By Ruthanne Johnson
Special to The SUN
The sandhill cranes have officially arrived in the San Luis Valley. Early Feb. 10, birder Ray Esparza snapped a photo of 10 sandhill cranes silhouetted against a sunflower-yellow and blue sky in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Later that day, Monte Vista resident Laura Conchelos heard cranes bugling above her house.
By the second week of March, some 20,000 sandhill cranes will have congregated in the valley, with a majority of them around the wildlife refuge. It will be just in time for the 35th Monte Vista Crane Festival, which is slated for the weekend of March 9-11.
The sandhill crane migration through the valley is a wildlife ritual that has been occurring for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. A 3,000-year-old petroglyph discovered on the valley’s west side depicts what appears to be a crane. In Florida, a 2.5 million-year-old sandhill crane fossil was discovered. And in Nebraska, a 10 million-year-old fossil of a closely related crane species was unearthed.
The crane festival originated to celebrate whooping cranes in the valley, thanks to a government program aimed at reviving the species dwindling population.
But, these days, sandhill cranes are the well-deserved stars of the show. They flock by the thousands into the valley, amassing in fields and wetlands, wowing onlookers with their graceful courtship dances and sheer numbers. Their daybreak flyouts often fill the skies with hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds. To help guide visitors this year to where it is possible to witness sunrise flyouts, refuge staff will be posting the cranes’ overnight roosting locations on the festival’s website and Facebook page.
Events at this year’s festival run the gambit: tours to see cranes and birds of prey; tours to unique valley destinations; photography workshops; a craft and nature fair highlighting local artists; and bird movies and wildlife talks in Monte Vista’s homey, old-time theater.
For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, visit www.mvcranefest.org or follow the festival’s Facebook page. The registration deadline is March 7. There are still openings for the sandhill crane sunrise and sunset tours.
By Ruthanne Johnson