We arrived at the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge at 4:30 p.m.--just in time to watch them feeding in the Refuge's planted grain fields for about an hour. Forty adults sat on a Monte Vista public school bus and listened as two Department of Wildlife Rangers talked about the wetlands, the feeding areas, the cranes and other wildlife that we might see. It was exciting to see the Great Horned Owls sitting in a near-to-the-road tree. We lowered our windows to see geese, mallards and coots swimming between the cattails and other wetland plants--but what we all had come for was to glimpse up close some of the estimated 26,000 Sand Hill Cranes resting and recouping strength in this refuge for the next three weeks. We were part of the 21st annual Crane Fest in Monte Vista, Colorado.
Eventually our bus stopped beside a field where thousands of cranes ate, chortled and occasionally jumped and postured in a courtship dance. The chortling reminds me of the common Middle-Eastern vocalizations used for cheering at athletic competitions. Sometimes it was muted--almost a quiet conversation--but as the sun sank lower, the volume and frequency of the chortling increased until finally a little after 5:30 the first few cranes lifted into the sky in the direction of the wetlands where they would spend the night standing in the water--to avoid predators. For the next two hours the sky was filled with small groups of cranes lifting off one after the other as if some unseen crane air-traffic controller was clearing them for take-off.
At 7:30 when it had become too dark to see through binoculars and the several high-powered scopes that had been set up by the Rangers, we waited for the grand finale. And then, like the last great burst of fireworks on the Fourth of July, the sky was full of black specks silhouetted against an grayish-blue sky--and the spectacle was complete. The next morning we would arrive at 5:30 a.m. to catch a glimpse of the lift-off back to the feeding fields before we began our return trip to Denver.
Though we were able to see them quite clearly--with the aid of binoculars and scopes--even the red splotch of color across their eyes, it was an event, a feeling, a communing with these magnificent four feet tall, 11-pound birds with 5 to 6 feet wingspans that could not be captured on my short zoom digital camera. One just has to be there. I cannot imagine what it must be like to witness the fly-in of the half-million cranes on the Platte River in Nebraska.
A Sky-full of cranes!