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Monte Vista Festival is for the Birds

Article by Lynda La Rocca

Wildlife – March 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

THIS IS ONE FESTIVAL that really is for the birds. Monte Vista’s 16th Annual Crane Festival, March 12-14, celebrates the return of more than 13,000 greater sandhill cranes to the San Luis Valley, and offers the possibility of sighting one of North America’s rarest birds — the whooping crane.

The Crane Festival is not just about cranes. The eclectic events schedule includes workshops on: grizzly bears that may still inhabit Colorado’s San Juan mountains; ancient rock art in the San Luis Valley; wildlife medicine; Colorado songbirds; raptor identification; and the Valley’s duck and goose populations. There are also excursions to potato-processing plants which handle tons of Valley-grown spuds, an indoor arts and crafts fair, pancake breakfasts, daily bus tours of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, and a special tour of restricted areas of the nearby Alamosa NWR.

But the cranes are certainly the festival highlight. Twice each year, the San Luis Valley comes alive with the low-pitched “ka-roooo, ka-roooo” of greater sandhill cranes migrating between their wintering grounds in New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and breeding grounds in Idaho’s Grays Lake NWR. The sandhills, four-foot-tall birds with a five-foot wingspan, gray plumage, and a bright red forehead patch, generally spend about six weeks in the valley each spring and fall, using the area as an avian pit stop along their migration route.

Accompanying this flock are the remnants of two separate attempts to create a second, self-sustaining, wild population of whooping cranes in the Rocky Mountain region.

A call to festival organizers assured me that five adult “whoopers” remained with this sandhill flock.

That number seemed a bit high, so I checked with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, which re- ported that only two are left.

One is the last survivor of the “foster parent” project of the 1980s, in which whooping crane eggs were placed into sandhill nests in Idaho with the hope that the sandhills would hatch, accept, and raise the whooper chicks. They obligingly did just that, teaching their foster “children” how to survive in the wild, and when and where to migrate.

But the sandhills couldn’t teach the whoopers to breed successfully. Imprinted on their sandhill parents, the befuddled whoopers tried to mate with other sandhills. From a high of thirty-three birds in 1985, this population has slowly dwindled to one.

The second whooper is one of four that followed an ultralight plane from Idaho to New Mexico in 1997. Biologist-pilot Kent Clegg’s goal was to teach these captive-reared whoopers the migration route they would normally learn in the wild from their parents.

While spotting two lone whoopers among thousands of sandhills might sound a lot like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack, it’s actually not that difficult. Over the past decade, my husband Steve and I have logged regular sightings of these magnificent birds. The whooper, whose height of five feet makes it the tallest bird in North America, stands out amid the sea of silver sandhills due to its size, seven-foot wingspan, and snowy white plumage.

Festival bus tours of the Monte Vista NWR, where most of the cranes congregate, make sightings even easier by taking visitors to whooper viewing locations.

With the worldwide population of captive and wild whoopers at about 370 (up from only 15 birds in 1942), it’s truly a privilege to get a glimpse of this bird right here in Colorado.

Another thrill is viewing the courtship display of the sandhills, during which the birds bow, bob, stretch, and leap into the air in a synchronized “dance” that includes using their bills to toss sticks and grass about. In addition to the cranes, more than 160 bird species may be sighted in the area during the spring season.

Most Crane Festival events are free, but because bus tours fill up quickly, reservations are required. Reservations and advance ticket purchase are also required for events that include meals.

THE CRANE FESTIVAL’S popularity has exploded since its humble beginnings in the mid-1980s (when Steve and I spent our honeymoon attending its events). Some 7,500-8,500 people are expected this year, so overnight accommodations are at a premium. I’d advise out-of-town visitors to book their rooms as quickly as possible.

For Crane Festival event reservations, brochures (which include a lodging list) and additional information, contact: Monte Vista Crane Committee, P.O. Box 585, Monte Vista, CO 81144 (719-852-3552).