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With the Sandhill Cranes in Colorado: Day Two


Billie & I celebrated our birthdays 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. Here is Part Two of my journal.

Monte Vista, Colorado

The moon rises over the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. Perfect weather to watch the sandhill cranes take off in the morning. (Click for larger image.)

The moon rises over the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge. Perfect weather to watch the sandhill cranes take off in the morning. (Click for larger image.)

Excited by last night’s expedition, Billie is up at 5:30, and we’re on the road about an hour later for the refuge, getting there about half an hour before actual dawn. We pull off the road at a turnout looking east just north of Road 8. You can see where we were last night across the field.

The red light just before sunrise over the Sangre de Cristo Mountains illuminates the cranes, silhouettes standing silently in water turned blood-red by the coming light. It is a gorgeous sight. As actual dawn approaches and waves of birds begin to take flight again, that peculiar energy level begins crackling. By 7:20, all 50 birds are gone, off in search of another field to pick through today.

Fossil records date cranes back millions of years, long enough to say it is the oldest-known surviving bird species. After that long, things certainly changed for the birds after irrigation ditches were built and farming in the valley became a reality. Birds destroyed crops and bird numbers steadily declined, leading to the creation of Monte Vista Refuge in 1952 and nearby Alamosa National Refuge on the Rio Grande ten years later.

The Colorado Division of Wildlife aggressively manages the wetlands refuge and the area around it, mostly through water-diversion rights, trying to keep a subtle balance between bird and landowner needs.

“Because of the importance of water to this region, water management on Monte Vista NWR is particularly important,” reads the U.S. Fish and Wildlife website. “Many irrigation canals built during the 1880s provide water to Monte Vista NWR and other valley water users. Water levels can be manipulated to provide birds with adequate aquatic vegetation for food and escape cover. To provide much of the wetland habitat on both refuges, water is distributed and manipulated by refuge staff through an extensive system of ditches, water control structures, dikes, and levees.”

I am forever skeptical of human efforts to control nature – our track record is atrocious bordering on lunatic — but the balance appears to be working here for the time being. Aubudon.org wrote in 2001: “Researchers have surveyed 171 miles of waterfowl nesting transects at the refuge complex two to three times a year since 1965. San Luis Valley and refuge-wide crane counts are conducted each spring and fall at peak migration.”

After breakfast in town, we’re back in the refuge; we can’t get enough of these birds. There are a couple of dirt roads in the refuge to explore. We find a few ducks in the wetlands on the road behind the headquarters buildings. We slowly drive a couple miles of dirt road farther east and watch a large hawk in a grove of trees for awhile; god, he looked lonely out there on his perch.

A couple of cars have pulled over up the road, so we join them and discover a large group of cranes in the high grass south of the road, their red heads bobbing up and down, their bodies occasionally rising vertically into the dance. It’s a nice way to see the birds interacting and feeding. Listen to the birds here.

These cranes are heading north. Many will nest in Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in southern Idaho; others will settle in Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Canada. Some are coming from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico south of Santa Fe, others from as far away as northern Mexico.

The whole spectacle most resembles a crane Woodstock or a Burning Man festival. The birds love the wheat, barley and other grains in the fields around here, and apparently they bond here as well. Sandhill cranes bond for life with their mates, something I try to remember whenever we see two cranes flying together.

On our way out, we stop next to a bird perched on a telephone line singing a very distinctive song. We brought some Johnny Cash discs on the trip, and one contained his version of an old favorite, “Wichita Lineman,” and the Jukebox in my Head is playing, in Cash’s primordial voice, “I hear you singing through the wire.” Every thirty seconds or so, its song bursts and echoes through the rental car. Our bird book isn’t very intuitive, and we don’t figure out until later that it is the western meadowlark.

Watching all this is so easy. With a decent pair of binoculars, you can see a lot, and we know enough to stop when we see a few cars parked along the side of the road and people with cameras and binoculars. All the serious activity comes at two distinct times, the half hour around either end of sunrise and sunset, when the birds are taking off and landing.

And though we are here mid-week just a few days after the Crane Festival in Monte Vista, there are just a few other crane-watching cars in the entire refuge.

Not much to do in the daytime unless you want to see the Jack Dempsey Museum in Manassas, the Alligator Farm north of Alamosa or the Sand Dunes another thirty minutes from Alamosa. Pagosa Hot Springs is an hour over Wolf Creek Pass.

Wifi access has been exceptional and helpful. We have read a lot about the cranes. We are able to outline our travels in the refuge with Google maps, even zeroing in on the turnout where we saw all the birds last night.

Web information about birds is generally good. Most ornithological sites agree on crane particulars like size and wingspan, but there are some widely differing opinions about crane lifespans.

WildBirdsSuite: 20-25 years
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: 20 years
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: 20 years
National Geographic: 20
KildeerVirtualWetlandsPreserve: 18-24
IFWIS: 12-15 years
Everything.com: 7-20
Wildprairiestatepark: 12 years
Elmwood (Pa.) Park Zoo: 7 years
Animaldiversity: 7 years

Nobody disputes that the oldest crane ever documented in the wild died at 21.7 years, so the higher averages seem suspect. But who knows?

We got out to the refuge earlier than last night. As it was this morning, the wetlands on the road behind the headquarters buildings is bereft of cranes. So we head for the turnout where we saw so many birds last night. There are a few sandhills in front of us and a larger group much farther away.

The wind is up, and we decide to drive down the county road where we saw the meadowlark and some cranes in a field this morning.

Sure enough, the same group of cranes is spread out across the high grass. Getting out of the car, it’s just us and the birds in the middle of the refuge. We again get a chance to see them doing the ritual dance, although just for very short periods of time. At one point, their heads bob up at the sound of a coyote howling, soon joined by a chorus of his braying brethren. Soon the birds’ heads are back in the grass; they know better than us that the howls come from far away, and they probably also are aware more birds are killed by high wires than coyotes, anyway.

By 7:15, cranes are once again screeching and leaving en masse; large lines are snaking off in all directions. A group of about 50 takes off a couple hundred yards south and heads directly for us. They separate right in front of us. We can hear the precision beating of their wings, tuned like fine engines. It is easy to see their necks stretched out straight, a very un-crane action — all other cranes curve their necks when flying. One individual gets swept off-balance as it rises and bangs into the crane next to it.

Once again it is complete cacophony and energy for ten wonderful sunset minutes as flocks begin taking off. The excitement the birds show as they all get ready to take off, their stately majesty and the sounds they make as they start their nightly search for a wetlands is mightily contagious and seriously addictive. We will return to see these birds again.

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