This was the first time I’ve seen the cranes moving through the San Luis Valley. Since the last ice age, the Great Sand Hill Cranes have been making an epic mass migration between summer and winter nesting grounds. The wetlands, large grain fields and wildlife refuges in the San Luis Valley offer them a safe haven. Their trajectory… northward to the marshlands of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.
I’m in the midst of reading Aldo Leopold’s classic, “A Sand County Almanac”, in which he describes the great bird flocks of the plains as either dead or dying breeds (and that was published in 49’…). After reading about them, I decided this migration, so close to home, was an event that I did not want to miss. I looked up the region on Google maps, threw my gear in the truck on a friday afternoon and drove the two and half hours from Durango, into the San Luis Valley.
There was descent snow coverage on the Wolf Creek Pass and predictably unpredictable Colorado spring weather as I came into the large, volcanic, high desert, dry farmland of the San Luis Valley. I arrived at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge about two hours before sundown. It was pretty easy to know where to go, as there were already hundreds of Cranes, Geese and other fowl flying in to bed down for the evening. I pulled over in one of the convenient and rather large viewing areas to find myself amongst dozens of others, silently watching and observing the ebbs and flows of the circling birds, cut shadows into the wheat fields. Their bizarre honks and warbles make you feel like your hanging out with dinosaurs… Too soon, we were forced to retreat back to the vehicles as the light drizzle and intermittent sunshine turned to hail and snow, and then darkness. Leaving reluctantly, I pondered the playful and resilient calls of the Cranes, and headed into the hills to find my own abode for the evening.
A rather sleepless, damp and chilly night in the topper of my truck, inspired me to jump out of the sleeping bag at 5:45 am. After having tea on the truck bed and wiping a few inches of soggy snow off the windshield, I was off again to catch first light and photographs of my new feathered friends. Arriving a half hour before sunrise at a viewing area, I was impressed by the number of human enthusiasts present, at such an early hour. I say enthusiasts, because people usually assume “crowds”and “tourists” as destructive, and detracting from any sort of “nature experience” (especially within the hardy community of outdoor recreationalists in Colorado).
I was delighted to see these families, and couples, scientists and out-of-staters, quietly watching the birds… Heck yeah. These people are supporters, voters and allies to these 25,000 or so Cranes that come through this Colorado valley. I love it! What a community to be a part of… All here to witness this beautiful event, in a unique place.
As predicted, the flocks began to move as the sun got closer to gaining the horizon. In the soft light of dawn, the Cranes began to animate, and a few times, thousands of birds came up at once in a tremendous wave of sound, circling and counter circling, then landing again in the marshy fields. Standing beneath them as they flew over head was truly an awe-inspiring experience. I also learned that the oddly playful “jumping” that they do, is part of their mating dance. The Great Cranes live to be 15-20 years old, and they choose mates for life. The depth and history of these creatures intrigues me further…
The craving for coffee and breakfast sent me into Monte Vista, where I quickly found a mom-and-pop diner called Don Tomas Bakery ran by a adorable Hispanic family. Green chilli on a breakfast burrito, cheap coffee and excellent service. Boom. Did you know the San Luis Valley was settled by the Spanish in the 1500’s? The town of San Luis Colorado, still touts itself as being the last city in Mexico (which it was until the Mexican Cession in 1848, and prior to that, the Pueblo amongst others). Colorado Culture is a beautiful thing.
After shaking the frost out of my fingers and toes in the diner, I started mulling over my options of what to do next (as it was only 9 am). Although the Cranes were amazing and the crowds peaceful, I needed exercise and a bit more solitude. I decided to drive an hour northwest to the Great Sand Dunes National Park. In the elbow shaped corner of the Sangre De Cristo mountains and the iconic (and sacred) Mt. Blanca, sits one of Colorado’s most unique public parks. The vast expanse of dunes, nestled in the rugged mountains creates not only spectacular vistas, but a unique and noncommittal day hike (go out as far as you want and come back). Sand and blue sky making you feel like your on the beach, but replace the surfboards and margaritas, with snow and a half empty Nalgene. What’s not to like.
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