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With the Sandhill Cranes 2008: Part Two: A Good Friday

It is the day after the equinox, Good Friday to boot, and I suppose this is our celebration, since watching wildlife is as close as we get to spirituality. We are in the viewing area about quarter to seven this morning. There are three or four cars and a few people with cameras and scopes already set up in the pull-out. The sun is still behind the Sangre de Christos, but it is light enough to see the birds roosting. Steam rises around them.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Sandhill cranes begin to stir with the sunrise in Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge.

Most aren’t moving yet, or if they are, just beginning to stir or preen. (Click on the photo at the top to get the idea. La Veta Pass is between the two ranges, Mt. Blanca on the left.) But as the minutes wear on, they begin to move around more freely. From the further reaches of the refuge, cranes begin to rise. A few from in front of us join them. Others are jumping in anticipation. The energy level rises with the sound of their cries, and soon it is as if the ones in the air are screaming at the others to get off their cartilages and join them.

About 7:15 we drive over to Eight Mile Road, pull off the side of the road and just let the birds waft over us. This is the greatest thrill, to see the birds honking overhead, getting into formation, occasionally running into each other as they head off. They rarely fly directly overhead, but sometimes they are low and close enough that you can hear the quiet, almost mechanical whoosh-whoosh of their wings beating. Wow.

Our friend Kathy, who first turned us on to the crane phenomenon, had suggested driving farther south on Gunbarrel Road. We took off, passing more small farms and ranches. Behind one ranch house, there are literally thousands of cranes standing out there amongst the cattle – a real sight. The pavement ends. The ranches disappear. A sign offered lots two miles off a dirt road near the foothills. We wind up next to a field with junked cars lined up to the horizon. In front of the trailer home where, I assume, the owner lives, there are some metal crane art pieces. I didn’t get a very good photo with the iPhone.

I really had fun with the iPhone camera app, though. It is desperately simple, takes excellent photos, and I found it an invaluable device for recording a trip like this. The photos came out better than I expected, and for someone who likes to document travel, this is as easy as it gets.

After breakfast at the Mountain View Restaurant, we head back out to the refuge. Last year we found a large group of birds along a road in a field and watched them during the day as they mingled, ate and danced in the high grain. But today there is no high grass and no birds, either, on the eastern road inside the refuge.

It was top for a nap, but soon, after stopping for some coffee and a donut at Don Thomas Bakery, we were back in the refuge. Arriving about four p.m. at the circle area on the south end on Eight Mile Road, we set up and get more than an hour’s worth of intense crane interaction. Birds are flying in and out all over the place; it kinda reminds me of a SXSW afternoon schmoozing session for cranes.

We get ample opportunity to watch the birds take off and land. It seems so effortless. Some glide in from high above, falling out of the sky, dropping their legs as they get closer to the ground to slow their descent. Just before they hit, they flop their wings a couple of times and land in a quiet flutter. Some glide in like bullets on a straight line across the field not fifteen feet off the ground before the characteristic leg dropping, fluttering and landing.

Taking off seems just as easy. A couple of hops and they are airborne, and those flapping engines take them easily into the air and upward. They bark at each other as they organize their formations. Sometimes one bird, sometimes two, often many more, head off together. Apparently, cranes, who mate for life, also travel in family groups.

Far above us, another group of maybe 50 cranes are circling. They are up high enough that they are difficult to spot with the naked eye unless the sun is just right. With the binocs, you can watch them speeding up, gliding and slowing down so each can maintain his/her position in the circle. It’s mesmerizing to watch, a crane merry-go-round in the sky.

After asking a guy to move his car and stop approaching the birds with his camera, a ranger walks over and watches the high flyers with us for a few minutes. Nobody really knows what they are doing up there, but his theory is that the birds are circling to check the winds, and if they find a good thermal going in the right direction and the time is right, some might take off for the north, toward their breeding grounds.

Dinner tonight is at Baldo’s, the Mexican restaurant Kathy suggested. It was great. And then back out to the refuge for the fourth time today. It is still warm as the sun pokes in and out of clouds above the peaks before setting, and again we get to watch waves of cranes taking off and dispersing into the night. You can’t ask more; the cranes have behaved perfectly all day.

March 21, 2008
Monte Vista, Colorado

March 29, 2008   No Comments

With the Sandhill Cranes 2008 (Part One): Gators in the San Luis Valley

Billie and I again celebrated our birthdays in Monte Vista, Colorado. We drove there to watch sandhill cranes, who spend the month of March at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge during their migration north. It’s our second year, and I started this weblog with two posts from that trip, here and
here.

This big fellow looked tired. (Click for larger image.)

This big fellow looked tired. (Click for larger image.)

South Park was a big bowl of white. A huge snowdrift that sometimes towered over the car stretched for miles from the bottom of Kenosha Pass all the way to Red Hill Pass. Wind blowing from the north across the top of that drift made the road wet and sometimes a little icy, but once I got around a big truck splashing water everywhere, we didn’t have any problem navigating it. We stopped in Fairplay to take photos of the burro memorial and pick up coffees and pastries at a shop across the street. The owner says that hers was the first coffee place in town. Today she shares the Fairplay caffeination business with three other shops. No Starbucks.

