Southern Coloradans have a regional opportunity every year that few in the world can claim.
With its bubbling waters, soaring dunes and dazzling peaks, the mystique of the San Luis Valley becomes complete when its winged migrants arrive. Sandhill cranes flock en masse to the valley, followed by admiring birders from near and far.
The birders mark their calendars for the three-day Monte Vista Crane Festival, which starts Friday.
"I just see a lot of awestruck people all the time. They're amazed at how many birds they're looking at," says Suzanne Beauchaine, manager of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, the favorite home for about 20,000 cranes between their winter stay on the southern plains and nesting grounds across Yellowstone National Park.
From the Ski Hi Building, at 2389 Sherman Ave., Beauchaine and staff will lead tours to the refuge starting at 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Anyone can drive themselves through the 14,800-acre wetland, specially prepared by farmers who lay barley for the birds, which typically linger into April.
The refuge's pulloffs are expected to be packed with some of the estimated 2,000 binocular-wielding, camera-equipped people at the 35th annual festival.
"For some reason, the cranes, whether it's their size or the way they sound, they really strike something more in people," Beauchaine says. "For me, it's the prehistoric-ness."
Known to predate mankind, the creatures are believed to have been frequenting the San Luis Valley for thousands of years, sending their indescribable calls to the Sangre de Cristos. Those snowcapped mountains serve as the backdrop of a picturesque scene: the white-gray cranes in majestic flight.
A weekend arts and crafts fair will celebrate their ancient aesthetics, red heads and black-tipped wings, some spanning 7 feet.
Also, "there'll be lots of dancing," Beauchaine says. That's another quirk of the cranes in search of their lifelong mates. They'll bow and bounce on their long legs, flinging up twigs and grass to impress the other during a song.
On her tour buses every year, Beauchaine says a third of the riders are from the Front Range, having never viewed the birds. "They've been missing an amazing wildlife spectacle pretty much in their backyard."
Contact Seth Boster: 636-0332