Squawking sandhill cranes are returning to the Yampa Valley | CraigDailyPress.com

Squawking sandhill cranes are returning to the Yampa Valley

Eleanor C. Hasenbeck/Steamboat Pilot & Today
Greater sandhill cranes walk through a field west of Steamboat Springs in 2015.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The loud, rolling squawk of sandhill cranes is returning to the Yampa Valley as cranes come back from their winter range.

The sub-species that breeds in the Yampa Valley, the Rocky Mountain greater sandhill cranes, spend their winters in Arizona, New Mexico and Mexico. In the spring, they migrate north. Some of the cranes flying over the Yampa Valley will continue farther north and west into Utah, Montana and Wyoming, but several breeding pairs will stay here to raise chicks.

Between 600 to 1,200 cranes settle in the valley each summer, nesting in wetlands across Routt and Moffat counties, said Nancy Merrill, Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition president and self-proclaimed “craniac.”

This year, the cranes are running late. The coalition holds a contest every spring to try to capture the first photo of a crane in six different regions of Routt and Moffat counties. Typically, this contest closes at the end of March, but this year, they haven’t confirmed reports of cranes in each area. The coalition has extended the contest until April 7.

In the fall, cranes in small family groups will gather in larger groups to munch on leftover grain, mostly in the Yampa River corridor between Steamboat and Craig, Merrill said.

Gail Kellogg, a coalition board member, said people can relate to sandhill cranes. For the most part, cranes mate for life. They focus a lot of attention on raising one or two chicks, and mating pairs dance together, jumping and flapping their wings in response to each other.”For us, as an organization, they’re kind of an ambassador bird,” Merrill said. “If you protect cranes, you’re protecting other birds and other species and wetland habitat. The cranes are wonderful in and of themselves, but they’re also kind of what I call an ambassador — the ambassador species for the whole habitat and all of the animals that live in it.”

To help build awareness for the cranes, the coalition has launched a creative arts contest for high school seniors in Routt and Moffat counties with the support of two donors.

“It’s raising awareness. It’s making them learn something about the cranes and, hopefully, creating little craniacs for the next generation,” Merrill said.

“Which means people who care about them and the nature around them,” Kellogg added. “Number one is don’t mess it up, and number two is help in efforts to keep it good.”

Students can enter one of three categories to submit non-fiction essays, fictional stories, a group of three poems or any other artistic media including painting, music, digital art or photography.

Last year, the coalition held a writing contest, but they received creative submissions of paintings and songs inspired by the cranes. This year, they decided to make another category for these works, too. This year’s student art submissions will be displayed at April’s First Friday Art Walk at the Depot Art Center.

The deadline for entry into the arts contest is April 1. The winner in each category will earn a $1,500 scholarship, and one other student will earn a $500 scholarship for an honorable mention.

Judges are looking for originality, Merrill said, and even in a fictional world, cranes in any submission should reflect the real traits and an understanding of sandhill cranes.

For more information on the scholarship contest, the first crane sighting contest and the coalition’s general photo contest visit coloradocranes.org and select the “Programs” tab.