Hey, Spike! revisits cranes at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge
March 11, 2017
It was 40 years ago, down in the San Luis Valley, over by Monte Vista, your intrepid scribe went out into the grain stubblefields to take photos of cranes — greater sandhills and whooping.
This weekend marks the 34th annual Monte Vista Crane Festival, which highlights the long-legged birds' biannual migrations and their spring stay at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, not far from the Rio Grande.
Between tours at the refuge and seminars, along with community events, the festival draws a few thousand birdlovers — children, too — to the wide-open valley floor, surrounded by the San Juan mountains to the west, and the Sangre de Cristos to the east.
"An estimated 20,000 greater sandhill cranes migrate through the San Luis Valley each year — spring and fall," said Dr. Tim Armstrong, a biology and earth sciences professor at nearby Adams State University. "We have fewer sandhill cranes migrating through than the Nebraska population (estimated at 650,000 on the North Platte River), but we would argue that our background scenery is more spectacular."
He's right, it is.
While migratory birds have flown the skies of the valley for eons, four decades ago it was the appearance of North America's tallest bird, the whooping crane, adding to the excitement.
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Nearly extinct back then, the whoopers' numbers were about 72 in 1977, when waterfowl experts began hatching the birds' eggs and "embedding" those hatchlings with the smaller greater sandhills, giving the adoptees improved chances at increasing the flock.
Today, the wild whooping cranes number about 220, considerably higher than an estimated 16 in 1942. Their numbers were never large anyway, with an expert guessing in 1860 there were only 1,400 whoopers. Presently, things are better, but there are only 400 — wild and captive.
Spike!'s reporting assignment for the daily Valley Courier in Alamosa back then, after his stint at the Salida Mountain Mail, made very visible the size differences and colors between the "parents" and their adopted "juveniles." The whooper kids stood much taller, more colorful than the dove-gray sandhills.
Adult whooping cranes stand 5-feet tall and spread those gigantic wings 7 feet tip-to-tip; greater sandhills run about two-thirds that size.
Whoopers have red-and-black heads with long, pointed beaks. Their snow-white body feathers are accented by jet-black wing tips — visible only when the wings are extended. During the fall, juveniles have rusty brown plumage with some white adult feathers just beginning to appear.
With their limited numbers, it would be a rare sighting today to spot a whooper in Monte Vista, but you never know. It was the managed whoopers joining the sandhills that led to widespread media coverage, and the resulting festival.
"It is somewhat common every year to see one or two white cranes, but more than likely it is a leucistic (lacking pigment) sandhill crane," explained Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge Manager Suzanne Beauchaine. She also oversees another by Alamosa.
"The whooping crane foster program in the Rocky Mountains ended in the late 1990s and was moved to the Midwest," said the professor, who also serves as president of the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges.
Spike! and wife Mary E. Staby, a black and white film photographer who handcolors her works, drove to the refuge Tuesday morning, where we were the only humans. Arriving a few minutes after 9 a.m., we made two looping tours.
The cranes are most active early and late in the day. They roost in shallow water overnight and fly off to forage in the early morning. They spend their day feeding and loafing in the fields, then return in the evenings, according to Tim.
The Rocky Mountain Sandhills' migratory pattern runs from the Basque del Apache National Refuge in south central New Mexico up to Idaho. The birds are known to range from Padre Island in Texas all the way up to Canada, Alaska and even to Siberia.
For more info, go to MVCraneFest.org, SLVRefuges.org or Learner.org/jnorth/tm/crane/USFWSRoad.html.
Miles F. Porter IV, nicknamed "Spike," has been a Coloradan since 1949, is an Army veteran, former hardrock miner, graduate of Adams State College and editor of the Mountain Mail's Discover the Heart of Colorado magazine. An award-winning investigative reporter, he and wife Mary E. Staby owned newspapers in Summit County for 20 years. Email your social info to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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