The sandhill cranes and Monte Vista Crane Festival set to return


By Ruthanne Johnson
Special to The PREVIEW
Thousands of sandhill cranes will soon be descending upon the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado’s scenic San Luis Valley. To celebrate the crane’s return, the 35th annual Monte Vista Crane Festival will be held March 9-11.
It’s the oldest birding festival in Colorado and one of the oldest in the nation.
The cranes congregate in the refuge partly because the San Luis Valley is along their migratory route from their wintering grounds in New Mexico to nesting grounds further north. It is also because the refuge staff works hard throughout the year to maintain healthy wetlands and plant barley fields. Just before the crane fest, they mow large swaths of the barley fields close to public viewing areas, drawing birds in to feast on the fallen grain and small animals attracted to the seeds (cranes are omnivores).
Sunrise and sunset tours offered during the festival take birders to these “hot spots,” where it’s possible to see thousands of cranes.
Wildlife experts host the two-hour tours, highlighting interesting facts about the cranes along the way, like how they mate for life. It’s also possible to spot coyotes, eagles, great-horned owls, hawks and a variety of duck species.
Sandhill cranes are large birds with a distinguishing crimson cap on their head that makes them hard to miss as they forage. Their graceful courtship dance, unique trumpeting calls and mass fly outs are thrilling to witness.
This year’s crane fest includes sunrise and sunset tours, photography workshops, birds-of-prey tours and field trips to Zapata Ranch (near the Great Sand Dunes National Park) and a unique natural area in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains called Elephant Rocks.
There are also expert-led presentations on topics such as waterfowl, wetlands and prairie dogs; and a daily craft and nature fair featuring artists from the valley and beyond. There are two movies being offered this year in Monte Vista’s vintage Vali 3 Theater: Disney’s “Wings of Life” and Brian Golden Davis’s documentary “Million Dollar Duck.”
For festival details and tour registration, visit The registration deadline is March 7.
For more information, visit or call (719) 852-2731. For media requests, contact