Spring Brings Sandhill Cranes to Monte Vista, Colo. | TheFencePost.com

Spring Brings Sandhill Cranes to Monte Vista, Colo.

Story & Photos by Tony Bruguiere
Fort Collins, Colo.

There are many good viewing points in the Wildlife Refuge, but the pull-out at the southwest corner of the Refuge may be the best. The lighting is excellent in the afternoon and the background of Blanca Peak adds to the experience.

Spring has come to the southern San Luis Valley and the season change heralds the arrival of thousands of Sandhill Cranes to the area. They can be seen everywhere in fields around Alamosa and Monte Vista, but, by far, the biggest concentration and best place to view them is the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

The Cranes have a substantial economic impact on Monte Vista and for 29 years the city has been putting on the Crane Festival during early March and the peak of the spring migration. Monte Vista and the Crane festival have become the most popular spot on Colorado’s Birding Trail, which is not really a trail that you walk on, but rather a listing of birding ‘hot spots’ in Colorado.

The festival hosts wildlife experts, local naturalists, and biologists who present free educational workshops. Bus tours to the nearby refuge and adjacent farmlands provide visitors with the opportunity of a knowledgeable local guide and excellent viewing spots. Special tours feature sunset trips to view cranes and visits to closed areas of the refuge for Crane Festival participants.

The birds begin to arrive in late February and stay until early April, fattening themselves in the corn stubble fields in preparation for their northern migration. North America has only two species of cranes, the Sandhill Crane and the endangered Whooping Crane, but there are six sub species of Sandhill Cranes. Some 20,000 Greater Sandhills and 1,200 Lesser Sandhills migrate through Monte Vista each spring and fall. These birds are part of the Rocky Mountain Flock and when they leave Monte Vista they will fly 850 miles north to their summer breeding grounds at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Idaho.

These 1,200 Lesser Sandhills seem a little ‘lost’, as the world’s largest population of Lesser Sandhill Cranes, some 500,000 of them, stop along the North Platte River in Nebraska before continuing north to their breeding grounds. The Greater Sandhill Cranes are about 4-feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan. They weigh around 12 to 13 pounds and are mostly gray except for a red patch of skin on their foreheads. They may appear to be stained a reddish color in spots. The Lesser Sandhill is about 10 percent smaller.

The call of the Sandhill is difficult to describe, but once heard is unforgettable. Perhaps the best description is that it is a “throaty chortle.” The call can be heard for long distances and during moonlit spring nights on the eastern plains of Colorado, Lesser Sandhills on their way to the North Platte River in Nebraska can be heard even though they regularly fly at altitudes of over a mile high.

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Visitors to the NWR in Monte Vista should be on the lookout for a large (5-feet tall) white bird with black wing tips, and a red crown. This is the rarest of rare American birds, the endangered Whooping Crane. As of 2011 there were only 437 of this magnificent bird in the wild, and two of them fly with the Rocky Mountain Flock of Greater Sandhills that passes through Monte Vista.

The Greater Sandhills in Monte Vista are not as skittish as the Lesser Sandhills in Nebraska and it is not uncommon for hundreds of birds to be completely ignoring the scores of photographers and bird watchers 25-feet from them. But, it is just as common for the birds to be 100 yards away, so a long lens or good binoculars are essential for photography or close-up viewing.

Few roads in the area have much in the way of a shoulder, so the best and probably the safest, spot to watch the birds is an observation pull-out at the southwestern corner of the refuge. The background is the Sangre de Cristo Range, dominated by massive, snow-capped Blanca Peak. There is a smaller pull-out across the road, but in the late afternoon when the birds fly in, you are looking into the setting sun.

To be able to see thousands of these large birds gliding in for a landing with dangling legs under arched wings and to be able to hear their primitive calls, would be reason enough to make the short trip to Monte Vista. To have the chance to be one of the few to see a Whooping Crane, the rarest bird in America, now, that would be a privilege.