By Ruthanne Johnson
Special to The PREVIEW
The first week of January kicked off ticket sales for crane viewing and other tours coming to the 36th Monte Vista Crane Festival to be held March 8-10.
In the first week alone, over 200 tickets sold for the various events, from the traditional Sandhill Crane tours to beer tasting and visits to an archaeological site.
“There are still plenty of tickets,” said festival webmaster 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 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, the 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 6,000 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 happens by.
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 and the 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 the area.”
Tours to the Colorado Farm Brewery — located in farm country southeast of the refuge — give folks an opportunity to learn about the beer brewing and malting process from the only craft brewery 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.
Bird walks with local ornithologist John Rawinski are another addition to the schedule. Rawinski is somewhat of a local legend when it comes to 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.
There’s also 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 settlement dating back centuries. Tour stops may include historic churches, spiritual areas, museums and natural wonders.
Raptor-viewing tours led by experts from Hawks Aloft — a raptor rehabilitation and public education organization in Albuquerque, N.M. — will again be offered. These special tours take folks through the valley’s wide-open landscape, where it’s easy to spot birds of prey such as rough-legged hawks, eagles and prairie falcons.
“You never know what you might see, a Merlin perched on a wire or a bald eagle eating its prey,” Callahan said. “The tour is great for learning about the habitat and life cycle of raptors from people with hands-on experience with these types of birds, and also how to identify the different species.”
The Monte Vista Crane Festival is an important 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.
For more information about this year’s festival and to buy tickets, visit mvcranefest.org. To become a sponsor, call (720) 940-7561.