Upon entering the San Luis Valley (see previous post), I headed for the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge, in the southwest portion of that vast basin. It is there that most of the sandhill cranes tend to congregate, resting and feeding in fields throughout the day and spending the night in shallow lakes, safe from predators.
According to the current refuge brochure, 23,000 to 27,000 cranes stop in the valley during their spring and fall migrations; the peak spring migration now occurs in early March, earlier than in the past (perhaps another sign of global warming). During my two hour visit, I'm sure I encountered at least 5,000 cranes; while most were quiet and stationary, the mobile and vocal flocks were especially inspiring, their bugling one of nature's most stirring sounds. Canada geese were also abundant but ducks were rather limited since many of the pools remained frozen. Other sightings included a small number of snow geese, a golden eagle, several rough-legged hawks and northern harriers, a few American kestrels and a modest number of mountain bluebirds.
The refuge is located approximately 6 miles south of Monte Vista on Highway 15. An auto tour road begins at the refuge entrance but other viewing areas are located along the highway itself and on county roads east of Route 15. According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the majority of cranes that migrate through the San Luis Valley are greater sandhill cranes though Canadian and lesser subspecies may also be observed. From 1975 until 1989, the Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes were used as foster parents in an effort to expand the range of whooping cranes in North America; unfortunately, that program was not successful.