Migratory birds return to the San Luis Valley

Photo by NPS/Patrick Myers Cinnamon Teal

SAGUACHE COUNTY — The iconic sights and sounds of the San Luis Valley returned in the form of cranes, waterfowl, and other migratory birds.

“Each spring and fall, thousands of feathers slice through the brisk San Luis Valley (SLV) sky, alerting resident wildlife, local farmers, and eager birders to the change of season. Ranging from shorebirds to songbirds, a myriad of avian species visits this high-elevation desert as they migrate along the Central Flyway to their breeding and wintering grounds. Nurtured by the Valley’s mosaic of wetlands, riparian corridors, and agricultural fields, the SLV is a critical stopover for these determined travelers,” stated the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council in an article titled “The San Luis Valley as a Critical Stopover During Bird Migration.”

The San Luis Valley is a unique microcosm that migrating birds use. The complex system is comprised of several different types of wetlands, agriculture, and the most endangered wetland, riparian wetlands.

The health of stopover habitat is dependent on water, which highlights the importance of thoughtful management of water resources throughout the Valley.

These migratory birds are a vital part of the local ecosystem, as they distribute seeds, pollen, and food chain balance which helps the overall health of this complex and interdependent system.

As the migratory birds consume a large amount of energy to migrate, the health of these stopover areas is vital to their populations. Without the habitat to nourish these birds, they may not make it to their wintering grounds, or arrive underweight and undernourished.

Over 400 different bird species depend on the various Valley wetlands to make their biannual migrations from Canada to the Gulf Coast.

The iconic Sandhill Crane depends heavily on the San Luis Valley to support their migration. The cranes use this habitat as a sort of “rest stop” to regain their energy and stock up on easily available food to continue their long journey.

The Rocky Mountain Greater Sandhill Crane migration attracts numerous visitors to the San Luis Valley to marvel at these majestic, boisterous and dynamic birds.

According to the San Luis Valley Ecosystem Council, “Upon reaching the SLV, they scatter themselves throughout barley fields, lakes, wetlands, and the Rio Grande, feeding on high-calorie grains and nutrient-dense aquatic invertebrates.”

Waste from grain harvesting provides the birds with carbohydrates, while the nutrients they derive from hunting invertebrates help these birds form healthy eggshells.

The current population of the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane is stable, which is an encouraging sign for future flights of these majestic birds.

Other migratory birds, including waterfowl like the Pintail duck also use the SLV to rest before moving on.

The SLV is also home to what is termed a playa wetland, which is critical because it hosts several species that cannot survive in other environments.

The Snowy Plover, which is threatened due to habitat loss, depends on these playa wetlands that are saturated with water and have high soil alkalinity. The numerous refuges, state parks, and national parks also are vital to support these graceful additions to the Valley.

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