The sandhill cranes have officially arrived in Colorado's San Luis Valley on their annual migration north.
On Feb. 10, birder Ray Esparza snapped a photo of 10 sandhill cranes silhouetted against a sunflower-yellow and blue sky in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Later that day, Monte Vista resident Laura Conchelos heard cranes bugling above her house.
By the second week of March, some 20,000 Sandhill Cranes will have congregated in the valley, most of them in the wildlife refuge. They'll be just in time for the 35th Annual Monte Vista Crane Festival scheduled March 9 - 11.
Sandhill cranes have migrated through the valley for thousands of years. A 3,000-year-old petroglyph discovered on the valley's west side depicts what appears to be a crane. In Florida, a 2.5 million-year-old sandhill crane fossil was discovered. And in Nebraska, a 10 million-year-old fossil of a closely related crane species was unearthed.
The crane festival originated to celebrate whooping cranes in the valley, thanks to a federal government program focused on rebuilding the birds' population. But these days, sandhill cranes are the well-deserved stars of the show.
They flock by the thousands into the valley, amassing in fields and wetlands. Refuge staff will be posting the cranes' overnight roosting locations on the festival's website and Facebook page to help guide visitors to the best viewing spots.
This year's festival will feature tours to see cranes and birds of prey, photography workshops, a craft and nature fair highlighting local artists and bird movies and wildlife talks in Monte Vista's homey, old-time theater.
Local woodcarver Tarry Maxson will be selling his hand-carved, painted birds made from downed trees at nearby farms. Other artists will be selling everything from wine glasses etched with Sandhill Cranes figures to wildlife-inspired jewelry, photography, paintings, clothing and crocheted items.
Local valley businesses have also caught the "crane craze."
Three Guys Farms restaurant in the Monte Villa Pub is serving a special craft cocktail dubbed the "Crane-hattan," and Haefeli's Honey is selling crane-decorated coffee mugs in their Del Norte store. Be sure to ask wherever you go if the business is doing something fun to celebrate the valley's returning winged visitors.
For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, visit mvcranefest.org or follow the festival's Facebook page. Registration deadline is March 7. There are still openings for the sandhill crane sunrise and sunset tours.