Birders scan for sandhill cranes Sunday when the sun was coming up west of Steamboat Springs. The bird watching event kicked off the inaugural Yampa Valley Crane Festival.

Photo by Scott Franz

Birders scan for sandhill cranes Sunday when the sun was coming up west of Steamboat Springs. The bird watching event kicked off the inaugural Yampa Valley Crane Festival.

Sandhill cranes delight birdwatchers in Steamboat

Festival continues Monday with afternoon program at Steamboat Community Center

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Yampa Valley Crane Festival schedule

Monday

12:30 p.m. Senior program and “Raising Kid Colt” screening at Steamboat Springs Community Center, FREE

2:30 p.m. Senior program and “Raising Kid Colt” screening at the Haven Community Center in Hayden, FREE

6 p.m. Young Writers Group writing activity with BookTrails at Bud Werner Memorial Library, FREE

7 p.m. Shuttle leaves at 6:15 p.m. from Stock Bridge Transit Center to Carpenter Ranch for crane viewing. $5 suggested donation for shuttle.

Tuesday

7 a.m. Shuttle leaves at 6:15 a.m. from Stock Bridge Transit Center to Carpenter Ranch for crane viewing. $5 suggested donation for shuttle.

10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Crane film screenings, art exhibition and lectures at Bud Werner Memorial Library, FREE

Wednesday

7 a.m. Shuttle leaves at 6:15 a.m. from Stock Bridge Transit Center to Carpenter Ranch for crane viewing. $5 suggested donation for shuttle.

10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Crane film screenings, art exhibition and lectures at Bud Werner Memorial Library, FREE

— The search started at 6:20 a.m. in the dark, frosty fields of Routt County Road 42.

Armed with binoculars and scopes mounted on tripods, 13 birders unloaded from shuttles and cars onto the gravel road west of Steamboat Springs.

They zipped their jackets up tight before they stepped into the 37 degree dawn.

Then, just as the sun started to rise at 6:30 a.m., they heard the unmistakable call of their prize.

“It's such a wonderful sound,” one of the observers said as five sandhill cranes flew overhead from their roosting site in the Elk River.

The birders scrambled to follow the cranes with their binoculars and scopes.

They hoped they would land in the nearby wheat field.

But the birds had a different plan and quickly vanished.

“The birds don't always cooperate,” Fort Collins resident Cathy Cannon said an hour later at another crane viewing site near Hayden.

Cannon and her 6-year-old daughter Caitlin were among the birdwatchers who attended the inaugural Yampa Valley Crane Festival that kicked off Sunday with the morning search for the cranes.

During their search, the birders got glimpses of red tail hawks, antelope, elk and grouse.

But for hours, the cranes were elusive.

Hoping to catch them feeding in West Routt County, the birdwatchers spent about 30 minutes at the viewing site in Hayden that hugs the Yampa River.

After tiring of watching crows and a group of elk stroll by, the group was headed to breakfast when Nancy Merill, one of the lead organizers of the crane festival, shouted for them to stop.

The cranes finally had arrived.

Caitlin smiled as she put her eye up to a high-power scope and watched the birds hop up and down near the river.

For several minutes, the group was glued to their binoculars.

“To see people turn on to the excitement of seeing these creatures in the wild is heartwarming,” Merrill said. “It's like watching a child take their first step. I've always felt a responsibility to share it.”

Merrill, president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, helped put together the crane festival with several other organizations after Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife entertained a proposal to allow hunting of sandhill cranes in the state. The proposal eventually was dropped.

The festival continued after breakfast at Hayden's Carpenter Ranch.

Children snapped cellphone photos of a stuffed sandhill crane on loan from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and also made paper cranes.

Other events included crane dancing, crane stories and a guided bird walk on the picturesque property.

“We hope the festival shows everyone how special the sandhill cranes are and how lucky we are to have them here,” Merrill said.

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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