Steamboat Springs Mary Barber sees them nearly every day in the spring.
The longtime local watches as a family of sandhill cranes plays out a ritual that has stretched more than a decade.
"They always nest in the marshy area near the pond, and once the chicks are big enough, they go across the road every morning, and they return every night," she said Thursday.
The birds' slow and methodical march across the ranch lands west of Steamboat Springs usually goes unnoticed, but not by Mary and her husband, Glenn Barber.
Mary says the route varies from day to day, but the basic path has remained pretty much unchanged since the birds started using the wetlands surrounding a small pond adjacent to their property.
The birds spend the first few weeks each spring near the pond, which provides space for protection, mating and nesting. Once the chicks have hatched and grown, they begin to follow their parents on a daily odyssey across Routt County Road 42, to the open fields and another marshy area over the hill.
In the evening, the parents and their offspring usually can be found making the return trip to the pond, where they are safe from foxes, coyotes and other predators.
But Mary also sees other dangers to the cranes every day.
The drivers who pass in front of her home rarely notice the houses, silos and farm fields that paint the background of their daily commute. She understands progress but is afraid some of the drivers pose more of a threat to the birds than any of natural predators.
"The traffic on 42 is atrocious," Mary said. "Most people will not stop, and very few even slow down."
In the past, one of the adult cranes flew into the windshield of an oncoming car to protect the young chicks. The move startled a driver, but the crane wasn't hurt.
"The bird just flew up and kind of landed on the windshield," Glenn said. "The car wasn't gong fast enough to hurt the bird, but it sure got the driver's attention."
The Barbers' biggest fear is that one of the birds will be hit and killed while making the trek from one side of the road to the other. In an effort to prevent that, Glenn and Mary have been known to stand out on the road and stop traffic when the birds are close to crossing.
"We would love to see people slow down on that stretch of the road," Mary said. "Some folks have taken notice and slowed down, but others haven't noticed the birds or simply will not slow down."
Glenn says the birds usually cross between 6:45 and 7 p.m. Once the birds reach the road, the dangerous part of the trek is over in the blink of an eye, as adults and chicks scurry across the road with a hurried pace rarely seen in the world of cranes.
Glenn said traffic on the short stretch of road, which connects U.S. Highway 40 to subdivisions including Silver Spur and Marabou Ranch, has increased dramatically in the past few years.
He says the birds seem to be aware of the traffic, but he's not sure whether drivers are aware of the birds, or aware that the chicks can't fly yet.
Staying for the summer
Jim Haskins, area manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife, said sandhill cranes normally return to Routt County in the spring and also are common in Moffat, Jackson and Rio Blanco counties. Greater sandhill cranes are large, prehistoric-looking birds with a grayish color that blends into the Routt County scenery.
He added that at one point, the sandhill crane population was threatened by human development to the point that the bird was listed on the state's endangered species list.
However, efforts to protect wetlands where the birds nest has helped the population recover. Haskins said greater sandhill cranes were removed from the state's endangered species list in the early '90s. Today, the greater sandhill crane is listed as a species of special concern, and it receives some protection.
Haskins said in the next few weeks, the chicks should begin to fly and hopefully be able to avoid the dangerous trip across C.R. 42. But Glenn Barber said the birds normally stay through the summer, and in the past, the cranes have been seen walking across the road into August. He said the birds usually leave in late summer, but he looks forward to their return each spring.
"Sure, we have a connection with the birds," Glenn said. "I don't think they recognize me, but we sure like having them around. I hope people will slow down or take the time to stop. I would hate to see anything happen to one of those birds."