In February, Sandhill Cranes, the San Luis Valley’s oldest visitors, begin their annual migration north from their wintering grounds on and around Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. They congregate in large numbers on the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to take advantage of the open water the refuge provides for roosting and grain for food. They return to the San Luis Valley during the fall on their way back to New Mexico.
For millions of years, the Sandhills have been spending their “Spring Break” in Colorado’s Valley of the Cranes. While in the San Luis Valley the cranes perform their courtship dance — leaping and bowing while raising and lowering their wings, and making a croaking sound to one another. Once a male and female bond they form a pair for life.
Greater Sandhill Cranes are about four feet tall with a six-foot wingspan. They weigh around 12 to 13 pounds and are uniformly gray except for a red patch of skin on their foreheads.
Similar-looking, but much smaller birds, are Lesser Sandhill Cranes. About 1,200 of them are part of the Rocky Mountain flock. Most Lesser Sandhill Cranes stay east of the Continental Divide in a flock of 500,000 that make a well-known migratory stop in the Platte River basin of Nebraska.
No one really knows what the early residents of southern Colorado thought about this majestic migration of cranes, but they were paying attention to it. High on a rocky cliff face in the San Juan Mountains on the edge of the valley is a well-protected, six-foot long petroglyph that is unmistakably a Sandhill Crane. So, as much as 2,000 years ago, humans were celebrating the return of these magnificent birds to the Valley of the Cranes.
The site was initially recorded in 1984 in the Rio Grande National Forest. Because of its significance, rarity and vulnerability to vandalism, the Rio Grande National Forest does not share the location of this site with the public. Read more about the petroglyph site…
Today, crane watchers come from far and wide to join the celebration at the Monte Vista Crane Festival held the second weekend in March. While the festival offers outstanding opportunities for celebrating and understanding cranes and other wildlife, the common denominator that brings visitors back year after year is the 20,000 or so greater Sandhill Cranes and a few thousand Lesser Sandhills.
Besides the cranes there are thousands of waterfowl, numerous wintering bald eagles and other raptors that highlight the wildlife viewing.