2024 Crane Fest Special Tours: Sneak Peek

We are less than a month away from the launch of ticket sales (January 3, 2024) for the 41st annual Monte Vista Crane Festival and we are getting pretty excited! This year we will be using a new ticketing platform that allows for lots of community engagement via a mobile app (download now if you're so inclined), and we have a wonderful lineup of great speakers, events and special tours. Today, we want to give you a sneak peek at those tours and hopefully get you excited to log on first thing on January 3rd to purchase tickets! Read on to see what we have in store.

blanca wetlands

BLM Blanca Wetlands: Tour the Blanca Wildlife Habitat Area located southwest of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.

Blanca Wetlands is closed to the public from Feb 15 to July 15 to protect nesting waterfowl, shorebirds, and other wildlife, so this is a special access tour. The tour hosts will guide you to the accessible ponds for wildlife viewing. We will spend approximately two hours at the wetlands with return travel to the Ski Hi Complex around 2:00 p.m. Restrooms will be available on site. Be sure to bring water, hiking boots, a lunch or snacks, and personal items such as binoculars and camera. Dress for late winter/early spring conditions.  For more information please see the website at: https://www.blm.gov/visit/blanca-wetlands.

The wetlands are about a 45 minute to one hour drive from Monte Vista.  The wetlands cover almost 10,000 acres and contain about two hundred shallow basins holding wet meadows, salt flats, marshes and freshwater ponds. Wetland vegetation in the playas includes soft stem bulrush, cattail, alkaline bulrush, spike rush, sago pondweed, longleaf pondweed and watermilfoil. About 1,200 acres are watered each year, while other parts are deliberately allowed to dry up.

Blanca Wetlands is managed by the San Luis Valley BLM Field Office, located in Monte Vista. The wetlands are one of the most important areas for birds in Colorado because they provide habitat for migrating waterfowl, water birds and shorebirds. It hosts thirteen threatened, endangered and sensitive species. The snowy plover and white-faced ibis have been documented as nesting here during the breeding season. Examples of other Species of Management Priority include American bittern, American avocet, common yellowthroat, eared grebe, and Forster's tern.  Although sandhill cranes may be spotted at Blanca Wetlands during the tour, they are considered uncommon and observing more than a few here is a rarity. Shorebirds such as gulls, sandpipers and waterbirds such as pelicans and snowy egret occur here during summer, as well as 158 other species. The wetlands are also a duck breeding concentration area, with mallards by far the most common, but also good numbers of pintail and green-winged teal. The wetlands are important for conserving amphibians in the San Luis Valley. There is a healthy population of Great Plains toads as well as the plains spadefoot toad, western chorus frog, leopard frog and tiger salamander. There are several species of bats that utilize the wetlands. The least chipmunk is common in the greasewood parks that adjoin the wetlands and the Ord's kangaroo rat lives in the sand dunes. Muskrats and coyotes are present, and mule deer and elk are often seen in the wetland area.

During the Crane Festival Tour the most common species encountered will likely include various species of waterfowl, winter raptors such as rough-legged and red-tailed hawks, and resident songbirds. Keep your eyes out for wintering bald eagles, resident golden eagles, an early killdeer or red-winged blackbirds, and perhaps a prairie falcon on the wing. We may also see mule deer or elk, coyotes, or other small mammals. Look for their tracks while hiking.

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Special Tour: Home Lake State Wildlife Area Guided Birding Tour 

Home Lake Guided Birding Tour: Join local ornithologist and author John Rawinski for a guided birding tour around Home Lake, a local hot spot for waterfowl, shorebirds and bald eagles.

John will share his extensive knowledge of local birds and where to find them. This tour is suitable for beginner to advanced birders and will involve walking for less than a mile, on level ground.

Meet at the Monte Vista Middle School Parking lot opposite Home Lake at 10:30 a.m., bring binoculars and dress for the weather! Spotting scopes, provided by Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges, may be available for closer viewing on the lake.

Home Lake is a 64 acre State Wildlife Area (SWA) managed by the Colorado Parks and Wildlife.  A hunting/fishing license or SWA pass is not required to access this property.

Home Lake is located approximately 1 ½ miles east of the Ski Hi Complex on Sherman Avenue. We will meet our tour host on-site and spend 1 ½ hours birding the lake and immediate vicinity. Be sure to bring water, hiking boots, a lunch or snacks, and personal items such as binoculars and camera. Dress in layers for late winter/early spring conditions.

