Monte Vista Crane Festival

Sandhill cranes were usually here by the tens of thousands, flooding the wildlife refuge and surrounding fields. Where WERE they?

The Monte Vista Crane Festival is one of the many wonderful events staged around the country to celebrate and observe the migration of the majestic sandhill cranes. Unfortunately, this year I arrived in Monte Vista a day after the crane festival ended. I wasn’t too concerned— after all, the cranes don’t migrate based on the three days of festivities, events, art shows and talks scheduled out by humans. Although I was sorry to have missed it, I was ready to seek out my own adventure.

I rolled up to the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge located just a few miles south of the town of Monte Vista, which is the place everyone knows to start at. This is what I saw:

Ummm ok. Time for plan B: head to the festival location to get advice from volunteers. Oh wait, that ended yesterday. I was flying solo.

From the looks of it the cranes were flying solo as well, every bird for themselves. I drove around the farm fields of Monte Vista for two hours and couldn’t find the large flocks anywhere. They were usually here by the tens of thousands, flooding the wildlife refuge and surrounding fields, in search of extra calories left behind by the farmers during the fall harvest. The sandhill cranes migrate along North America’s Central Flyway every spring, stopping to rest and refuel, as any of us would, between their luxurious winters in the warm sun of New Mexico, and their breeding grounds in northern Idaho, western Wyoming and Northwest Colorado. Southern Colorado crop fields are a wonderful place to gain back precious body fat and basically carb load for the last leg of their marathon. But, where WERE they…?

I drove north and south, east and west, only to find at most a half dozen birds way off in the distance. The worst was when I could hear them off in the fog, but not see them.

The only place I was able to spot sandhill cranes in large numbers was in a farmer’s field, right behind their house. Private land. Too nervous to ask the landowner for permission, I went back to the hotel to think. There’s not much action for the birds in the middle of the day anyway. The best times to photograph are at sunrise and just before sunset, when they fly in front of the jaw dropping Sangre de Cristo mountain range, traveling to and from their nocturnal aquatic roosting sites. (It’s true! Sandhill cranes sleep while standing in water. Because sandhill cranes can’t land in trees due to their weird feet, sleeping in water keeps them safe from predators.)

Plan C

While moping around the hotel, wondering if my four hour drive was for nothing, I finally got up the courage to head back to the farm. I practiced asking the landowner for permission the whole way there.

When I pulled into their driveway I rolled down the window to give a friendly smile and a wave. An older gentleman approached and I decided to change strategies and open with a joke. I pointed to the hundreds of cranes behind his house and asked, “Can you guess why I’m here?” He smiled and replied, “I think I have an idea.” I introduced myself, said I worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and that I’m a videographer in search of my subject. I asked VERY nicely if I could get access to his property to get a couple of shots, and mentioned that I didn’t want to get in the way of his work. “All you had to do was ask,” he said, then turned me over to his wife.

“If you want to see something really cool, come with me,” she said. She took me further into their property and pointed at a large crop-waste field. It was absolutely covered in sandhill cranes. “Ever heard of potato dirt?” No, I had not. She proceeded to tell me that the dirt and potato waste left over from a previous harvest was dumped into this part of the field, without thinking much of it. Then the cranes came.

I’ve known for awhile that a crane’s diet consists of crop waste grain such as corn, wheat, barley, oats, as well as snails, crayfish, insects, small vertebrates and the eggs of other birds, but what I observed over the next hour was completely unexpected. The cranes used their elongated beaks to root around for potatoes, with great enthusiasm. At first I thought they were just slicing them into smaller and smaller pieces in order to eat them – which some of them were, but then I saw one throw back an entire potato and swallow it whole. Then another, and another. I pressed record.

The sandhill cranes were swallowing potatoes whole like a pelican eating a fish! After years of capturing footage of the cranes flying in and out of fields, it was quite interesting and unexpected to witness a behavior I had never before observed in this species.

Lessons Learned

I am so glad I got the courage to ask the landowner for permission to access their land.  My trip was shaping up to be pretty fowl but by the end I was happy as a lark. I think next year I’ll time my visit for the heart of the festival when there are guided tours lead by birding professionals, volunteers to ask for advice and help, fellow birders to compare notes with and a craft fair to chill at instead of brooding in my hotel lobby.  Honestly, the festival is a hoot. If you’ve never been to one before I highly recommend it– maybe I’ll see you there next year! We’re always looking to add more crane enthusiasts to our flock.

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Article, photos and video by Crystal Egli. Egli is a videographer and a media specialist for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

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