The migration of the sandhill cranes in the San Luis Valley is often compared with the migration of wildebeest in Africa.

Up to 5,000 people from around the world flock every March to the southern wetlands to hear 8,000 cranes trilling together and see their distinctive courtship dance of hops, twirls and hope. And many a grateful photographer prizes the sight of the birds taking flight en masse when a predator, such as an eagle, arrives on the scene.

The Monte Vista Crane Festival, the state’s oldest birding festival, is Friday through Sunday, with tours (mostly sold out), workshops, lectures, a breakfast and craft and nature fair. Keynote speakers and romantic partners Erv Nichols and Sandra Noll will give the talk “Migrating with the Sandhill Cranes” on Saturday night.

“Over the years, working with the birds and with Sandra, I’ve experienced a love for all birds and a depth of feeling I never knew I had,” said Nichols, a former newspaper photographer. “When you see a flock of cranes, and see them coming in for a landing, and can almost hear the landing gear come down for landing, it’s amazing, with the sun setting in the background or coming up.”

About 20,000 cranes migrate from Bosque de Apache National Wildlife Refuge in southern New Mexico through the San Luis Valley from the tail end of February through early April. Up to 10,000 birds can be be seen at a time, best viewed from designated spots inside the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge. After their brief stay, half of the population heads to Nebraska and the other half flies to northwest Colorado and the greater Yellowstone National Park area, where they nest and raise their chicks over the summer.

Those who can’t make it for the festival are still invited to Monte Vista throughout March for wildlife viewing. Cranes begin to peter out toward the end of the month, but they’ll be back next year for the wetlands and barley fields that provide them with their prime habitat and food resources.

“There are 15 types of cranes in the world associated with wetlands,” said Noll. “The wetlands are in danger, so it’s important for people to understand that without these habitats, there would be a loss, not just of this bird, but of a lot of different kinds of wildlife.”

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