Additional information and maps regarding Home Lake SWA can be found at the following links:



Trinchera Ranch Conservation Tour and Lunch

Join staff of the Trinchera Ranch for a half-day tour and lunch and learn about the Ranch’s conservation work including adaptive forestry, rangeland, riparian, stream, wildlife and fisheries management and be inspired to be part of the change. Staff will do a conservation overview at the lodge and participants will enjoy a chef prepared lunch and then spend about 2 hours exploring the conservation work.  The tour of conservation work will be in 4WD Trinchera Ranch vehicles and depend on weather and road conditions.  Wear sturdy walking shoes, dress for late winter/early spring conditions and bring water and binoculars.

About Trinchera Ranch

With more than 172,000 acres in Southern Colorado’s rugged Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Trinchera Ranch stewards large, undeveloped landscapes for wildlife habitat and the enjoyment of future generations.   Our managers specialize in forestry and ecology as we seek new ways to manage lands affected by a variety of everchanging ecological conditions. We employ a variety of best management practices that help us adaptively work to offset disturbance and promote long-term sustainable landscapes. We work to manage each ecological steppe that is present on the Ranch to ensure quality outcomes for the wildlife they support.

Trinchera partners with local, regional, and national conservation groups and researchers to offer educational opportunities to students of all ages. From educational tours of the ranch, to providing enriching field experiences for interns, we seek to inspire and train the next generation of scientists to protect western landscapes.  Our Conservation goals support a conservation ethos, that provides access to a living classroom, where conservations of all levels feel inspired.

BLM Penitente Canyon Recreation Area Tour

Explore the rock walls and pinnacles of Penitente Canyon Recreation Area, which is managed by the San Luis Valley Field Office, located in Monte Vista.  Penitente Canyon harbors nearly 300 world-class climbing routes that test the abilities and endurance of technical rock climbers some of whom may be present during our visit.  The rocks in Penitente Canyon are remnants of up to 18 volcanic eruptions that took place in the San Juan Volcanic Field between 20 and 30 million years ago. The largest of these eruptions spewed 1,000 cubic miles of ash 27.8 million years ago, creating a huge underground chamber. Rocks overlying the chamber collapsed to create the La Garita Caldera.

Image courtesy visitriograndecounty.com
Image courtesy visitriograndecounty.com

There is an extensive trail system at Penitente that offers excellent hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding. The trails wander through juniper, pinion, and ponderosa pine forest where resident wildlife species associated with these woodland habitat types may be present for viewing during our tour. Keep your eyes open for unique species such as canyon wrens and prairie falcons. The expansive view of the San Luis Valley and Sangre de Cristo range to the east is sure to be awe-inspiring. For an extended stay, a developed campground and primitive camping are both available.

Penitente Canyon has a unique history as a spiritual haven for a Spanish religious group long ago. In the more recent past, the "Virgin de Guadalupe" was painted onto one of the canyon walls. In addition, the Old Spanish National Historic Trail, formerly a 19th century Mexican trade route, passes by this area. Pictographs made by Ute, Jicarilla Apache, and Puebloans are visible in the area.

We will arrive at the parking lot at the end of Road 5201 around 10:45 to 11:00 a.m. and spend around 3 hours there. Restrooms will be available on site. Be sure to bring water, hiking boots, a lunch or snacks, and personal items such as binoculars and camera. Dress for late winter/early spring conditions.  For more information please see the website at: https://www.blm.gov/visit/penitente-canyon.

MVNWR Spring Creek Archeological Site Tour

Trip leader: Jen Kolsie, Archaeologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

We will visit the Spring Creek Site, located on the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge (weather permitting). This site is usually closed to the public and contains hundreds of cultural artifacts going back more than 10,000 years. Artifacts that span from the Paleoindians (the first well-documented humans in North America), all the way to a historic homestead on the site have been discovered. Bones of extinct Pleistocene Megafauna (the Ice Age giants) such as Mammoths, Camels, Horses, and Bison have also been found. Before heading into the field a short lecture on the site will be give in a small conference room at Ski Hi.

Hawks Aloft Raptor Tour

Experts from Hawks Aloft will lead a bus tour to view and learn about local raptors. You might see a red-tailed hawk on a power pole, a northern harrier gliding across the field, or a rough-legged hawk hunting. You may also see bald eagles, peregrine falcons, prairie falcons, rough-legged hawks,  and kestrels in the winter. There will be the opportunity to stop and view raptors through spotting scopes. Bring your binoculars, and snacks, and dress warmly for spring weather.