In the San Luis Valley nature is again putting on one of its most memorable displays: the spring migration of greater sandhill cranes. In appreciation of this wildlife spectacle, area organizations, businesses and wildlife agencies are holding the 37th Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, March 6-8.
The cranes started arriving in mid-February, flying from their winter nesting grounds to the south, primarily in New Mexico. The large wetland areas, wildlife refuges and grain fields in the San Luis Valley draw in about 25,000 birds.
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.
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 “loaf” and eat 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.
Birdwatchers who travel on their own should be cautious when parking, getting out of vehicles and walking along roads. View birds from a distance with binoculars and spotting scopes, and 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.
Approximate distances to Monte Vista from Colorado Springs is 182 miles. Salida, For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, see: mvcranefest.org; or https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Monte_Vista. For more information on State Wildlife Areas in the San Luis Valley, go to: https://cpw.state.co.us/placestogo.