Sandhill Cranes alight in Monte Vista

(Photo by Dave Jones)

The Sandhill Cranes have officially arrived in the San Luis Valley. Early Saturday morning, (Feb. 10), birder Ray Esparza snapped a photo of 10 Sandhill Cranes silhouetted against a sunflower-yellow and blue sky in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Later that day, Monte Vista resident Laura Conchelos heard cranes bugling above her house.

By the second week of March, some 20,000 Sandhill Cranes will have congregated in the Valley, with a majority of them around the wildlife refuge. Just in time for the 35th Monte Vista Crane Festival, which is slated for the weekend of March 9 – 11. 

The Sandhill Crane migration through the valley is a wildlife ritual that has been occurring for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. A 3,000-year-old petroglyph discovered on the valley’s west side depicts what appears to be a crane. In Florida, a 2.5 million-year-old Sandhill Crane fossil was discovered. And in Nebraska, a 10 million-year-old fossil of a closely-related crane species was unearthed.

The crane festival originated to celebrate Whooping Cranes in the valley, thanks to a government program aimed at reviving the species dwindling population. But these days, Sandhill Cranes are the well-deserved stars of the show. They flock by the thousands into the valley, amassing in fields and wetlands, wowing onlookers with their graceful courtship dances and sheer numbers. Their daybreak flyouts often fill the skies with hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds. To help guide visitors this year to where its possible to witness sunrise flyouts, refuge staff will be posting the crane’s overnight roosting locations on the festival’s web site and Facebook page.  

Events at this year’s festival run the gambit: tours to see cranes and birds of prey; tours to unique Valley destinations; photography workshops; a craft and nature fair highlighting local artists; and bird movies and wildlife talks in Monte Vista’s homey, old-time theater. Local wood carver Tarry Maxson has been selling his hand-carved, painted birds at the craft & nature fair since the festival’s early days. The wood, he says, comes from downed trees donated from nearby farms and other properties. Other artists will be selling everything from wine glasses etched with Sandhill Cranes figures to wildlife-inspired jewelry, photography, paintings, clothing and crocheted items.

Local Valley businesses have also caught the “crane craze.” Three Guys Farms restaurant in the Monte Villa Pub is serving a special craft cocktail dubbed the “Crane-hattan,” and Haefeli’s Honey is selling crane-decorated coffee mugs in their Del Norte store. Be sure to ask wherever you go if the business is doing something fun to celebrate the Valley’s returning winged visitors.

For more information on the Monte Vista Crane Festival, visit or follow the festival’s Facebook page. Registration deadline is March 7, 2018. There are still openings for the Sandhill Crane sunrise and sunset tours. 

Editor’s note: It is about a 2-hour drive from Red River to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge — Map and directions from Red River; 2 hours, 15 minutes from Angel Fire — Map and directions from Angel Fire; 1 hour, 37 minutes from Questa — Map and directions from Questa; and 1 hour, 48 minutes from downtown Taos — Map and directions from Taos. Visit Great Sand Dunes National Park while you’re up there!