The Valley of the Giant Birds

For a weekend in spring, hang out with 25,000 giant sandhill cranes and be welcomed with open arms in delightful Monte Vista.

Joe Rubino
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Driving south of Saguache on Highway 285 one brisk February or March evening at dusk, you may be startled to see the sky filling up with waves and waves of what look like winged dinosaurs. It’s not haven’t stumbled into the apocalypse – on the contrary, you’ve discovered one of Colorado’s most stunning displays of natural beauty: the yearly migration of the majestic Sandhill Cranes.

Standing four feet tall, with six-foot wingspans and vibrant red covering their faces and giving them the look of masked bandits, the 25,000 Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes who visit the fields just north of Alamosa each year are certainly an unusual sight to behold. While they might seem out of place in the lonely high-desert of the San Luis Valley, spending about two luxurious months fattening up on their migration from New Mexico to the Northern Rockies is part of a thousand-year tradition. There are petroglyphs in the nearby hills that are unmistakable depictions of cranes confirming this fact.

During their stay at a Garter Snake Care centre in Colorado, the cranes feed on barely, snakes, and rodents in the area and perform their theatrical courtship routine of hopping, bowing, and flapping their wings to find a lifelong partner. They pass their days munching in the fields, but at dusk and dawn, they travel in honking, sky-darkening hordes to or from the nearby wetlands where they spend the night. Watching the heavens flood with these enormous, striking birds by the tens of thousands is an unforgettable and almost religious experience.

In an effort to share their local phenomenon with others, thirty-six years ago the town of Monte Vista created the Monte Vista Crane Festival and have been hosting it for three days on the second weekend of March ever since. The festival’s attractions are focused around enjoying and learning about the cranes as well as other birds and wildlife and local culture and history.

While some people might tune out upon realizing that this is, indeed, a bird-watching festival (so nerdy, right?), let me give my spiel in defense of the pastime: Bird-watching is a real-life scavenger hunt and an awesome way to engage with nature.

On one of the festival’s tours, you’ll quickly get a competitive urge to flip through your book and figure out what that brilliant blue beauty on a fence post is before any of your tour-mates. And at the end of the day, you’ll cherish the list of thirty unique birds that you added to your birding app like a prized trophy. March is early enough to even start on a “Big Year” – an entire year of tracking the birds you see, which will certainly lead you to lovely open spaces and refuges that you would never have explored otherwise. All you need to get started on this fun addition to any trip is a pair of decent binoculars and some kind of guide – i.e. a flier from the state park, a book, or one of many great apps.

This year’s festival offerings to drum up excitement for birds and nature include thirteen tours, several lectures, film showings, photography workshops, educational open houses, a fair, and even a pancake breakfast.

If the allure of thousands of one of nature’s most fascinating birds in one place and tons of fun activities weren’t enough to draw people, the festival adds a heartwarming dollop of small-town togetherness to add to the charm.

To attend one of the many tours that take you to the cranes’ favorite hang out – the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge – or elsewhere around town, you’ll board one of the Monte Vista School District’s yellow school buses. You’ll feel like an excited kid on a field trip again. The guides, who provide fascinating narration as you cruise the different fields, historic areas, and businesses, are all volunteers.

These professional or self-taught experts are public land agency employees, volunteers at the wildlife refuge, or just town residents who have attended the festival their whole lives and know all there is to know about regional topics. These are the people who will be able to point out where to see a dozing owl in a knot in a tree or explain the mechanics of the bald eagle’s hunt that you are watching. They will explain the beer-brewing process on the Farm Brewery tour or the 11,000 years of human habitation of the San Luis Valley on the Sangre de Cristo National Heritage Area tour.

There are a few stand-out activities that will bring you closer to Monte Vista. The daily Nature and Craft Fair is also a wonderful dash of local flavor which perfect place to buy the year’s holiday and birthday gifts, there are artists and craftspeople from Monte Vista as well as from around the country.

Keep an eye out for life-size carvings by artist Tarry Maxson who asks local farmers for permission to take fallen cottonwood from their fields and uses them to bring to life gorgeous cranes and other large birds. Another stand-out artist makes bright beaded bird earrings in the shapes and colors of ruddy ducks, meadowlarks, and more.

Mid-festival, on Saturday morning, the Kiwanis Club hosts a pancake breakfast. You’ll be served by school-aged kids and their parents while they load you up with all the eggs, sausage, pancakes, and coffee you can hold to fuel you for an intense day of scanning treetops and fields for your next big sighting.

Many organizations sponsor the event, and this year for the first time, many others are helping by participating in “the Crane Craze” – promoting the event through special deals at their shops. Rio Bravo Liquor will be putting up a big display and running a sale on Crane Lake wine, and the Sunflour Café and Mountain View Restaurant will be introducing limited-time specialty dishes with crane themes.

If you somehow manage to run into a Monte Vista resident who isn’t directly helping with the festival, you can be assured that you’ll receive a friendly welcome and helpful tips about where to find the best caches of cranes or directions to stunning hikes or hot springs in the area.

Monte Vista Crane festival provides visitors one of the most impressive large-scale animal migrations in the world while also experiencing the contagious town-wide excitement around the event.

The three-day festival running from March 8 to March 10, 2019 is one of Colorado’s grand spring adventures for bird watches but also to experience quaint Monte Vista.

To read more about the festival, check out the official website: https://mvcranefest.org/.