Massive numbers of sandhill cranes typically gather at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge and surrounding areas in the San Luis Valley in February and March as part of their annual migration. The cranes—along with thousands of Canada Geese—have already started arriving at the refuge. Crane viewing is also optimum through much of March for birders wanting to beat the crowds.

The Annual Monte Vista Crane festival will happen March 8 to 10. Sunrise and sunset tours offered during the festival weekend take birders to crane “hotspots.” Tour leaders provide added interest with crane facts along the way, like how the birds mate for life.  It’s on these trips that festivalgoers can see mind-boggling numbers of cranes feeding, loafing and dancing. “Sometimes a predator appears, sending the cranes en masse into the sky, where the flock swirls and undulates before settling back to the ground,” Nehring said.

It’s also possible to spot deer, coyotes, eagles, owls and a variety of waterfowl on the tours. “Here you can get pretty close to the cranes and other wildlife,” said Monte Vista National Wildlife manager Suzanne Beauchaine. “And then there are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the background. It’s an incredible setting.”

Other festival activities this year include hawk-viewing tours, excursions to archaeological and cultural heritage sites and trips to Colorado’s only farm-to-glass brewery, which will offer specialty-brewed beer flavors in honor of cranes and mugs with crane etchings. Presentations in Monte Vista’s historic Vali 3 Theater include a 3D tour of the unique geology of the San Luis Valley and a talk about the importance of conservation and festivals to the success of Sandhill Cranes. Keynote speakers Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll will share highlights from their experiences migrating with the cranes and observing their behavior along the way, as well as tales about other unique wildlife encounters. 

Another popular activity is the annual craft and nature fair. Artists come from all over the valley and beyond to sell their handcrafted items: metal “farm art,” handmade lotions and soaps, spice mixes, one-of-a-kind birdhouses, wildlife photography and paintings—and more. Some artists have been coming for years, like local resident Bea Manzanarez, who stitches frameable quilt pieces depicting nature scenes. Artist Tarry Maxson for decades has sold his delicate wood carvings of native bird species meticulously painted to-spec with the bird’s colors and markings. “I have several of his carvings hanging up at home and love that they’re from a local artist,” Beauchaine said.

Denver Front Range artist Judy McNichol has attended the fair for nearly a decade to sell her beaded bird earrings, including Meadowlarks, Bluebirds, Wood Ducks, Stellar Jays and Cardinals. This year she’ll have new species, such as Grackles and Red-Breasted Grosbeaks. But for Nichols, it’s not just about selling earrings. “I love to see the friends we’ve made over the years and meet new people. And we can’t wait to go out and see the cranes after the fair closes down.”

The raptor rescue and rehabilitation organization Hawks Aloft from Albuquerque, New Mexico will again bring several un-releasable birds from its educational program for display at the fair. “Look for ‘Beauty,’ the Turkey Vulture, to make her debut,” said Hawks Aloft executive director Gail Garber.

For festival details and tour registration, visit mvcranefest.org. Registration deadline is March 7, 2019. To register as a vendor for the craft and nature fair, visit chamber@montevistachamber.org or call Jerry Apker at 719-852-2731.