MONTE VISTA— Balmy but pleasant weather greeted the herds of artists, birdwatchers and Sandhill Crane enthusiasts who flocked to Monte Vista this past weekend for the 35th Annual Crane Festival. Attendees were welcomed with a plethora of events, educational talks and well organized business specials throughout the San Luis Valley from Alamosa to Del Norte. Sunrise and sunset Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge tours, offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday were often fully booked and the tours throughout the afternoons filled school buses provided by the Monte Vista School District.
The Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce coordinated the annual craft and nature fair at Ski-Hi, filling the building with informational booths from the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service, the Colorado State Forest Service and the Monte Vista Kiwanis Club as well as roughly 50 booths featuring nature artists, photographers, authors, craftsmen of all kinds, local businesses, churches and food vendors. Volunteers at the booth booked tours and offered directions to travelers on the best places to find crane-themed specialty products, drinks and meals.
The Colorado Farm Brewery outside Alamosa, which hosted festivities on Thursday evening, launched a beer using raw grains from local fields visited by Sandhill Cranes on their migratory path. Other businesses with “Crane Craze” specials were Three Guys Pub, Sunflour Café, Baldo’s Restaurant, Mountain View Restaurant, Java Dave’s, Monte Vista Pizza Hut, Dos Rios and even in Del Norte special products could be found at the Mystic Biscuit, Three Barrel Brewery and Haefeli’s Honey.
Friday night at the Vali Theater winners of the second annual Bill Metz Elementary Crane Festival Coloring Contest were announced. Awards were handed out for first, second and third place coloring entries in first through fifth grades and entries were judged by volunteers from the Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce and once again brightened the walls of the theater. All of the winners took photos with a big celebrity on Friday night, Honker the Blue Goose, mascot for the National Wildlife Refuges. Winners also received prizes including a Passport book to collect stamps and information at all of the National Wildlife Refuges, a coloring book and an informational book about local birds. First place winners received a pair of binoculars donated by Vortex Optics and Wingspan Optics. In addition to the generous donations, other sponsors of the coloring contest were the US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Wildlife Refuge system. Crane Festival organizer Jenny Nehring thanked the volunteers who helped coordinate the contest: Helena Alvarez, assistant manager of the Alamosa and Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuges, Sharon Vaughn, project manager of the three SLV Wildlife Refuges and Jenny Noonan, local teacher at Marsh School and artist. The winners were:
First grade: Addison E. –Mrs. Keeling’s class
Second grade: Syrenna K.-Ms. Stahle’s class
Third grade: Destiny P. –Ms. Paulson’s class
Fourth grade: Mia G. –Mrs. Torres’ class
Fifth grade: Liana-Mr. VanWilligen’s class
First grade: Jaylani C. –Mr. Hinds’ class
Second grade: McKinnon D. –Ms. Stahle’s class
Third grade: Haylie- Ms. Beckner’s class
Fourth grade: Alfonso M. - Mrs. Torres’ class
Fifth grade: Anahi T. - Mrs. Torres’ class
First grade: Dominic G. –Mrs. Grasmick’s class
Second grade: Mason M. –Mrs. Montoya’s class
Third grade: Genesis-Ms. Haga’s class
Fourth grade: Addison M. - Mrs. Garcia’s class
Fifth grade: Xzavier G. –Mrs. Torres’ class
Following the coloring contest awards, attendees were treated to the Disneynature documentary “Wings of Life.” The movie, directed by Louie Schwartzberg, used stunning time-lapse, high-speed and micro- filmmaking techniques to take a beautiful and intricate look at the life of pollinators including bats, butterflies, bees and hummingbirds from the perspective of several flowers, voiced by Meryl Streep, which co-exist with pollinators or have evolved to utilize their individual characteristics. The film gently pointed out how dependent agriculture and human existence is on these pollinators and flowers but instead of taking a defeatist perspective on their declining populations due to climate change, pesticides and other factors, ended with a positive look on the small steps individuals of all ages, urban or rural, can take to help support the pollinators.
The Vali Theater was again packed for Saturday night, this year featuring two keynote speakers from the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Dave Olson and Dan Collins, who spoke about their studies and conservation efforts on two species of birds and their interdependence with the San Luis Valley.
Dave Olson, who has been with the service for 27 years, spoke about his recent research projects with the Cinnamon Teal duck, “A Seasoning of Cinnamon in the SLV.” Olson, much to the amusement of the crowd, explained a group of Cinnamon Teal are called a seasoning, hence the title of his address. Olson explained the Cinnamon Teal is one of the least researched waterfowl in North America, with only 12,950 ducks banded in the 40 years before he began his research in 2012, compared to 1.1 million Blue-Winged Teal.
Due to the lack of research, the ducks had a documented survival rate of 53 percent with a variation of 48 percent, which Olson explained should be less than 20 for the research to be considered valid. In order to fix these statistics, Olson embarked on a research project banding 1,244 Cinnamon Teal per year between 2012 and 2017 over 20 sites including in the San Luis Valley. Olson actually ended up banding 7,976 of the ducks.
The banding program yielded 376 recoveries from hunters as far away as Nicaragua. Currently, Olson stated he now has much better data to bring up their survival rate to 76 percent with only an 18 percent variance. Olson also discussed his distribution and demographic project, which put transmitters on the Cinnamon Teal to observe how they migrate. The Global System Mobile Communications Transmitters sit on the ducks’ backs, weighing about 14 grams, and use cell phone towers to track the animals; the transmitters dump data whenever an animal is near a tower instead of the older method of GPS antenna tracking, although they use the latter method if the first fails. Olson stated he will have two million data points a year for the next three years to help study where the waterfowl travel and how they behave. He stated the data isn’t just vital to tracking the duck populations for hunters but also helps wildlife refuges understand how the animals use the habitat for future planning.
