Destination: Colorado : ENJOY THE FLIGHT : During their spring migration, beautiful sandhill cranes drop by the San Luis Valley for rest, a bite to eat--and some photo opportunities

Keats is an Englewood, Colo., free-lance writer.

The air was filled with the calligraphy of birds, linear waves of cranes like Japanese writing against the sky. They seemed to flush out over the snowy San Juan Mountains, emerging in pulses that inched toward the area's barley fields and to the Alamosa-Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge Complex where the sandhill cranes sink down each February and March to gorge themselves on abundant grain.

Like magnets, these southern Colorado feeding grounds--both in the refuge and in adjacent farms rich with grain left over from the fall harvest--are scheduled stops for the estimated 20,000 birds during their annual spring migration from winters in New Mexico to spring breeding grounds at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho.

This San Luis Valley wildlife refuge--actually two separate areas that total more than 25,000 acres, divided into plots on either side of Alamosa, Colo.--is part of a federally funded chain of more than 500 around the country. As part of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service, they provide food, water and shelter to a wide variety of wildlife in an effort to help preserve various species and encourage breeding. Visiting this Colorado complex is an excellent way to witness these birds in their natural habitat.

Another way to mark their spring arrival (the birds are generally gone from the area by the first week in April) is to visit the town of Monte Vista for its annual Festival of the Cranes. This year it will take place March 23-26.

The festival is a charming small-town celebration featuring pancake breakfasts, barbecue dinners, wildlife workshops in bird identification, a photography seminar by nature photographers, bus tours of the refuges and surrounding areas, nature lectures and trips to the stunning Great Sand Dunes National Monument nearby. Prices for various events range from free to $30. Last year was the fourth time I had returned to the area to see the sandhill cranes. They are so dynamic, graceful and haunting that they linger in my consciousness, and seeing them again and again has become kind of a ritual--my way of welcoming the cycle of spring.

Also part of my rite of spring has become a visit to the Great Sand Dunes National Monument, about an hour's drive northeast of the town of Monte Vista. While it is not bird-filled, it has striking beauty and fits perfectly into a nature lover's pilgrimage to the area.

But a year ago it was the wetlands where I headed first, because I knew the birds would be there. Scattered throughout the San Luis Valley, the wetlands are an additional draw for the cranes, as well as for numerous types of waterfowl that like the security of the habitat, including snowy egrets, black-crowned night herons, avocets and up to 30,000 ducks during the height of their March migration.

The wetlands were formed by natural and artificial dikes, irrigation ditches and ponds, and from underground aquifers filled with melting snows from the San Juan and Sangre de Cristo mountains that surround the valley. They combine to provide farming irrigation--necessary because the valley is actually a high, arid plateau that receives only about seven inches of precipitation each year.

I was among the lucky few who last year spotted two rare white whooping cranes (who take their name from the sound of their call) within a group of comparatively grayer sandhill cranes. The whooping cranes show up because of a breeding program that was started in 1975 in order to increase their population. (In 1941, only 21 whooping cranes, a species unique to North America, remained in the wild. Now, with their numbers expanded by breeding programs, there are an estimated 150 in the United States.) Scientists were allowed to take one of every two eggs from breeding-ground nests in Canada--where whooping cranes are also nearly extinct--and to move those eggs to the Idaho nests of sandhill cranes.

Since whooping cranes learn migration patterns from their parents, there are only a handful that fly with the sandhill flock to rest and feed at the Alamosa-Monte Vista refuges, which are among the main stops along the path they take from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico to Idaho--a journey of more than 800 miles.

Some of the best points from which to view the four-foot-tall sandhill cranes and other birds are found along the Auto Tour Route, a trail that wends through the Monte Vista refuge. It starts from a small parking lot at the Visitor Contact Station on the refuge and meanders through the wetlands and near fields of barley and rows of craggy cottonwood trees. I drove the route and was rewarded with rich views of breeding and migrating shorebirds, including the humble little brown-and-white killdeer.

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At the height of their migration, the sandhill cranes are visible against the surrounding curtain of mountains from many points along the trail, but I found them to be particularly obvious where the trail meets the barley fields. In such a spot, I was close enough to see details of their red foreheads as they fed. It also offered an opportunity to see pairs jumping up and down and spreading their wings as they pranced in ritual mating dances.

