Monte Vista Crane Festival

Event Details

The Sandhill Cranes have arrived at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado’s scenic San Luis Valley. Early Saturday morning, February 10, birder Ray Esparza snapped a photo of 10 Sandhill Cranes silhouetted against a sunflower-yellow and blue sky in the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. Later that day, Monte Vista resident Laura Conchelos heard cranes bugling above her house. To celebrate the cranes’ return, the 35th annual Monte Vista Crane Festival will be held March 9-11.
It’s the oldest birding festival in Colorado and one of the oldest in the nation.
By the second week of March, some 20,000 Sandhill Cranes will have congregated in the valley, with a majority of them around the wildlife refuge. The Sandhill Crane migration through the valley is a wildlife ritual that has been occurring for thousands of years, perhaps even longer. A 3,000-year-old petroglyph discovered on the valley’s west side depicts what appears to be a crane. In Florida, a 2.5 million-year-old Sandhill Crane fossil was discovered. And in Nebraska, a 10 million-year-old fossil of a closely-related crane species was unearthed.
The cranes congregate in the refuge partly because the San Luis Valley is along their migratory route from their wintering grounds in New Mexico to nesting grounds further north.  It’s also because the refuge staff works hard throughout the year to maintain healthy wetlands and to plant barley fields. Just before the crane fest, they mow large swaths of the barley fields close to public viewing areas, drawing birds in to feast on the fallen grain and small animals attracted to the seeds (cranes are omnivores). Sunrise and sunset tours offered during the festival take birders to these “hotspots,” where it’s possible to see thousands of cranes.
The crane festival originated to celebrate Whooping Cranes in the valley, thanks to a government program aimed at reviving the species’ dwindling population. But these days, Sandhill Cranes are the well-deserved stars of the show. They flock by the thousands into the valley, amassing in fields and wetlands, wowing onlookers with their graceful courtship dances and sheer numbers. Their daybreak flyouts often fill the skies with hundreds and sometimes thousands of birds. To help guide visitors this year to where its possible to witness sunrise flyouts, refuge staff will be posting the crane’s overnight roosting locations on the festival’s website and Facebook page.
Wildlife experts host two-hour tours, highlighting interesting facts about the cranes along the way, like how they mate for life. It’s also possible to spot coyotes, eagles, great-horned owls, hawks and a variety of duck species.
Sandhill Cranes are large birds with a distinguishing crimson cap on their head that makes them hard to miss as they forage.  Their graceful courtship dance, unique trumpeting calls and mass flyouts are thrilling to witness. “Here you can get pretty close to the cranes,” says refuge manager Suzanne Beauchaine. “And then we’ve got the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. It’s an incredible setting.”
This year’s crane fest includes sunrise and sunset tours, photography workshops, birds-of-prey tours, field trips to Zapata Ranch (near the Great Sand Dunes National Park) and a unique natural area in the foothills of the San Juan Mountains called Elephant Rocks. There are also expert-led presentations on topics such as waterfowl, wetlands and prairie dogs and two movies being offered this year in Monte Vista’s vintage Vali 3 Theater: Disney’s Wings of Life and Brian Golden Davis’s documentary Million Dollar Duck. There is a daily craft and nature fair featuring artists from the valley and beyond. Local wood carver Tarry Maxson has been selling his hand-carved, painted birds at the craft & nature fair since the festival’s early days. The wood, he says, comes from downed trees donated from nearby farms and other properties. Other artists will be selling everything from wine glasses etched with Sandhill Cranes figures to wildlife-inspired jewelry, photography, paintings, clothing and crocheted items.
Local valley businesses have also caught the “crane craze.” Three Guys Farms restaurant in the Monte Villa Pub is serving a special craft cocktail dubbed the “Crane-hattan,” and Haefeli’s Honey is selling crane-decorated coffee mugs in their Del Norte store. Be sure to ask wherever you go if the business is doing something fun to celebrate the valley’s returning winged visitors.
For festival details and tour registration, visit or follow the festival’s Facebook page. There are still openings for the Sandhill Crane sunrise and sunset tours. Registration deadline is March 7. For more information, visit or call 719-852-2731.

Date(s) - March 10
All Day

Cost (if any)

MV Nat'l Wildlife Refuge