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 if you’re coming to the festival or another time in March to see the cranes. 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
Thursday - Saturday
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 part 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. – noon 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. – noon 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. Hours are Thursday through Saturday from 3 - 11 p.m. Burgers and brats will be served festival weekend. 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.
In Monte Vista, Sunflour Café is serving two delicious crane-themed vegetarian lunch dishes; Mountain View Restaurant is dishing up hearty crane enchiladas; and Three Guy’s Farm Restaurant is serving a Crane Festival pizza pie topped with their farm’s famous pork sausage, green chili, red onions and drizzled with a house-made cilantro-lime crema. Three Guys will also be serving crane-themed cocktails and a creamy smooth Cranetichoke (artichoke) dip served with house-made chips. Pizza Hut is creating a special Sandhill Crane veggie pizza, Dos Rios Mexican Restaurant is serving a juicy crane brat, and Java Dave’s coffeehouse is serving a Grey Crane latte, Crane’s Nest muffins, and a sunrise cinnamon roll with strawberry topping.
In Del Norte, the Mystic Biscuit has crafted a Sandhill Crane burger with eggs, green chili, bacon and cheese; Haefeli’s Honey is selling Sandhill Crane coffee mugs in their store and at the festival vendor fair; and Three Barrel Brewery is offering beer samples at the Movie Manor Lounge on Friday and Saturday from 5 to 8 p.m.
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. Wildlife expert tour leaders highlight interesting facts along the way, like how Sandhill Cranes can fly more than 300 miles in a single day. Other wildlife sightings may include hawks, eagles, coyotes, owls and a variety of duck species.
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. Tour guides are from Hawks Aloft raptor rehabilitation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Each guide's intimate knowledge about birds of prey makes for special tours. “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. The 103,000-acre ranch includes high desert grasslands, sand dunes, alpine forests, wetlands and lush meadows. 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. They’ll see bison grazing the rich grasslands like they did hundreds of years ago and the animal’s health-check facility based off of a humane-minded design created by the renowned animal sciences professor Temple Grandin.
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. People will learn about the landscape’s violent geologic history—dating back to one of Earth’s largest volcanic eruptions some 28 million years ago—and the area’s plants, animals and human history. “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 1970’s and 80’s 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.
On Saturday at 11 a.m., Lindsey Sterling Krank talks about why prairie dog colonies are the coral reefs of the prairie and other interesting facts like how prairie dogs have a complex language that includes more than 20 different calls. As director of the Prairie Dog Coalition, her work includes boots-on-the-ground prairie dog translocations, conflict prevention and public education about the prairie dog’s decline and importance as a keystone species in the prairie ecosystem. She is known for bringing together conservationists, ranchers, farmers and government agencies to better understand prairie dogs and how to manage them non-lethally.
Saturday at 1 p.m., Denise Culver with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program talks about the unique wetlands and plants in the San Luis Valley and the latest mobile apps and field guides being used to study them. The San Luis Valley, says Culver, is the world’s largest high-elevation valley, with an annual average rainfall of only six inches. Yet there's an array of unique wetlands and over 800 documented occurrences of rare and sensitive plants, animals and plant communities?plants like the Slender Spiderflower, which is known to occur only in the valley and scattered sites in Arizona, Wyoming and Texas.
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. One vendor from Monument is selling his hand-built birdhouses made from recycled products. Del Norte resident Judy Waller will have hand-knitted ponchos, scarves, hats and gloves. Jose Lobato from San Luis will offer a wide variety of unique chili powders, dried beans, natural herbs and more. Monte Vista wood carver Tarry Maxson will again be selling his delicate bird carvings painted to look like real birds such as Chickadees, Nuthatches, Magpies, House Wrens, Western Tanagers?and, of course, Sandhill Cranes.
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. It was an educational bird of prey that first sparked the interest of Hawks Aloft’ director Gail Garber, who went from being a stay-at-home mom to founding Hawks Aloft. “It never occurred to me that I could be that close to a red-tailed hawk,” says Garber. “It changed my life.”
The local legend Chef Charles will be serving his famous Carolina barbeque and breakfast burritos outside of the Ski Hi Complex.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Pro Visions by Marilyn
MDS Waste and Recycle
City of Monte Vista
KSBV Salida Radio
The River Rat