Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Field Notes 3.10/11/12 Monte Vista Crane Festival

We started this weekend with a Birder’s Breakfast - a  breakfast burrito - which I think should be the traditional breakfast of birdwatchers and birders.  Our first activity of the day was a bird walk with the Valley’s birding authority,  John Rawinski. We began on the south side of the Home Lake Veterans Center, where tall fir trees as well as tanks, a jet airplane and a cannon covered the grounds.  We saw pine siskins, a nuthatch, a magpie and a house sparrow.
 Moving into an open area we saw cranes circling high on thermals, getting altitude for the next leg to their nesting grounds.
On the north side of the property facing the Rio Grande to the north and a service lagoon to the west, the group spotted a northern flicker on a distant tree branch, two killdeer across the marsh on the levee and two bald eagles soaring high overhead. We also saw a house finch, a dark-eyed junco and a song sparrow.
The hour-long walk was very enjoyable. Before leaving we had John sign our copy of his birding guide, Birding Hotspots of South-Central Colorado.
After a rest at home in Alamosa, we headed back to Monte Vista and climbed on board a yellow school bus loaded with enthused  crane watchers for the Sandhill Sunset Tour. A snowy rain came in just before the buses start to load. The late afternoon (prevening) turned cold and gray as the bus headed  south to the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge.  The first stop at the refuge was the wooded observation area on the south side.  The cranes were close. We could see their red and white heads and the rusty color on their backs—a dusty pigment from the clays that the birds paint themselves with as camouflage on their nesting grounds.
Across the roosting area the cranes congregated with geese. We saw two white spots and thought snow geese.  Talking with one of the guides he agreed they were snow geese but we decided to come back the next day when the light was better and we could confirm the sighting. 
We continued on to the auto loop and the other pull outs and then headed further south to CO 370 looking for cranes in the cultivated fields but saw only a few birds. We wondered if the stormy weather  was keeping  the cranes further afield.  Usually when the sun sets the refuge skies are filled with thousands of cranes  and geese.  This evening it was more like the high hundreds. But it was still an impressive sight.
Our tour guide, a employee from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, entertained us with sandhill crane facts and stories. The other birdwatchers on the trip also enjoyed the tour and said the cranes and the San Luis Valley were spectacular.
We returned for Day 2 of the Crane Festival on Sunday and boarded the yellow school bus for the Valley Raptor Tour guided by Hawks Aloft. On Hwy. 15 south we stopped to try to identify the shadowy figure of a raptor in poor morning light in a shady, shaggy tree.
 On the MVNWR we saw red-tailed hawks and golden eagles  flying on high.  At Home Lake we saw red-tailed hawks, a northern harrier and bald eagles. An American coot, common mergansers  and cinnamon teals swam in the canal.
Returning to the Ski Hi complex our band of happy raptor watchers disembarked from the bus and the two of us drove down to the refuge to find those white geese. After a fair amount of searching we found them at the southwest observation area mingling with the Canada geese. We determined that they were indeed snow geese on their northward migration.
Our Monte Vista Crane Festival count yielded 27 birds and four new birds for our SLV bird count.
We saw:
Killdeer on the ground
Pine siskins in fir trees
Snow geese with Canada geese
Cinnamon teals in irrigation canal

A great weekend in the San Luis Valley.

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