Cranes grace San Luis Valley on northward trip

Magnificent birds make stopover at Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

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What could be more beautiful than an excursion to the San Luis Valley to see thousands of big, graceful sandhill cranes, as they make a rest stop en route from their winter home to the northwestern U.S. and Canada, where they nest.

The sky was blue and endless, the surrounding mountains were capped with a skiff of fresh snow, fields were greening and the sun was shining. That valley is a protective spot for cranes and those who love to watch them.

They winter in the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, near Albuquerque, New Mexico and start arriving in the San Luis Valley in February to feast on barley in the fields at the valley’s Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge and nearby San Luis Lakes State Wildlife Area. It’s located 15 miles west of the Great Sand Dunes National Park, so one can spend a splendid few days with nature at its finest.

It’s a beautiful drive from our south area on Highway 285, which goes through Bailey, Fairplay, Buena Vista ... (We like to make a brunch/lunch stop at one of the latter two.) Turn west in Monte Vista to the refuge.

Overnight stays are available at the Movie Manor Motel in Monte Vista (kids love the two big screens they can watch from the window). Or, we had a pleasant B&B this trip.

The Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge has lakes, fields, a wetland area and a number of large parking places set aside at the edges of the refuge, so that families can get out of the cars with binoculars and cameras to watch and wonder at these large, long-legged birds with a six-foot wingspan.

Cranes mate for life, but in the spring, they repeat a courtship ritual that includes dancing and bowing — and communicating with a sound I’ll never forget ... some pairs will have last year’s chick, now a teenager, with them in the field as it learns how to be a grownup ...

Hope to see flocks in the air mornings and evenings as well as watching them in the fields.

They spend the night in the wetlands, which is closed Feb. 15 to July 15 for nesting season.

Our information says there are 250 species of birds found in the Great Sand Dunes Park and Preserve, which is right next to this refuge, so pack in a bird identification book or two along with those binocs.

We spent about four hours en route, including a brunch stop, and it’s scenic all the way from Red Rocks Park to the valley.

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