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In March, Colorado is for the birds
• Warm clothes (think skiing gear ... yeah, it’s that cold)
• Dark clothes, so the birds won’t see you as well
• Camera with a long lens
• Bird-identification book
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Click here for more on the festival
“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.
Lesser prairie chicken
It’s so early, the word “morning” isn’t appropriate.
It’s cold, and if you could see, all you’d see is endless prairie. Then the tiniest hint of light appears on the eastern horizon, and the sounds start.
Ba-boom, ba-boom. Then cackling and chortling. And if you’re lucky enough to be in the right spot, you might see some movement, as the dance of the lesser prairie chicken begins. The males puff out their pink neck air sacs and engage in a comical routine of jumping and flapping to catch the eye of a hen.
“It’s kind of a treat because they bounce around, they stomp their feet, they flap their wings. They do a mock-fighting thing,” said John Koshak, watchable wildlife coordinator for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
All of Colorado’s grouse species have some kind of spring mating ritual, but the prairie chicken is the most well-known, and to see a lesser prairie chicken is extra-special because they are so rare. Listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act, their numbers have been decimated by habitat loss.
The mating ground is called a “lek,” a bare spot on high ground where they return each spring to find a mate, and just finding one on public land in Colorado is next to impossible. You need a blind because the birds won’t emerge to dance if they sense people, and the only one on the Comanche National Grassland closed in 2007 because the birds disappeared after a snowy winter. The rest of the habitat in Baca and Prowers counties is on private land.
Koshak recommends signing up for a tour with Arena Dust Tours, run by a couple in Holly who have agreements with land owners to go see the dance in spring.
Or you can drive a little farther to the Cimarron National Grasslands near Elkhart, Kan. There is a public viewing blind on County Road J northeast of town. It’s first-come, first-serve, so if it’s taken, try to watch the birds from your vehicle.
By early May, the mating ritual is over and the chickens vanish into the prairie.
Greater prairie chicken
On the northeast Colorado plains, another chicken engages in a flight of fanciful dancing each spring. The greater prairie chicken is slightly bigger than the lesser prairie chicken, with a reddish-orange air sac.
It’s also easier to find, since recovery efforts allowed it to be removed from federal protection in 1998.
But there are no blinds on public land, so the best way to get tickets to the dance is to book a tour. The Wray Chamber of Commerce runs eight bus tours to private land. One tour was already sold out as of last week, so make reservations right away. There’s a mandatory orientation the night before your tour.
“It’s a pretty unique display. After 19 years of doing these tours, these birds have shown up for every tour,” said Josh Melby, district wildlife manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Other birding options
Don’t want to drive three hours or get up at 4 a.m. to watch a chicken dance? No worries. There are plenty of other spring bird-watching opportunities.
• For an overview of Colorado birding, the Palmer Land Trust will hold a workshop at 6 p.m. March 14 at the Wild Bird Center, 1722 E. Woodmen Road in Colorado Springs. You will be able to hear from naturalists and sign up for bird walks to be held in April and May.
• The summit of Pikes Peak, where you can see rare rosy-finches.
• The Manitou Experimental Forest, north of Woodland Park, to see and hear elusive flammulated owls.
• Big Johnson Reservoir, the area’s best reservoir for birding, teems with life and migratory birds in winter.
• Chico Basin Ranch, southeast of Colorado Springs, charges a $15 fee for birders ($10 apiece for four or more), and the area is a great place to spy migratory birds and breeding mountain plovers.
• Sondermann Park, a city park in the heart of town, makes a great short walk to see hummingbirds, grosbeaks and others.