Journeys of the Cranes

Photo credit: Nandi Strieker

Every spring, an exciting festival is held in the San Luis Valley with events such as tours, movie screenings, and a craft fair. There are many different themes, but the overall focus is on the return of the sandhill cranes — an awe-inspiring event of nature.

This year’s festival took place from March 8-10, but some cranes still continue to arrive after that. There aren’t as many and they can be hard to see, but if you’re lucky you might find a spot where lots of them have gathered to rest and feed.

Sandhill cranes are large birds, standing at four feet tall with a wingspan of six feet. Their feathers are mostly gray, but they have a noticeable red patch on the tops of their heads.

In winter, the cranes migrate to northern Mexico and parts of Texas and New Mexico, but in the spring they head North and spread out across nearly all of Canada and Alaska. Some also take a separate route and head toward Florida.

The cranes stop in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge because of its wetlands, a critical food source for them. They aren’t the only migrating species to come here, however: flocks of ducks, geese, and other birds stop in the valley as well.

There are farm fields around the refuge where cranes find grass and grain seeds. While on the ground, they jump and dance to try attract a mate if they don’t have one already.

The cranes have been flying through the valley for millions of years. Tourists from all over the world come to see the spectacle of thousands of cranes covering the landscape. “I’m just infatuated by them and their habits and behaviors,” said a visitor from Denver named Glenda, looking at them through her binoculars. “It’s just something to do that makes you not have a care in the world.”

There are other places in the United States where the cranes gather in much larger numbers, but Monte Vista is still unique, with towering mountains in the background. “As far as numbers, there are many, many more cranes in Nebraska,” Glenda said, “But as far as the beauty surrounding the viewing of the cranes, this is just spectacular.”

Two sandhill cranes. (Photo credit: Nandi Strieker)
Visitors watch the spectacle of the cranes. (Photo credit: Nandi Strieker)