There are two roads down to Monte Vista once you get in the San Luis Valley. Today we took the eastern road, Colorado 17, to Alamosa and then over to Monte Vista on Colorado 160. North of Alamosa we stopped at the Colorado Alligator Farm, near Mosca. I have always wanted to go there, having only been to an alligator farm once, in Florida during a spring-break trip back in the ’60s. Just the idea of alligators at 7500 feet has kept my interest high.

The secret is that the farm sits on a thermal vent that keeps the area and water warm, even during the cold, snowy winters. Underground water is one of the things that makes the San Luis Valley distinct. At an average of 7,500 square feet, boxed in on three sides by mountain ranges, the San Luis is a desert, with about eight inches of precipitation per annum. The largest sand dunes in the United States are piled up just east of us.

Two aquifers beneath the valley, augmented by careful diversion of snow melt-off, several water storage areas and the Rio Grande and Conejos rivers, make the valley, since the 1850s, an agricultural desert, with substantial crops of alfalfa hay, wheat, barley and potatoes. If you’re interested, you can read about how it works here here.

That water is a fragile commodity in the valley is apparent this weekend. The city of Alamosa, the valley’s largest, is in a water crisis. The town suspects that more than 100 reported cases of salmonella poisoning by residents came from its water system, which it believes is tainted with the bacteria, which is usually carried by food. We usually stop for coffee and/or a meal in Alamosa, only 16 miles from Monte Vista, but not this time.

The owners of the alligator farm began, and remain, tilapia fish farmers. Tilapia are listed as noxious pests in certain areas of Australia, but they have become an important aquaculture fish in the United States. According to the American Tilapia Association, the perch-like fish are the fifth-most popular seafood in the United States. I don’t know about you, but I have never willingly or knowingly ordered, bought or eaten tilapia. Have you?

The gators were first brought in about twenty years ago to eat the leftovers and garbage, and now four hundred gators, crocs and cayman sprawl around the farm’s acreage and lake. The fish farm is still the business, but the gators are the attraction, along with some big birds, emus, ostriches and rheas that reside there.

Morris, an American alligator that has appeared in many television series and films – a sign in front says he once trashed a Cheers set – has his own pen, and female partner. The rest have to share the lakes with the other gators. The owners also care for iguanas, snakes and assorted other turtles and reptiles, most abandoned after the owners found they got more than they bargained for in a pet viper.

A friendly hippie kid has us pose with Little Bob, a small but well-equipped two-and-a-half foot American gator who reluctantly lets us pose with him. The 8X10 we purchase sucks, but the fourteen dollars we paid for it seems to be going to a good cause. I console myself with the fact that Little Bob left his sharp alligator teeth marks on the certificate.

We’re staying in the Gary Cooper room this time in the Movie Manor Motel. With no films showing, the motel is fairly empty this time of year; the rooms are large, the beds nice, the showers wonderful, and we wouldn’t stay willingly anywhere else – it’s part of the visit. And it’s only about twelve minutes from the refuge where we set up to watch birds.

We had sandwiches at Kelloff’s, the restaurant at the motel, before heading out to see the birds this evening. Driving down to the refuge on Gunbarrel Road, we pass fields of standing water and/or sheets of ice. Small farmhouses line the road, and all except one were above the waterline, surrounded on three sides by lakes of ice and water. Cattle and horses are stranded on patches of higher, muddy islands where ranchers have left bales of hay.

The refuge is a flat world, an immensely complicated ecosystem of fields of grain, lakes, ponds, wetlands, swamps, ditches, sluices, locks, gates, meadows and even a few trees. It could be in the middle of Kansas. But then you look east, and there is Blanca Peak and the Sangre de Christos. Turn around and there are smaller ridges that lead into the largest wilderness area in Colorado.

We were at the turn-out on Eight Mile Road at the south end of the refuge proper about 6:30. South of the road are a large number of cranes scattered out at least a quarter mile – it’s hard to judge distance. Inside the refuge are at least another thousand more scattered out northward.

They are making a big racket that continues to get louder as the darkness spreads. Sunset is around 7:15, and for fifteen minutes we stand in shock and awe as these ancient birds take off for their roosts, rising into the night skies for places unknown. The energy of the birds permeates the ground and the purple sky. In the morning, they will leave their roosts for the fields once again, in the same crescendo of pure abandonment. It is a ritual that has been happening longer than humans have trod the earth. We can just stand there dumbly and smile.

Monte Vista, CO
3-20-08

March 27, 2008   No Comments

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.

March 28, 2007   No Comments

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

This fanciful artwork greets visitors to Monte Vista, Colorado. (Click for larger image.)

This fanciful artwork greets visitors to Monte Vista, Colorado. (Click for larger image.)

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!

March 25, 2007   No Comments