MONTE VISTA—It’s that time of year again when folks in the San Luis Valley celebrate the return of thousands of Sandhill Cranes with the Monte Vista Crane Festival, held every second weekend in March. It’s one of the oldest birding festivals in the nation and the oldest in Colorado.
There are plenty of reasons why the festival is so enduring, says Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge Manager Suzanne Beauchaine. “Here, you can get pretty close to the cranes. And then we’ve got the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. It’s an incredible setting.”
The festival has something for everyone: birders, foodies, craft beer aficionados, arts and crafts enthusiasts, movie buffs and folks just generally interested in learning more about the valley’s unique plants, animals and landscape.
Make sure to follow the Monte Vista Festival Facebook page; that’s where the festival committee will be posting information on cranes and other wildlife, the festival, local businesses and unique things to do in the Valley.
2018 Crane Fest Schedule: March 9-11
3–11 p.m. Colorado Farm Brewery’s pre-opening for crane festival weekend, when they will unveil a special-crafted crane beer. The brewery is also hosting a festival kickoff party at 5 p.m. on Thursday
7-9 a.m.: Crane Sunrise Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
10 a.m.-2 p.m.: Zapata Ranch Tour – meets at Ski Hi Complex
10 a.m.–4 p.m.: Craft & Nature Fair, Ski Hi Complex
4 – 6 p.m.: Crane Sunset Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
7:30 – 9 p.m.: Movie: Disney’s “Wings of Life,” Vali 3 Theater
6 – 10 a.m.: Kiwanis Birders Breakfast, Ski Hi Complex
7 - 9 a.m.: Crane Sunrise Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
8 a.m.– 4 p.m.: Craft/Nature Fair, Ski Hi Complex
10 a.m.–12 p.m.: Hawks Aloft Raptor Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
10 a.m.–2 p.m.: Elephant Rocks Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
11 a.m. Talk: “What’s so great about prairie dogs?” Lindsey Sterling Krank, Prairie Dog Coalition, Vali 3 Theater
1–2 p.m.: Talk: “Unique Wetlands of the San Luis Valley” Denise Culver, Colorado Heritage Program, Vali 3 Theater
3-4 p.m.: Movie: Million Dollar Duck – “Paint Ducks, Save Ducks,” Vali 3 Theater
4–6 p.m.: Crane Sunset Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
7 p.m.: Keynote Address: “Sandhill Cranes, Cinnamon Teal and the importance of the San Luis Valley to these species,” Dan Collins and Dave Olson, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, Vali 3 Theater
8 -9:30 a.m.: Crane Sunrise Tour, meets at Ski Hi Complex
9 a.m.–2 p.m.: Craft/Nature Fair, Ski Hi Complex
10 a.m.–12 p.m.: Hawks Aloft Raptor Tour, meet at Ski Hi Complex
Crane Fest Kickoff Party
The event kicks off with the unveiling of a special farm-to-tap “crane beer” at 5 p.m. on Thursday, March 8 at the Colorado Farm Brewery, located at 2070 County Road 12 South in Alamosa. The brewery is about 15 miles southeast from the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge and definitely worth a stop, as their fields often have lots of cranes. Folks can see birds from the brewery’s outdoor patio. The brewery is the only one in the U.S. where all the grains are grown and malted on site.
Many local businesses are celebrating the Sandhill Crane’s return in unique ways, like with crane merchandise and crane-themed menu specials. Make sure to ask the business about crane specials when you visit.
This year’s tours include crane sunrise and sunset outing; trips to Elephant Rocks and Zapata Ranch; and drives to view birds of prey. Some tours are booked but waiting lists are available. Visit mvcranefest.org for more information and to sign up.
Sunrise and sunset tours take birders to crane-viewing hotspots in and around Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge, where it’s possible to see 5,000 plus cranes at the most vividly colorful times of day.
Raptor tours take folks along roads through the Valley’s wide-open landscape, where it’s easy to spot Cooper’s Hawks, Red-Tailed Hawks, Kestrels, Golden Eagles, Prairie Falcons, Northern Harriers and even nesting Great-Horned Owls. “One of the best things about these tours is learning from the leaders as you drive,” says previous tour participant Deb Callahan.
Zapata Ranch is an operating bison and guest ranch nestled at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and bordering the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. Participants learn about the landscape’s unique ecological microcosms as a result of the nearby sand dunes and mountains and the ranch’s history and present happenings.
Elephant Rocks is a 378-acre natural area at the base the San Juan Mountains, managed by Bureau of Land Management. The expert-led tour takes folks to see the area’s unique boulder formations, named by a former governor’s wife who thought they looked like elephants from a distance. “It's a magical and quiet place to wander and one of the best places to see the first mountain bluebirds of spring,” says Monte Vista resident Jenny Nehring, who heads up the all-volunteer Monte Vista Crane Festival Committee.
Narrated by Meryl Streep, Disney’s "Wings of Life" follows the journey of butterflies, hummingbirds, bees, bats and flowers―some of whom travel amazing distances to pollinate specific flowers. A third of the world’s food supply depends on these incredible and increasingly threatened creatures.
“Million Dollar Duck” unveils the real-life drama behind the annual Federal Duck Stamp Contest that began in 1934 to raise money for wildlife conservation. The contest pitted artists from around the country against each other in a duck-themed paint-off. A panel of five judges weighed in and the winner gained prestige, bragging rights and financial reward.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologists Dan Collins and Dave Olson give this year’s keynote presentation Saturday night at 7 p.m. on Sandhill Cranes, Cinnamon Teal ducks and the San Luis Valley's importance to these species. For example, many people don't know that Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge produced more ducks in the 1970s and 80s than a region in the Dakota’s often referred to as “North America's Duck Factory.” Collins will talk about the impacts of habitat fragmentation on crane populations and current studies that are laying the foundation for solutions.
Craft & Nature Fair
Artists and crafters come from all over the San Luis Valley and beyond to sell their wares at the festival’s craft and nature fair. The raptor rehabilitation organization Hawks Aloft will bring a dozen or so hawks, owls and falcons who cannot be released back into the wild because of permanent injuries.
Visit mvcranefest.org or montevistachamber.org for more information about the festival.
The Monte Vista Festival Committee offers a hearty “thank you" to this year’s sponsors. Without their generosity, there would be no crane festival. Please visit their businesses to show support: Platinum: Colorado Farm Brewery, CT Compost Technologies LLC, Monte Vista Coop, Rio Grande County, Rio Grande Savings and Loan, Rio Grande Water Conservation District, Sandhill Inn & Suites, Troy Plane Insurance Agency INC/State Farm; Gold: China Garden, The Humane Society of the United States - Prairie Dog Coalition, Jack’s Market Pharmacy, San Luis Valley Federal Bank, Skyline Hospitality, INC - Super8, Comfort Inn, IHOP, Sunflour Café, Wilbur-Ellis, Wingspan Optics; Silver: Absolute Shine Autobody and Paint, Broken Arrow Land and Ranch Co. LLC, Colorado Potato Administrative Committee, Nazarene Thrift Store, Mountain View Restaurant, Pizza Hut, Monte Vista; Bronze: Fernandez Taqueria and Laundry LLC, Dairy Queen, Chill & Grill Restaurant, J & B Tax Accountants, CIA- Leavitt Insurance Agency, Monte Vista Rotary Club, Dr. David Hinkley, O.D., Walter S. Fullwood, CPA, P.C.; In-Kind: Coors Banquet, Extreme Graphic, O&V Printing, Pro Visions by Marilyn, Master Print, MDS Waste and Recycle, Vortex Optics and City of Monte Vista