they’ve settled into the stubbled grain fields and wetlands in the valley, they begin their 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 as they attempt to gain the attention of other birds.

The cranes start arriving in mid-February, flying from their winter nesting ground in Socorro, New Mexico. Large wetland areas and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds every year. The cranes stop in the valley to rest-up and fuel-up for their trip north to their summer nesting and breeding grounds in northern Idaho, western Wyoming and northwest Colorado.

The birds are abundant in areas near the town of Monte Vista and are easy to spot. Wildlife watchers can see the birds most readily in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and in the Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas.

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.

The number of cranes in the valley peaks in mid-March and many 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 waterfowl – can also be seen in the area.

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.

The crane festival is organized by the local crane festival committee, with help from the Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Rio Grande County, SLV Ski Hi Stampede, Monte Vista school district, and the city of Monte Vista.

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