New tours bring inspiration to Crane Fest

Throughout the month of March, Sandhill Cranes fill the skies and fields around the San Luis Valley, drawing thousands of bird lovers to the area. The festival is an economic boon to communities throughout south-central Colorado. Photo by Joe Zinn

MONTE VISTA— Jan. 2 kicked off ticket sales for the 36th Monte Vista Crane festival, slated for the weekend of March 8-10.
In the first week alone, nearly 100 tickets sold for the various events, from the traditional Sandhill Crane tours to beer tastings, visits to an archaeological site and expert-led tours to historic cultural areas throughout the San Luis Valley. “There are still plenty of tickets,” said crane fest webmaster volunteer Deb Callahan, “but by the end of January the tours will be pretty full.”
 The festival celebrates the annual arrival of thousands of Sandhill Cranes to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to rest and refuel before again taking flight for the long journey north to their nesting grounds. The massive migration is truly something to behold. But it isn’t by accident that such large numbers congregate at the refuge.
The refuge staff works throughout the year to maintain barley fields and healthy wetlands for the cranes. Just before the festival in March, staff mows large swaths of barley close to public viewing areas. The crane sunrise and sunset tours take birders to these viewing hotspots, where people can see upwards of 5,000 or more cranes. Common sights include the crane’s graceful courtship dance and the breathtaking liftoffs of thousands of birds when an eagle or other predator is lurking nearby.   
This year offers several exciting new tours.
The Scott Miller Archaeological Site, located on the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, is typically closed to the public. But during the crane festival the site will be open for one tour only. The site contains hundreds of artifacts dating back more than 10,000 years— relics left behind by Paleoindians, the remains of an historic homestead and unearthed bones of wooly mammoths and other ancient Megafauna. “There has been an astounding number of artifacts discovered there,” said crane fest committee president Jenny Nehring. “The tour offers an exciting opportunity to see those artifacts and imagine the historic spring-fed wetlands that once existed there, and the animals and people who were drawn to that area.”  
Another new tour takes folks to learn about the beer brewing and malting process at the Colorado Farm Brewery---the first and only craft brewery and tasting room located on a farm that grows all the ingredients on site. “We’re pretty excited about this new tour, which showcases the unique aspects of both farming and nature in the valley,” Nehring said. People will be able to experience the farm-to-glass process and enjoy the results, which may even include a handcrafted crane-themed beer. Another bonus: Sandhill Cranes are often visible from the tasting room.
Bird walks with local ornithologist John Rawinski have also been added to the schedule. Rawinski is somewhat of a local legend when it comes birds of the San Luis Valley. He authored the field guide “Birding Hotspots of South-Central Colorado” and will lead two bird tours around Home Lake---a known hotspot for waterfowl, shorebirds and bald eagles.
Another exciting addition is a guided tour highlighting several stops along the designated Sangre De Cristo National Heritage Area. With 11,000 years of documented human habitation, the Valley’s heritage area offers a unique blend of Native American, Hispano and Anglo settlements dating back centuries. Tour stops may include historic churches, spiritual areas, museums and natural wonders.
Last but not least are the raptor-viewing tours led by experts from Hawks Aloft, a raptor rehabilitation and public education organization in Albuquerque, N.M. The tours take folks by bus across the Valley’s wide-open landscape, where it’s easy to spot birds of prey such as Rough-legged Hawks, Red-tailed Hawks, Kestrels, eagles and Prairie Falcons. “One of the best things about these tours is learning from the leaders as you drive,” Callahan said. “You never know what you might see, a merlin perched on a wire or a golden eagle eating its prey. The tour offers the opportunity for folks to learn about the habitat and life cycle of raptors from people who have had hands-on experience with these [types of] birds and also how to identify them in the wild.”  
The Monte Vista Crane Festival is a vital event for communities in and around the San Luis Valley. It’s organized every year by a dedicated group of volunteers and made possible only through the sponsorship of generous businesses and individuals. Festival sponsors so far this year include Rio Grande County, The Windsor Hotel, Monte Vista Coop, Ken’s Service Center, Del Norte Trails Organization, Del Norte Bank, Rio Grande Savings & Loan, Rio Grande Headwaters Land Trust, Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Sandhill Solar, Sandhill Inn & Suites, Vortex Optical, Strohmayer’s Funeral Home, Monte Vista Chamber of Commerce, J&B Tax Accountants and JD Johnson.  
For more information about this year’s crane festival or to buy tickets, visit


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