This past weekend, Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in the San Luis Valley played host to more than 20,000 visitors. However, most of those visitors weren’t aware that this year marked the 33rd annual Crane Festival despite being the festival’s star attraction.
The Sandhill Crane (Grus canadensis) is a magnificent grey bird standing about 47 inches high with white cheeks and a red forehead. Every year in spring and fall, thousands of Sandhill Cranes descend on the San Luis Valley during migration. The valley, with its patchwork of agricultural fields and wetlands, is an ideal “staging area” for the cranes to rest and bulk up for their trek north to nesting grounds in the northern U.S. and Canada or south to wintering grounds in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico. The migration has been going on for at least 2,000 years going by a famous petroglyph inscribed in the rocks of the nearby San Juan mountains.
When I arrived at the refuge on Saturday, the air was filled with the resounding rattle of the cranes’ cries as they foraged in the fields for barley. Local farmers harvest only a portion of their crop and leave the rest for migratory birds per an agreement with refuge management. As well as ensuring a steady supply of food, this serves to keep the birds away from nearby farmers’ fields and prevent human-wildlife conflict. As I watched, wave after wave of cranes flew over my head to join the mass in front of me.
The spectacle would’ve been awe-inspiring enough, but it became even more impressive when a few thousand of the birds leapt into the air all at once to move a few yards further up the field. The roar of the birds was almost deafening and the air looked like it was rippling with the sheer amount of life in motion.
Once they were back on the ground, I watched the birds preen, feed, or “dance.” Like birds such as the Greater Prairie Chicken, American Woodcock, and other crane species, the Sandhill Crane puts on an elaborate courtship ritual to attract a mate. As part of this ritual, the cranes bow, flap their wings, and leap and twirl in the air like rhythmic gymnasts.
If successful in winning a mate with this strategy, the cranes will pair for life. They will then travel together to the breeding grounds where they will jointly construct a nest from sticks, aquatic grasses, and other plants. Usually the female will lay 2 eggs, which both parents will brood. Any chicks that hatch will be precocial, meaning they are mobile and able to feed themselves shortly after hatching.
For now though, the cranes will spend the next few weeks at the wildlife refuge eating and loafing in the shallow marshes alongside numerous ducks and other waterbirds. If you’re interested in seeing this amazing display, you’ll want to visit as soon as possible. The Crane Festival is scheduled each year for the peak of the migration and the birds are gone by mid-April.