Wild Colorado: Sandhill cranes make their way north | SummitDaily.com

Wild Colorado: Sandhill cranes make their way north

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Special to the DailyCrane-viewing opportunities begin just before sunrise at the refuge, when the birds are roosting. They sleep standing up in shallow waters to stay safe from predators. Once the sun is up, the cranes move to the barley fields to feed.

Those looking for a springtime Colorado field trip might consider a drive to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge this week to view the annual northward migration of thousands of greater sandhill cranes.

Each spring, Colorado’s San Luis Valley serves as a stopover for sandhill cranes, as they journey from the Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to their summer breeding and nesting grounds in the greater Yellowstone area. The valley hosts as many as 20,000 of the cranes during the peak of spring migration.

“There are still a lot of cranes in the San Luis Valley,” Monte Vista Refuge manager Floyd Truetken said. “This is probably the last really good weekend to see them, since they would be leaving next week and the week after.”

The birds arrive in early March and depart by mid-April. The federal government allows farmers to grow barley and alfalfa inside the Monte Vista Refuge. The farmers get to keep the alfalfa, but the barley is reserved specifically for the cranes.

“You can drive down the valley and find cranes in just about any field,” said Linda Archuleta of the Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce. “We have thousands of them here right now, and they’re very beautiful and interesting to watch. When they take off and spread their wings, they create a real show.”

Adult sandhill cranes stand about 34-38 inches tall, and their wingspans approach seven feet. The long-legged, long-necked birds have gray-brown bodies and featherless red foreheads. They each weigh about nine pounds.

Summit County resident Patrick O’Sullivan made a visit to Monte Vista Refuge to view the sandhill cranes during a recent road trip to Wolf Creek.

“It’s pretty cool,” O’Sullivan said. “We stepped outside of the visitor center, and about 80 of them flew overhead. Then there were a thousand in one field and 500 in another field. We just scratched the surface, but I would go down there specifically just to see them.”

Crane-viewing opportunities begin just before sunrise at the refuge, when the birds are roosting. They sleep standing up in shallow waters to stay safe from predators. Once the sun is up, the cranes move to the barley fields for a “feeding frenzy,” Truetken said. The barley serves as an important source of carbohydrates to fuel the migration, but for protein, the birds head to adjacent hay meadows and shallow marshes during the middle of the day to search for snakes, mice, insects, worms and other critters.

“Anything they can swallow, they eat,” Truetken said.

Cranes return to the barley fields in the afternoon for one final feeding session before roosting again.

“They’re very predictable – they don’t change their patterns from day to day. They’re a very easy bird to view and photograph,” Truetken said.

Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge has a four-mile loop road featuring a number of observation spots and interpretive signs. Visitors can watch the birds feed and conduct their courtship dances. Truetken recommends bringing a pair of binoculars, not only to maximize the crane-viewing experience, but also to best see elk, deer, bald eagles and pronghorn that inhabit the refuge.

The sandhill crane migration is a feast for the ears as well as the eyes. The birds have several distinct twittering calls for feeding, loafing, courtship and keeping track of one another.

“They’re a very talkative bird. They almost constantly make noise,” Truetken said.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife has listed the sandhill crane as a species of special concern. Human settlement has made much of the bird’s habitat unsuitable for nesting and chick-rearing, with human disturbance sometimes causing adults to abandon their young.

The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, established in 1953 by the Migratory Bird Conservation Commission, provides lasting protection to wetlands critical to the sandhill cranes’ survival. The refuge is about three-and-a-half hours south of Summit County by car.

Julie Sutor can be reached at (970) 668-4630 or jsutor@summitdaily.com.

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