When asked about the role of hunters, Olson explained hunters who find a banded duck contact the website or phone number on the band to report the location where they harvested it, which is a vital part of the research data. He also stated hunters mail back the transmitters and will get a dummy transmitter as a souvenir in return, “Hunters love bling,” Olson joked. The audience enjoyed Olson’s maps of where the ducks travelled after stopping in the San Luis Valley Wetlands for breeding, as well as the maps of their daily distances travelled in the summertime. Olson thanked the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges’ staff for their participation and emphasized how important the habitats the refuges provide are to not only the Cinnamon Teal but lots of other species as well.
Dan Collins, who also has over 20 years with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, talked about the Sandhill Cranes, and his recent research on the Rocky Mountain Population (RMP) and the Lower Colorado River Valley Population (LCRVP). The purpose of Collins’ research was to identify, classify, rank and catalog the habitats of the cranes in order to establish a management plan to maintain and enhance these habitats. Collins emphasized the importance of this management by citing an example of the RMP cranes in New Mexico. The cranes had been utilizing the Hatch Chile fields for foraging and their defecation and damage to the chilies had created a problem with local farmers. The wildlife service had to ensure there was adequate forage, in this case corn, on nearby public lands to help mitigate that issue.
Collins explained how he caught close to 500 cranes and outfitted them with GPS trackers on their legs, joking to Olson “this wasn’t duck trapping” before showing a video of using a rocket net to trap cranes under it, before he places them in safe burlap bags to calm them while he puts the tracker on. “Hopefully they just get up and move on, but I’ve been chased after putting a tracker on before.” The transmitters provide Collins with six data points a day, giving Collins about 215,000 data points to work with. He’s concluded the cranes can spend about two months in the fall and spring in the San Luis Valley area before they move south in the winter and north in the summer.
Some outliers have developed in the data including a small group of cranes who spent winters in Delta, Colo. and Jensen, Utah, far north of what they are expected to do in the winter, which Collins explained could likely be due to milder winters because of climate change and/or the corn in the area still providing enough forage for the birds. The trackers also provided Collins with a means of breaking down what percentage of the time in an area the birds spend on public and private lands and possibly what they’re doing. He explained this data is vital to ensure the refuges and the wildlife service can work with private parties to keep forage on the ground if necessary. Collins noted when asked that cattle ranchers largely find the cranes beneficial or at least don’t mind having them around, whereas farmers just want them out of the fields.
Collins also explained the recruitment percentage (number of birds who successfully reproduce and get the chick to the wintering grounds) is about eight percent for the RMP but only four percent for the LCRVP, possibly lower due to hunting near Idaho. When asked if hunters actually intentionally hunt cranes, Collins relayed to the shock and chagrin of the crowd that hunters refer to them as “the rib eye of the sky.” Collins also discussed the life patterns of the cranes, being kicked out of the family unit at about one year, usually about when they’re in the San Luis Valley, to travelling on their own. He explained the “teenage” cranes will spend another two years or so travelling near their parents previous grounds but not directly with them, before reaching maturity and finding mates at between three and five years old.
Another attendee asked about the impact of wind farms on the birds, having heard negative things about them killing birds. Collins answered overall for most bird populations, direct fatalities with running into windmills will only happen in bad weather. “Fragmentation and degradation of the landscape is more of a problem to birds than direct fatalities.”
Organizer Jenny Nehring also took time on Saturday night to thank not only the crane enthusiasts who support the festival and help the event grow every year, but also the volunteers whose tireless work throughout the year and especially through the weekend make the Crane Festival possible. Nehring also thanked the sponsors whose donations keep the festival functioning and allows them to keep expanding the tours, films, talks and other festival events each year. Included in Nehring’s thanks were The Crane Festival Committee, The Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce, The City of Monte Vista, the Friends of the San Luis Valley National Wildlife Refuges, the Rio Grande County Tourism Board, Dean Lee, Suzanne Beauchaine, Helena Alvarez, Deb Callahan, Ruthanne Johnson, Tim Armstrong, Jerry Apker, Rob Vance, Jaime Hurtado, Carolyn Gonzales, Susan Ennis, and “My friends and family who I rope into helping me with this stuff.”
Throughout the event, Nehring encouraged the hundreds of visitors to try local restaurants, shop at the local retail businesses and to consider becoming sponsors for the 2019 festival.
Platinum Sponsors, who donated $250 or more included The Colorado Farm Brewery, Rio Grande Country Tourism, CT Compost Technologies, Coors, the Monte Vista Co-op, the Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Rio Grande Savings and Loan, the Sandhill Inn and Suites, Troy Plane’s State Farm Agency and Vortex Optics. Gold Sponsors, donors of $150, were China Garden, Jack’s Market Pharmacy, The Humane Society Prairie Dog Coalition, San Luis Valley Federal Bank, Skyline Hospitality, Sunflour Café, Wilbur Ellis and Wingspan Optics. Silver Sponsors who donated $100 included Absolute Shine Autobody and Paint, Broken Arrow Realty, the Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, the Nazarene Thrift Store, Mountain View Restaurant and Pizza Hut. Bronze sponsors included Dairy Queen, Fernandez Taqueria and Laundry, J&B Tax Accountants, the Leavitt Group and the Monte Vista Kiwanis. Individual sponsors included Dr. David Hinkley, O.D., and Walter S. Fullwood, C.P.A. /P.C. In-kind sponsors were Extreme Graphics, O&V Printing, ProVisions by Marilyn, Master Print and Web Design, MDS Waste and Recycle, KSBV, KSLV/KYDN and KRZA.