Crane descending into the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado
Photo by Arrow Meyers, 2022 Featured Artist for Friends of SLV NWR’s Crane Festival

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is one of the southernmost locations on the Central Flyway.  Before the sandhill cranes winter at our beautiful refuge, many of them stage in the San Luis Valley of Southern Colorado, home to our partners at Alamosa, Baca, and Monta Vista National Wildlife Refuges.  After the cranes leave here in February, they again stage in Colorado before they fly further north to their summer breeding grounds.  When “our” sandhill cranes arrive in the San Luis Valley, residents feel the same excitement very familiar to all of us.  Like we do, they “throw a party” to celebrate the cranes’ return. Many of us who love and care about the cranes partner to advocate for them, celebrate them, and educate the public about them.  The Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges is one of Friends of Bosque del Apache’s important partners, so we’ve invited them to share an article for this month’s news.

Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges prepare for Crane Festival

By Diane Underwood, Treasurer of The Friends of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuges

Mid-February is a quiet time in Colorado’s San Luis Valley. Resident winter birds in this high alpine valley are more intent on finding food than calling to one another. A blanket of snow across the valley floor muffles the sounds of people and their vehicles. So it’s always a bit of a surprise when the croaking bugling sounds of a flight of sandhill cranes come drifting down through the cool, crisp air.

It’s that time of year! The cranes are here!

During a six-week period from mid-February through March, a trickle of migrating sandhill cranes, leaving their wintering grounds at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas, will turn into a torrent with more than 20,000 cranes flying, feeding and roosting around the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Agricultural fields throughout the San Luis Valley provide abundant feeding opportunities for the migrating cranes. Playas, sloughs and ponds on the Monte Vista refuge offer security from predators at night.

Cranes flying over the San Luis Valley in Southern Colorado
Photo by Arrow Meyers, 2022 Featured Artist for Friends of SLV NWR’s Crane Festival

Crane viewing in the San Luis Valley is a truly unique experience. Human aficionados can never get enough of morning lift-offs when large noisy groups of cranes, obscured by mist and fog, take flight just as the sun rises over the Sangre de Cristo mountain range. Evening fly-ins are equally impressive as wave after wave of cranes, interspersed with massive numbers of geese and ducks, return to the refuge from all directions. Mid-day crane watching is just as entertaining when the cranes loaf in the fields and perform elegant dances with each other to strengthen pair bonding.

The sandhill crane migration reaches its peak in the San Luis Valley around the second week of March. That’s when the Monte Vista Crane Festival is held each year to celebrate the cranes’ return. This year’s Covid-modified festival is scheduled for March 11-13, 2022 and will feature limited in-person outdoor interactions as well as online presentations. We invite you to come celebrate the cranes with us! For more information about the Monte Vista Crane Festival please visit www.mvcranefest.org.

The Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges is one of the organizers of the Monte Vista Crane Festival. The group also hosts a Kids Crane Festival at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge every October when the cranes begin returning from summer breeding grounds in the Greater Yellowstone area. As with the spring migration, the San Luis Valley is an important autumn migration stop for the cranes.

The Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges is a 501(C)(3) nonprofit that supports and encourages appreciation of the unique ecosystems on the three national wildlife refuges within the San Luis Valley – Monte Vista, Alamosa and Baca. In addition to these two crane festivals, the Friends group schedules volunteer workdays on the refuges and supports the refuge staff. Community outreach includes an annual Friends and Neighbors picnic and visitor contact at the refuges.

The Friends recently secured a grant to improve sandhill crane viewing at Monte Vista. A parking lot expansion has already been completed, and future plans include a birding sanctuary under a grove of nearby cottonwoods, a picnic area, and a serene trail for watching the cranes, elk and other wildlife on the refuge.

For more information about the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges, please visit www.slvrefuges.org.