I recommend bringing the strongest binoculars possible, as well as cameras with long telephoto lenses (500 millimeter is best, or a minimum of 200 millimeters). For photography, experts recommend exploring the refuges in the early mornings, from sunrise to about 7 a.m., as well as late in the afternoon.

To reach Great Sand Dunes National Monument from the town of Alamosa, I traveled east on U.S. 160 and then turned north on Colorado 150.

The monument's 39 square miles of dunes--the highest in North America--are constantly changing, always shifting, with dramatic lengthening and darkening shadows. As the winds form these varying patterns, one also feels the sense of timelessness that permeates this 700-foot-high sea of sand, which geologists believe was formed over the last 12,000 years. Visitors may also be treated to changing displays of wildflowers along the dunes, including lavender penstemons in the spring and yellow prairie sunflowers in late summer. Add to that the stupendous backdrop of the bluish, craggy, snow-topped Sangre de Cristo mountains, and I find it to be a special combination of scenery--inspirational with its rich and subtle plays of light and color.

While they seem out of place here surrounded by Colorado peaks instead of bordered by ocean or lake, the great dunes were formed because just the right ingredients for making them--sand, wind and time--existed here. The Rio Grande, the main river in the San Luis Valley, and the surrounding 14,000-foot mountain ranges that border the valley to the west (the San Juans) and to the east (the Sangre de Cristos) also played major roles.

For centuries, the Rio Grande meandered through the San Luis Valley, carrying sediment and depositing it in its riverbed and along its shores. As the Rio Grande changed its course over time, these sand deposits were exposed to the winds that swept across the broad, flat valley, pushing the grains until the Sangre de Cristo Mountains barred the way.

Seeking a way over this barrier, the winds surged upward through low mountain passes, carrying the lighter particles and leaving the heavier sand at the foot of the mountains. In this way, over thousands of years, the giant dunes were created.

I found climbing toward the summit of the dunes to be the best way to experience their scale, as well as the unique phenomenon of the dune crests. There, edges as sharp and precise as razors are formed by the wind--at velocities of 40 m.p.h. --that is forever reshaping the surfaces into subtle new variations. Depending on time of day, they turn different shades of rust, brown, pink, cream, gray and gold.

Several trails exist near the base of the dunes, near where Medano Creek flows in the spring and early summer, as well as up Mosca Pass in the foothills of the Sangres. The dunes are a good place to hike--during the day and at night--to discover animals and plants, to seek silence and solitude, to take photographs, to camp and, as some do come summer, even to ski the sand.

GUIDEBOOK: Wing Watching

Getting there: From LAX fly to Alamosa, Colo., on United, with a change of planes to United Express in Denver. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at about $545.

Alamosa-Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge Complex--actually at two geographic locations--is less than a 15-minute drive from Alamosa; Great Sand Dunes National Monument is about an hour's drive northeast.

Where to stay: Great Sand Dunes Country Club & Inn, 5303 Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146 (four miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Monument); $130-$250 per room, per night; telephone (719) 378-2357.

Mt. Blanca Gamebird & Trout Resort, P.O. Box 236, Blanca, CO 81123 (25 miles east of Alamosa National Wildlife Refuge; about 25 miles south of Great Sand Dunes National Monument); $70-100 per room, per night; tel. (719) 379-3825.

Best Western Movie Manor, 2830 W. Highway 160, Monte Vista, CO 81144 (two miles west of Monte Vista); $45-70 per room, per night; tel. (719) 852-5921.

For Crane Festival information: Monte Vista Crane Committee, P.O. Box 585, Monte Vista, CO 81144; tel. (719) 852-3552.

For more information: Alamosa Chamber of Commerce, Cole Park, Alamosa 81101; tel. (719) 589-3681.

Alamosa-Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge Complex, 9383 El Rancho Lane, Alamosa 81101; tel. (719) 589-4021.

Great Sand Dunes National Monument, 11500 Highway 150, Mosca, CO 81146; tel. (719) 378-2312.

E.K.

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