With the Sandhill Cranes in Colorado: Day One
Billie & I celebrated our birthdays, including my 60th, by spending a couple of days last week with the sandhill cranes on their migration north. We had never done it before, but we will do it again. This is Part One of my journal.
Monte Vista, Colorado
I always love the drive over the passes along U.S. Highway 285 that takes us from the west end of Denver and finally drops us into the northern edge and takes us along the western side of the San Luis Valley.
It is just a great ride: through Morrison; down steep Crow Hill into Bailey, from whence most commuter traffic blissfully fades and where officers are giving out tickets to those going too fast downhill; through the valley before climbing up and over Kenosha Pass (10,001 feet) into the plains of South Park, over Red Hill Pass (9993 feet) and into Fairplay, with the distant, mighty Mosquito Range peaks to the west; over Trout Creek Pass (9346 feet) and down to Antero Junction, with the stirring view of Mt. Princeton and the Collegiate Peaks; over Poncha Pass (9020 feet) into the broad alpine San Luis Valley, itself at about 7500 feet.
Though we have stayed overnight in South Fork not far from here for a lynx release and driven across the valley on Highway 285 several times, this is our first time actually spending a couple of days here.
The valley is about 100 miles long and half that distance wide. The Rio Grande’s headwaters are near Creede in the mountains west of here, and it flows through the valley, sometimes digging deep gorges on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. On the eastern side is Great Sand Dunes National Park, which plays an interesting part in this valley’s geology and history.
We are here to see sandhill cranes, about 20,000 of whom are gathering here for three to four weeks on their annual migration north from Mexico and New Mexico to their winter homes farther north. Our friend Kathy Kaiser has been coming down here for a few years, and her descriptions of the birds were enough to make this trip my sixtieth birthday celebration.
We are staying at the Best Western Movie Manor motel, a drive-in theater turned motel/drive-in theater. Yes, during the summer you can watch movies on a giant screen from a big picture window in each room. The motel forms the outer back circle around the Star, a working drive-in theater built by the owner, a local drive-in freak. We’re staying in the Stephen Segal room, right next door to the Paul Newman room. There are a couple of somewhat cheesy paintings of movie stars in each room. At 69 bucks a night, it’s a fun place to stay, now part of the Best Western chain.
After a quick nap, we dine at Kelloff’s, the restaurant adjoining the motel, before we head out to the refuge. Only three tables have diners, and we tell JoEllen, our waitress, that we are here to see the cranes. A couple minutes later, a woman from Ft. Collins comes over and says they are going to see the cranes, too. She tells us that a good location today is Road 8.
The Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge begins about six miles south of town on state road 15, known locally as Gunbarrel Road, which runs north/south in the middle of town. (From the motel, it’s a right at the second light.) Once past the outskirts of town, the landscape becomes familiar to any Midwesterner: flat expanses, wetlands and open spaces dotted with fields, now mostly brown with elms, walnuts and cottonwood trees sans leaves. A lot of brush and cover. Standing water in some fields. Small farms dot both sides of the road. A giant American flag hangs at one. The ruins of a once-elegant stone home, ringed by trees, its tall chimney still leaning precariously after a fire, is decaying back into the earth.
It reminds me of western Kansas during pheasant season — with one exception. This great plain is enclosed on three sides by mountains. The mysterious and magnificent Sangre de Cristos come into view along Poncha Pass, their northern terminus, and form a long line of green trees and white peaks all the way to Santa Fe, if we were going that far.
The local landmark along the range is Blanca Peak, actually a series of peaks just north of La Veta Pass and south of the Great Sand Dunes, which are also easily visible from the whole valley. The western range isn’t on the same scale here as the Sangres. However, the peaks represent the eastern end of the San Juan Mountains, and on the other side is the largest wilderness area in the state. Over Wolf Creek Pass, now embroiled in a nasty fight over a proposed 10,000-person village, is Pagosa Springs, Durango and Mesa Verde.
We get to Road 8 and turn east to a circular turn-out that faces north where a few cars have pulled in. We are immediately in the presence of a large group of birds. As we pan the glasses out along to the north, we see more, and more, and more birds, all cranes, stretched out to the north. My journalist quick-count says there must be a couple of hundred in front of us and four or five times as many more behind them. We spend some quality time watching them in our lenses.
Sandhill cranes (grus Canadensis) are large birds that stand three to four feet in height. Their bodies are evolutionary works of art. Their wings, which make up much of their body and can easily spread to seven feet, allow the birds to take off and land with elegant ease and engage in their ritual mating dance.
The first thing you notice is the chatter, a cacophony of cranespeak: the low, almost frog-like contact call, the high-pitched, trilling unison songs and insistent guard calls quickly obliterate the senses. (Later, we find a website that has recordings of the different sounds and explains why researchers think they are used – I played the unison call as loud as my laptop can go as an alarm clock to wake Billie up on Friday.)
To see cranes and hear their distinctive sounds, click to this page and scroll down to vocalizations.
Besides the clatter, birds are jumping lightly up and down, wings fluttering. Mostly though, the birds are pecking at the ground with their graceful, powerful bills, another well-evolved feature that has kept cranes around here for millions of years.
Like humans and bears, cranes are omnivores, and they eat grain, insects, grubs, snakes or anything else that they find in their endless poking. Cranelife revolves around eating and socializing all day and roosting together in shallow water.
Their graceful, nimble legs and powerful, three-pronged toes are agile enough to traverse tall prairie grasses and mucky ponds and muddy banks with equal aplomb. Watching them carefully pick their way in water or on land is kind of magical.
Plumage varies from brownish to gray and a rusty color, the same shades that distinguish the fields and vegetation this time of year, and their long necks and heads are topped with a distinguishing and prominent red crest. We observe some ritual dancing. I saw one leave the ground and stick its head straight up to the sky in wild abandon that reminded me of a photo of a hippie at a Acid Test in 1968.
A woman stops by and tells us to turn our binoculars to the north. Wispy clouds or trails of smoke can be seen over the white peaks. Soon the wisps become snaking, long lines of cranes and finally flocks of birds settling into marshes around us. It’s an optical illusion (the birds are only a couple of miles away at most, the mountains at least 60 miles), but when I first see that they are bird flocks in the binoculars, I keep thinking they are actually coming over the mountains! And they keep coming.
As sunset nears, about 7:10, flocks begin to rise all over the refuge and sweep around us. As they take flight, they make this high-pitched call, as if urging the ones on the ground to join them. You can sense the energy building as the group in front of us watch their airborne compadres. Soon, birds in front of us start to take off in small groups, their wings flapping, a blur of kinetic energy. (Type “sandhill crane” into Google Images to see cranes and crane behaviors.)
A couple of times, through the crane cacophony, I hear a “who” sound behind us. I remember that Anne told us to look for owls here, but I can’t make out anything in the brown brush and tree limbs. I hear it a couple of times before noticing that another guy has his binocs trained into the trees.
I join him, and we spend some time looking at the largest Great Horned Owl I have ever seen. The giant bird flies to another perch, which lets us look up at it sitting on a branch about thirty feet above us. I am not very experienced at owl watching, but this would appear to be a serious predator; it looks large enough to carry off a coyote or a medium-sized dog. Its two tufts are prominent above its ears. Whew!