Curious Nature: Valley of the sandhill cranes comes to life in early spring
Vail, CO Colorado
At last, a glint of sun reveals the approach of a great echelon of birds. On motionless wings, they emerge from the lifting mists, sweep a final arc of sky and settle in clamorous descending spirals to their feeding grounds. A new day has begun on the crane marsh.
One of Colorado’s best-kept secrets is pristinely tucked away in the heart of the San Luis Valley near Alamosa – the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Each year, this manmade wetlands blossoms into life during early spring with the brief congregation of migrating sandhill cranes. Nearly 20,000 cranes stop off on their annual trek from south to north to load up on fuel and begin their ritual mating dance. From late February through the end of March or early April, these majestic creatures put on a show like no other experienced. The frosty landscape comes to life each morning at dawn, when the quiet is broken by flapping wings and the “karrooing” of thousands of birds gorging themselves on the grain that will eventually take them 850 miles north to their breeding grounds in Idaho.
But even more impressive than the sheer numbers of waterfowl peppering glowing southern vistas is the intricate courtship dance they perform on their quest to find mates for life. Leaping and bowing while raising and lowering their wings, croaking and throwing sticks at other potential mates, the sandhills perform an artful and impressive display. Once a mate has been secured, the cranes begin a ritual of unison calling – a complex and extended series of coordinated calls and movements intertwining male and female with heads thrown back and beaks skyward. Their elongated necks come together in beautiful arcs of rich gray and russet colors, strengthening the pair bond and escalating the show.
These Rocky Mountain spring breakers come in two different sizes. The more popular greater sandhill crane is about 4 feet tall with a 6-foot wingspan weighing approximately 12 to 13 pounds. The flock also hosts about 1,200 lesser sandhill cranes, which are much smaller in stature and typically found east of the Continental Divide at the Platte River basin of Nebraska. The cranes will not nest until they reach their breeding grounds, creating low mounds built out of wetland vegetation. Females will typically lay two eggs with an incubation period of 29 to 32 days. Although the pair take care of the nest together, the male assumes a dominant protective role. Chicks will take first flight at 67 to 75 days, and juvenile cranes will migrate south with their parents in the fall to begin their own journeys after maturity at two years.
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Although these wetlands highlight the cranes, they are also home to many other water birds – mallards, pintail, teal and Canada geese are common, as are American avocets, killdeer, white-faced ibis, egrets and herons. This experience is one for your short-term bucket list, the elegance, beauty, grace and sheer number of the sandhill congregation make this a lifetime opportunity not to miss!
Kristen Belschner is the marketing manager at Walking Mountains Science Center. She enjoys getting out and experiencing the wild places of Colorado. Walking Mountains Science Center is open Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., with special community programming weekly. Visit http://www.walkingmountains.org for more information.