By Owen Woods | firstname.lastname@example.org
CELEBRATING cranes starts with understanding them. It’s a sight to see 200 or so people packed into a room to listen to stories about crane conservation. The most fascinating part of the 40th Monte Vista Crane Festival is the effort to educate the public.
On top of the numerous birding tours that were no doubt supported with years of experience, the Crane Fest hosted a series of talks on Saturday. “Habitat Selection and Movement Patterns of Sandhill Cranes;” “Elk on the SLV Refuge Complex: What’s Going on Out there?;” “The Secret Lives of Nesting Sandhill Cranes;” and George Archibald’s keynote talk, “Lessons Learned from 50 years of Crane Conservation.”
A good-sized crowd came out to the Ski Hi Complex on a chilly Saturday night to listen to Archibald speak and to view the premiere of filmmaker Christi Bodi-Skeie’s new film, “Where the Cranes Meet the Mountains.”
The film focused on Valley artist Amanda Charlton and the inspiration she draws from the cranes against the Valley sky. Bode-Skeie’s images of Sandhill cranes, the Valley sky, and Charlton’s art invoke nothing short of the true sense of home in the Valley.
Charlton called the cranes her fellow citizens. “We are not separate from nature,” she said in the film.
“It’s hard to encompass the beauty and the magic,” Bode-Skeie said after the premiere.
She reflected on being able to share Chartlon’s first time seeing the cranes and the collaboration of telling a story that “honored those that live locally and that there’s this beautiful thing in your backyard that we get used to taking so for granted. Also inviting other visitors down that this is something that really makes a place what it is,” she said. “To be able to do that in a place that I have fallen in love with is pretty special to share with you all.”
A Crane keynote
George Archibald, co-founder of the International Crane Foundation and the world’s leading crane advocate, reflected on portions of his 50-year career in crane conservation. He highlighted major successes and failures, lessons learned, and provided insight into how we can continue the work over the next 50 years.
Crane expert George Archibald gives a presentation on Saturday.
He also just told some really cool stories and facts about cranes. Archibald’s passion for cranes is one thing, but his ability to share that passion with an audience is something else. His stories held everyone in captivated wonder.
In 1973, Archibald, along with fellow graduate student Ron Sauey, established the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Originally from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Canada, Archibald has spent his career traveling the globe working to restore populations of cranes. During the presentation he touched on crane conservation efforts in the United States, Japan, China, North and South Korea, Russia, India, Iran, and a plethora of other countries.
When asked how many countries he’d traveled to, he said he wasn’t sure, but that it was “over a dozen.”
His next trip is to Nepal to study the demoiselle cranes. They are the smallest of the cranes, but they can fly at 28,000 feet.
Archibald began his talk on experiments conducted in an effort to restore whooping crane populations. “Experiment 1” was started in 1975 to create a migratory flock of whooping cranes between Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho and the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico – coming straight through the San Luis Valley.
Researchers brought whooping crane eggs, removed sandhill crane eggs and took them back to Maryland for research, and left one whooping crane egg to substitute for it. A large number were hatched and raised by their “foster parents.” The young birds traveled to the Bosque in New Mexico with their foster parents, but when they saw other whooping cranes, “they ignored one another.”
These adopted cranes “had absolutely no interest in pairing with a whooping crane.”
During the experiment, which ran from 1975-1984, researchers were able to place 289 whooping crane eggs in that many sandhill crane nests. Out of those eggs, 84 were able to fledge, but there were no whooping crane pairings.
“The project stopped and eventually the birds died off,” he said. Archibald went on to say that “we’ve had many disappointments in the saga with the whooping cranes.”
Despite downturns and total redirects, the current estimated population of whooping cranes both in captivity and in the wild is about 836 worldwide.
Sandhill cranes stop and gather in a field near the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge during their yearly trek.
ARCHIBALD spoke on more experiments that have been conducted through the years, such as whooping cranes that are nesting in a Louisiana crawfish farm. Archibald says that the farmers and the cranes live happily with one another. As the farmers collect the cages near their nests, Archibald said the birds don’t mind.
What’s more, the Cheorwon Basin, which lies right in the middle of the Korean Demilitarized Zone, is prime wintering and feeding ground for white-naped and red-crowned cranes. After the Soviet Union was dismantled, the supply lines of fertilizer and other items to North Korea stopped. This led to “continued deterioration of the farmland in North Korea.”
These lands are ripe for the picking for these cranes. During the North Korean Famine, it is believed that cranes were likely hunted for food. Archibald said “we don’t know anything about it really.”
As a Canadian, Archibald has been able to travel to North Korea. He’s been working with Korean cranes since 1974. Archibald has advocated with his South Korean colleagues to make the Cheorwon Basin a protected wildlife area.
The global population of white-naped cranes is around 12,000, Archibald said. Of those, 9,000 of them winter in the Demilitarized Zone.
(An interesting fact about the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): The 38th Parallel, where the DMZ sits, also happens to fall right here in the San Luis Valley.)
Archibald’s job requires working with people on the ground in countries where these cranes reside. One of the crane species Archibald discussed was the Siberian crane. Since the invasion of Ukraine, Archibald said he isn’t able to work with his Russian colleagues.
Archibald talked about a single Siberian crane named Omid. Omid was part of a group that migrated to Iran from Siberia. Heavy hunting along this migration route led to the death of Omid’s pair more than 15 years ago. Omid is the only Siberian crane with the knowledge of the 5,000-kilometer migration path between Uvat, Siberia, and Fereydunkenar, Iran.
Just a few days ago, Archibald said, Omid was paired with a female who was born in captivity, in the hope that Omid will bond with this female and teach her the path.
“If they can pair and survive the migration and come back with a chick we’ll have three birds that know the migration route. And then we can release more birds with them. So keep those birds in your prayers,” Archibald said.
Sunday Morning Dinosaur Viewing
The Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge bustled Sunday morning with the soft whispers of wonder, rapid-fire camera shutters, and the call of Sandhill cranes.
In a patch of farmland, the birds mingled with Canadian geese, ate, danced, flew around, sang their songs, and bathed in the March sun.
Photographers with tripods and photographers without captured the birds in all their moments, often commenting on the cooperative sun. Most just stood and watched with their bare eyes.
The people were quiet and the birds were loud. We were all there to listen and see. In the back of everyone’s mind was the hope we’d all hear that elusive “whoosh” that happens when a large crowd of sandhill cranes flies away at once. This did not happen for this group of cranes and crane-viewers. After the morning went on, the Canadian geese decided to put on the show instead.
And we thank them for it all the same.
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