Steamboat Springs Nancy Merrill is a self-described “craniac” and has earned the reputation as a protector of the Greater Sandhill Crane, which has begun its return to the Yampa Valley. She and another local woman Barb Hughes spearheaded the effort to oppose a proposal that would have allowed limited hunting of the crane in Colorado, and the pair transformed that grass-roots effort into an annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which will be celebrating its third year this fall.
Lisa Schlichtman's "Exploring Steamboat" column appears throughout the year in the Steamboat Today.
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“Sometimes, it takes a threat to move you to action,” Nancy said.
After talking about cranes with Nancy over coffee recently, I found myself genuinely intrigued by the magnificent bird, and I’ve been on the look out for one ever since. I hear they like to hang out at the pond near the entrance to the road that leads to my subdivision, but so far, I’ve yet to catch sight of one.
The first crane sightings of the season began the second week in March. Some of the first birds to be photographed in Routt County were captured in images taken by Steamboat Pilot & Today photographer John Russell.
Standing 4 to 5 feet tall on spindly stick-like legs with slate grey feathers, a long, slender neck and a distinctive crimson red crown, Greater Sandhill Cranes, the largest of the species, are distinctive in their size and behavior.
“Cranes are very charismatic,” Nancy said. “They mate for life; they dance. In fact, they’re the best dancers in the animal kingdom.”
With wing spans of 6 to 9 feet, Greater Sandhill Cranes are hard to miss when the social birds take flight as a group or choose to dance in an effort to attract or bond with a mate. Early settlers called cranes “preacher birds” because of the bowing and wing flapping that occurs when they dance.
“They dance for all sorts of reason — to attract a mate, to release energy or when they are excited,” Nancy said. “They bow, throw sticks in the air and they can jump as high as 20 feet in the air.”
Nancy also described the crane’s unique call.
“If you’ve ever heard the call of the crane, it’s haunting,” Nancy said. She explains that a crane’s call can carry for more than a mile, and she even has a series of crane calls on her cellphone, which she played for me so I could hear the bugle-like sounds that cranes use to establish pair bonding. Often, the calls ring out in unison.
The return of the Greater Sandhill Crane to the Yampa Valley is as much a sign of spring as snow melt, mud and warmer temperatures. Crane sightings also whet the appetite of bird lovers, like Nancy, who know the biggest gathering of these beauties is only six months away.
When cranes arrive in the Yampa Valley from Arizona and New Mexico, they are here to nest, raise their young and prepare for their winter migration. The valley provides just the right habitat for the picky birds. Cranes require wetlands for nesting and breeding, and they like to roost in deeper water to protect themselves from predators. And irrigated hay fields and alfalfa meadows provide a steady diet of bugs, grains and frogs.
“There’s about 15,000 to 20,000 in the Rocky Mountain flock of the Greater Sandhill Crane, and of that flock, we get 400 to 1,200 who meet here in the spring and summer,” Nancy explained. “They’re joined by other members of the Rocky Mountain flock in summer or fall, and we can get 2,500 to 3,000 at that time, although they may not all be here at the same time.”
The Yampa Valley Crane Festival is timed to coincide with the influx of cranes, and for a full week, local residents and tourists can enjoy a host of crane-themed activities, including crane viewings, expert speakers, films, crane art, school programs and workshops.
“Yampa Valley becomes a staging area,” Nancy said. “For a couple of weeks, they come here to eat and rest and get ready for the migration south.
“We hold the festival when the population is highest but they don’t always cooperate. They’re wild birds, after all.”
This year’s festival will be held Sept. 12 to 15 with events planned in Steamboat, Hayden, Stagecoach and Craig. In 2012, the first year the festival was held, about 1,200 people attended the event. Last year, attendance doubled, and Nancy is expecting more growth in 2014.
“This festival offers the opportunity to showcase so many beautiful things about Yampa Valley beyond the cranes,” Nancy said. “We do a nature walk on the ski mountain and take pontoons out on Stagecoach Lake for bird watching.
“We really see this as something that can become a signature event for Steamboat,” she added.
For anyone like me who still is yearning to spot their first Greater Sandhill Crane of the season, Nancy suggests a few prime places to look, including the fields west of the power plant in Hayden, the area along U.S. Highway 40 west of Yampa Valley State Park and in the fields surrounding the Carpenter Ranch.
To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email lschlichtman@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @LSchlichtman