Nature is again putting on one of its most memorable displays: the spring migration of greater sandhill cranes in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. In appreciation of this wildlife spectacle, area organizations, businesses and wildlife agencies are holding the 37th Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival. This year, the festival dates are March 6-8, 2020.
“Everyone who lives in Colorado should take the time to see this ancient and magnificent migration,” said Joe Lewandowski, public information officer for the Southwest Region of 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 cranes started arriving in mid-February, flying from their winter nesting ground, primarily in New Mexico. The large wetland areas, wildlife refuges and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds. The cranes stop in the valley to rest-up and re-fuel for their trip north to their summer nesting and breeding grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
Even if you can’t travel to the San Luis Valley during the weekend of the festival, there is still plenty of time to see the birds. The cranes usually stay in the valley for most of March.
Cranes are among the oldest living species on the planet: Fossil records for cranes date back 9 million years. The birds that migrate through Colorado are the largest of the North American sandhill subspecies standing 4-feet tall with a wing-span of up to 7 feet and weighing in at 11 pounds. Besides their imposing size, the birds issue a continuous and distinctive 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.
Where to Find Cranes
The birds are abundant in areas near the town of Monte Vista. They can be seen most readily in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, about five miles south of town of Colorado Highway 15. Birds also gather at the Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge, southeast of the town of Alamosa, and at that Rio Grande, Higel and Russell Lakes state wildlife areas.
The cranes are most active at dawn and at dusk when they’re moving from their nighttime roosting areas to fields where they feed. In the middle of the day, they graze gracefully in the grain fields of the Monte Vista refuge.
Be sure to dress warm, as winter still reigns in the valley.
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 ride buses to various spots on the wildlife refuge and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staffers talk about the migration and the refuge. If you want to take a tour, be on time because the buses leave promptly.
The number of cranes in the valley peaks in mid-March; but many birds 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 raptors and waterfowl – can also be seen throughout the San Luis Valley. Look in the many cottonwood trees for owl nests.
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.
Getting to the Festival
Approximate distances to Monte Vista: Denver, 220 miles; Colorado Springs, 182 miles; Salida, 85 miles; Vail, 175 miles; Durango, 135 miles; Grand Junction, 230 miles.
For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, please visit mvcranefest.org or https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista. For more information on State Wildlife Areas in the San Luis Valley, please visit the Colorado Parks and Wildlife website.
Written by Joe Lewandowski. Joe is a public information officer for the Colorado Parks and Wildlife southwest region.