MONTE VISTA- We are rumbling down a dirt road in Colorado’s San Luis Valley, in a packed school bus with seats clearly not designed for the comfort of adults.
Outside, bundled-up photographers line the road, shifting from foot to foot to stay warm, casting glances at the reed-choked ponds — shallow pools where the day’s guests of honor have yet to make an appearance.
People drive three hours from the Front Range for this?
But as the setting sun turns the distant peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to pink, we get out of the bus, just in time to witness one of Colorado’s most wondrous natural spectacles. Sandhill cranes, 4 feet tall, with a 6-foot wing span, come soaring overhead, chortling to their mates. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the birds fill the sky, then land elegantly in the smooth water where they will spend the night.
Against the backdrop of jagged peaks, it is a dramatic sight, one that can stir the soul of even someone like myself, whose primary bird-watching experiences had been ducking for cover from overhead pigeons and feeding seagulls at the beach. I felt a sense of timelessness at the ancient migration. The cranes — virtually the entire population of Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes — have been coming here since long before the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge was created, a six-week stopover before they depart for points north, where the flock will part ways and disperse.
And you realize why this is the most popular stop on the Colorado Birding Trail, a network of bird-watching spots compiled by the Colorado Division of Wildlife in the past few years. It is not one trail, but a guide to the many places where birds can be spotted. The trail’s Web site, coloradobirdingtrail.com, was expanded to include the entire state this month, to coincide with the crane stopover.
From Monte Vista to Lamar on the plains, to Eckert on the Western Slope, the trail guide and other Internet birding resources have opened many places in Colorado to this growing outdoor hobby, bringing visitors to places they probably would not visit otherwise.
Monte Vista has been celebrating the cranes’ arrival for 27 years, with a festival that doubles the town’s population for a weekend in mid-March.
“This is a time when almost nobody would go to the San Luis Valley on purpose,” said John Koshak, the DOW’s southeast Colorado watchable wildlife coordinator. “March tends to be really windy. It tends to be cold.”
“But people come from all over.”
As with every outdoor activity, be it bagging fourteeners or birding, there are the hardcore few, with life lists, checking off every new bird they see. But you don’t have to be an ornithologist, or be able to tell a blue grouse from a sharp-tailed grouse, to enjoy it.
Just ask the bird fans at the Monte Vista Crane Festival.
“There are just tens of thousands of them,” said Tom Sawyer of Pueblo. “I think that’s the kind of awe they inspire.”
“It’s beautiful. We love it,” said Richard Loy of Black Forest. “We don’t have life lists or anything like that, but we enjoy birds.”
“They’re just so elegant, beautiful and graceful,” said Judith Roderick of New Mexico, who wrote a book of poetry about the cranes. “I love their sounds.”
“If you get right under them when they take off and go over top of you, it’s unbelievable,” said Michael Bennett of Monte Vista, who made a documentary film about the cranes.
There’s even a touch of romance. Males do a courtship dance, jumping and flapping their wings. When they meet a mate, it is for life. Even the most bitter heart can’t help but flutter at the sight of a couple flying into the sunset.
While it would be tough to top the spectacle at Monte Vista, Colorado offers plenty of other opportunities, 500 bird species inhabiting elevations from 3,315 feet on the plains to 14,000 feet.
People come to see prairie chickens perform their bizarre mating dances in the national grasslands of southeast Colorado; up Pikes Peak to catch a view of rare rosy-finches high above timberline; to Cheyenne Mountain State Park, one of the best places in Colorado to see wild turkeys; to Chico Basin Ranch to see burrowing owls.
All you need is a pair of binoculars, maybe some good walking shoes and a bit of patience. And maybe permission; some of the places are on private property. While the owners welcome visitors, they ask for an advance phone call.
“People come from all over the world,” Koshak said. “It’s just amazing what the Internet has done, as far as opening up possibilities for people to find out places to go that you would have never ever believed people would know, from Australia, to come here.
Find some feathered
friends in the pikes peak region
Some good spots to check out birds:
• The summit of Pikes Peak, where you can see rare rosy-finches.
• The Manitou Experimental Forest, north of Woodland Park, to see and hear elusive flammulated owls.
• Big Johnson Reservoir, the area’s best reservoir for birding, teems with life and migratory birds in winter.
• Chico Basin Ranch, south of Colorado Springs, charges a $10 fee for birders, but the area is a great place to spy migratory birds and breeding mountain plovers.
• Sondermann Park, a city park in the heart of town, makes a great short walk to see hummingbirds, grosbeaks and others.