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Article written by crane enthusiast and regular Festival of the Cranes presenter, Sandra Noll.

There is a season for all things and the sandhill crane’s wintering season in the Middle Rio Grande Valley is coming to a close. Although I will miss their elegant presence, their bugling calls and captivating family dynamics, I am heartened by their confidence that spring is coming and that nature will continue to provide the food and wetland resources they need for migration and a new breeding season.

As migration nears you will see cranes kettling – circling and rising on warm thermals. When they’re ready and find a good tailwind, they’ll be off! Photo by Erv Nichols

The migration journey is quite an incredible feat! Migration is a stressful time overall and many of these birds have a grueling 5,000 mile trip ahead of them! Cranes’ large wings enable them to rise on thermals and soar along thermal rivers using advantageous tailwinds. They can average speeds of 30 mph, or even 50 mph with a good tailwind! Utilizing thermals, cranes generally migrate in daylight hours at an altitude of 3,000-5,000 feet, averaging 300-500 miles each day!

Cranes preparing to leave Bosque del Apache and migrate back to their breeding grounds in the North. Photo by Sandra Noll

The vast majority of sandhill cranes that overwinter at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) and all along the Middle Rio Grande corridor are the subspecies “greater” sandhill crane of the Rocky Mountain Population (RMP). Cranes of the RMP migrate along the western side of the Rocky Mountains and nest in wetland areas of Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Colorado. Pairs of cranes, who stay together year-round, have great fidelity to both wintering and nesting areas.

Cranes spend their time in the Middle Rio Grande Valley stocking up on the hearty reserves they will need to survive harsh conditions on snow-covered nesting grounds in the North. Photo by Ted Thousand

Here, in their wintering grounds, we have seen them gathered in large flocks, maintaining pair and family bonds for the last several months. As they near their nesting grounds, however, the cranes will separate widely. They are highly territorial when nesting and will strongly defend against the intrusion of other cranes. Even their own colts (the young from last year’s nesting, who have been their focus for the past nine or ten months) will be driven off if they cling. Colts must then join bachelor groups until they reach sexual maturity and select their own mates around three to five years of age.

After leaving New Mexico, the RMP will stage in and around the Monte Vista NWR in southern Colorado, not far from Great Sand Dunes National Park.

Migratory routes often require adapting to higher altitudes. The RMP is able to cross 14,000 ft Colorado mountain passes! Photo by Erv Nichols

A staging area is a place where the cranes stop for three to four weeks to rest and feed, building up nutrients needed for reproduction and fat needed for sustenance. Their staging areas have been used for thousands of years and feature good food resources and open shallow water areas that provide safe nighttime roosts. Similar resources are sought for overnight stopovers throughout migration. The importance of wetlands in overwintering and nesting areas and for migratory stopovers cannot be overstated!

Cranes of the RMP feeding and staging on Monte Vista NWR with the spectacular Rocky Mountains in the background. Photo by Sandra Noll

Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges holds a crane festival at Monte Vista NWR each year in early March, providing opportunities to observe the RMP on their staging grounds, as well as tours to observe other birds and geologic and cultural sites.

Bosque del Apache also provides winter resources for fewer numbers of “lesser” sandhill cranes, a smaller subspecies that nests much further north in Canada, Alaska and Siberia. Most lesser sandhills follow the branch of the Central Flyway east of the Rocky Mountains and stage along the Platte River in central Nebraska.

A few of the nearly one million sandhill cranes that stage along the Platt River in central Nebraska. Photo by Sandra Noll

The lessers are far more numerous than the 22,000-23,000 greater sandhills of the RMP and their staging area hosts almost a million birds between late February and early April. It’s the largest migration of an animal of size in the continental US and well worth experiencing! Contrary to the intimate crane viewing opportunities at Bosque del Apache, however, one must book space in an observation blind to gain proximity to the masses of birds along the Platt River. Both Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary and The Crane Trust offer this experience.

And as long as I’m sharing information about other viewing experiences and festivals (of course, Bosque del Apache’s Festival of the Cranes is the best!), I’ll add one more. Next fall, as the seasons change once again, “our” RMP cranes will begin to gather for their return trip to the Rio Grande Valley and Bosque del Apache. On Labor Day weekend, the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition (CCCC) hosts the Yampa Valley Crane Festival in Steamboat Springs, CO to celebrate that gathering. The CCCC also maintains a wonderful “crane cam” on their nesting cranes; film highlights can be found on their website.

So you see, just because they are preparing to leave us for now does not necessarily mean that you have to wait until next fall to behold the magnificent sandhill cranes once again. As the seasons change, perhaps you will also consider migrating to observe them in one of their other native habitats along their journey.

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