In the San Luis Valley, they have arrived, the first wave of an ancient migration that will bring practically the entire population of Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes to the fields and marshes near Monte Vista.

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In the eastern plains, prairie chickens are emerging from holes to begin their dancing, one of the more bizarre mating rituals in North America, with the possible exception of human speed-dating.

Yes, March in Colorado is for the birds.

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Be they photographers, life-list birders or nature lovers, people flock from all over the state and beyond for these avian spectacles. The population of Monte Vista will double this weekend as the town celebrates its 30th crane festival. On the plains, remote hamlets such as Holly and Wray will see throngs of sight-seers, eager to pile onto busses at zero dark thirty for a glimpse of the dancing chickens.

Sandhill Cranes San Luis Valley Photo Credit Michael Ciaglo - OutThere Colorado
More than 20,000 Rocky Mountain sandhill cranes make a two-month winter stop in the San Luis Valley during their migration North to Idaho and Canada. Monte Vista plans to celebrate the annual arrival of the four-foot tall guests with the 31st Monte Vista Crane Festival this weekend, which features tours, talks and activities. Photo Credit: Michael Ciaglo. 

Sandhill cranes

High on a cliff side near Monte Vista, about 2.5 hours’ drive from Colorado Springs, is a petroglyph, probably 2,000 years old, depicting a sandhill crane. That’s how long humans have been celebrating the arrival of the majestic birds.

The birds have been spending spring break here for much longer.

Large and dinosaur-like, the 20,000 or so birds arrive from New Mexico in February and spend six weeks in the marshes of the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding fields. The area is rich in wildlife this time of year, with bald eagles, elk and waterfowl, but the cranes top the list.

“It’s just one of those wildlife gatherings that are kind of rare. You don’t see big groups of animals like that together, and it’s just so spectacular,” said Suzanne Beauchaine, manager of the wildlife refuge.

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There were about 5,000 roosting there as of last week, and she expected numbers to be at their peak by this weekend.

That’s good news for organizers of the Monte Vista Crane Festival, which draws up to 1,500 people to rejoice in all things crane-related. Entrance to the festival, basically a bird-themed arts and crafts fair, is free.

“It’s an annual event that kind of welcomes the birds back and kind of welcomes in spring, too,” festival chairman Greg Thompson said.

On the morning tour, you can see the birds as they take off from the wildlife refuge to farm fields to feast on grain. The evening tour lets you watch as the sky darkens and the birds take off en masse to return to the wildlife refuge for the night. This view, as the birds fill the sky and the setting sun turns the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains a brilliant purple hue, is not to be missed.

The wildlife refuge is free and open to the public, and many people explore the area on their own, usually by car as trails are limited.

The cranes will stay until mid-April, mating and fattening up on grains, before continuing onto their summer grounds in the northern Rockies.

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*This article was originally published on February 19, 2016.