Annual Festival Spotlights Sandhill Cranes

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes flock earlier this month to the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/​

A Sandhill Crane jumps for joy. Photo by Kirsten laskey\​


Los Alamos Daily Post

It was an incredible social gathering. The air bubbled with inaudible conversations and the crowd was a bevy of movement. Newcomers swooped into the gathering while others rushed away. The crowd would hop, bob and weave. Further back, a line of spectators, including myself, spied on the scene through spotting scopes, camera lenses and binoculars.

What we spotted was incredible; thousands of sandhill cranes filled the expansive wetlands of the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado. The cranes were making a pit stop on their 5,000 mile migration. In response, the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuge hosted its 34th Monte Vista Crane Festival.

The festival, which was held March 9-11, included tours, lectures, arts and crafts and other activities in the small town of Monte Vista, Colo. Throughout the festival, the refuge and its inhabitants took center stage.
The refuge is enormous; it is actually made up of three refuges: Monte Vista, Baca and Alamosa. According the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the refuge complex stretches out to cover more than 100,000 acres. It is accessible by back country dirt roads and is set on the backdrop of iron-blue mountains with snow-capped peaks and serene farmland and ranches.

The refuge manages the wetlands through surface water, wells and dykes. Partner farmers plant alfalfa and barley, which get neatly mowed in preparation for the refuge’s winged guests.

The birds have to be alert for predators, we were told, and the shorten grasses help. The fields also feed the cranes, which were described as “opportunistic omnivores.” They eat anything: seeds, grains, insects and berries, to name a few.

Despite huge appetites, the birds are pretty lithe; typically they only weigh up to 12 pounds. The birds are fascinating to watch. Their expansive wings are a dusty color but they have a deep scarlet patch on their heads. From their long necks and beaks,  the birds will emit purring-like noises and will sporadically unfold their wings and hop, as if in joy, into the air.  When in flight, the birds do not appear to vigorously pumped their wings but rather seem to glide on a current of air. Sandhill cranes can live long lives, up to 25 years. They can begin mating around 5 years old and will mate for life. The cranes have attracted loyal followers. One volunteer on the tour I participated in said he and his partner have followed the cranes for 10 years. They traveled with the birds from the Bosque del Apache in Socorro up into Alaska. How many times has he observed these birds? The stacks of photographs and rows of digital photos he must have on these creatures!

But looking into the honey-colored fields crowded with happily eating, dancing and talking sandhill cranes, the volunteer could not resist the opportunity to snap another photo of these birds.

A group of people take a peek at the Sandhill Cranes. Photo by Kirsten Laskey/