Life as a Journalist (huh?)

Yesterday I interviewed a woman for the article I’m writing on the upcoming Crane Festival. It was very interesting. The dark side was technology. She has two VHS tapes of Crane Festivals from the antediluvian era. She brought a VCR to the Chamber of Commerce to hook up to their TV but, of course, the TV is too new to have RCA hookups. Today we are embarking on Plan B which involves my TV with connectors dating back to the transitional epoch between RCA and HDMI.

Life as a world-renowned journalist is pretty interesting and not always in the writing. The best part of the interview for me (so far) was talking to another person who gets excited about wildlife and birds. Not since I was hanging out with the rangers at Mission Trails Regional Park have I had that experience. She also had a really nice dog.

The video tapes are from 30 some years ago when the festival was still called the “Whooping Crane Festival.” I also learned yesterday what happened to the Whooping Cranes. As a species they are larger than Sandhill Cranes and the mountain ranges and the altitude made life — migration — here very hard for them. Then the problem of electric wires. Cranes get tangled in them often. Last summer I learned from a maintenance guy at the Refuge about 40 cranes who died from being tangled in power lines.

I don’t know how much of the dark side I want to put in a 1000 word article, but I will put some. One thing about being a future Pulitzer Prize winner is that the time invested in an article brings the hourly rate down to about a nickel. 😀

Both species were severely threatened back in the 80s, but have made a comeback thanks to people as it happens.

The word for today is “depauperate” which kind of breaks my brain because I think it should mean “enrich” but it means the opposite. He was a poor guy but thanks to his great work ethic he’s depauperated but noooooo….. English, that whore, takes a little bit from HERE and little bit from THERE and constructs meaning in a completely arbitrary fashion.

Anyway — it occurred to me last night that I’m an amateur naturalist at this point, just from going out there for most of my life and watching stuff, then reading about it. I guess I must be pretty obnoxious to real naturalists who’ve studied formally. It made me think of Goethe who had an axe to grind with the then new approach to science which was based on experimentation rather than observation. The experimenters had an axe to grind with HIM.

We humans have this “either/or” thing going on. Experimentation requires observation so it’s not really one or the other, but humans take sides. Goethe was an observer. His theory of plants and his theory of colors were both based on direct observation and neither theory is totally flawed. Darwin said he owed the Theory of Evolution to Goethe’s observations on the growth of plants. Early humans, too, survived better because they observed how nature worked. What made yesterday’s interview fun was getting her to share things she had seen. I think that will inspire people to attend the festival which is the whole point.

Thank goodness my dogs like tourists.

Morning’s Minion…

Yesterday we had our first below 20F walk. No biggie. If there had been a sharp wind, that would have been a different matter, but mostly calm. The light, silence, the blue and gold of the world without snow, ringed by the snowy mountains? How does it get better? It can, which is a little mind-boggling. From the distance a large bird was soaring, and swooping, and hovering — not all raptors hover that way. What was it? It got closer and hovered again, “Spiritu Sanctu.” I loved it. He hunted, swooped, lifted, hovered and again then dashed off across the shallow, frozen pond and I lost sight.

He was a hawk I had not seen before; a rough-legged hawk not that it really matters, but I couldn’t figure out from his markings or color what he was. I got a little irked at myself for trying to pin a name on him, but I forgave myself saying, “You’re a human. That’s what you do. His function in your life is to expand your knowledge and watch in silent wonder. One doesn’t obviate the other.” I thought about that some more — animals do the same without words. They need to know what’s up there so they can make the all-important “kill or be killed” determination. I shrugged, accepted my humanity one more time and moved along so Bear could smell the side of the road which was the whole point of everything.

Earlier yesterday I was just kind of minding my own business when something struck me. The Crane Festival Committee has shared my story about John Patterson because it opens with a little history of the festival. I had written them thanking them and telling them about John’s death. The chairperson wrote back that a lot of people have asked about Cooper the Whooper and she was happy to share that bit of history. Suddenly it hit me, 2023 is the 40th anniversary of the Crane Festival. Would the magazine like a story telling the history of the Crane Festival and its future plans? I wrote the chairman of the festival to see if she would be up for working with me and wrote to the magazine querying the possibility. By the end of the day I had a story I can’t wait to write AND the chance to write for the Crane Festival newsletter.

Honestly I am not very connected to my town. Covid and politics made me psychically move away, but I am deeply tied to the Refuge and the animals who live there and the people who, one way or another, traverse it, coming from all over the world.

Still, my town is part of the story. I was thinking that the lead for the article might be something a clerk said at the local Safeway after I’d gone to my first Crane Festival. I was there with my friend Lois’ developmentally disabled son. We were buying his favorite — Sarah Lee Pound cake. The kid in front of the cash register said, “Did you go to the Crane Festival?”

Mark said, “Yeah.” Mark is EXTREMELY adept at finding birds hiding in trees. He’d seen the mated pair of great-horned owls in a cottonwood tree before the naturalist did.

The kid said, “Did you enjoy it?”

Mark said, “Yeah!” in his inimitable way. He’s a little speech limited, but it didn’t matter. His eyes and voice said what his words couldn’t.

The kid answered, his eyes shining, “We are proud of our Crane Festival.” Maybe that won’t be in the story, but it is the spirit I want to convey. Mark’s feeling of wonder and the cash register kid’s pride in his town.

Since then eight years have passed. For me, thousands of cranes, hours at the Refuge learning about the wetlands. I’m very happy that I get to learn more about it and write about it.

But…this project coincides with the annual book-reading marathon and judging event, so I’m looking at a busy couple of months. The books are already starting to come in. Usually I finish the books by March, but I have until May so, really, maybe there’s no problem.

The featured photo by Roy Priest, Rough-legged Hawk.

And I Just Keep Learning One Difficult Lesson after Another…

The Monte Vista Crane Festival has been going on all this weekend and I’ve had house guests — my friend Lois and her developmentally disabled (and awesome) son, Mark.

Yesterday morning we went out to look for the cranes. It was the first time I’ve experienced driving at the Wildlife Refuge with the tourists. It was interesting. Lots of immense rented SUVs. There were fewer cranes in the usual places, but it was a gorgeous day if you like warm air, clear skies and that sort of thing.

Field of Cranes in front of the San Juans

After that we went to the Craft and Nature Fair. Among the exhibits was a raptor rescue from Albuquerque. I was involved with an organization like that in San Diego and I was so happy to be so close to the birds again. I talked a long time with one of the women working there. It was an incredible, engaging conversation about teaching kids to love nature by exposing them to these amazing birds.

I love Mark so much, but it’s difficult sometimes to tolerate the reality that he cannot look forward to the consequences of his actions like “normal” people do. I love him for his own sake, but also for the sad fact that some of the things he does remind me how lucky I am to understand WHY you do this and not that.

Yesterday Mark set his shoe on the table. I yelled at him, “Get your shoe off the table! You don’t put shoes on the table!” In my mind’s eye, I saw where that shoe had been, walking around on dirt comprising ground cow dung, elk droppings, spit, urine from various ambulatory beings, godnose. You know, dirt.

He looked shocked — I’m not a person who yells at people, or dogs. Bear ran outside and didn’t want to come back in. Bear’s breed is just like that. Mark was chagrined. I felt weird. Lois and I had to cajole Bear back into the house, and Mark went back to listening to music.

I thought the rest of the night how our knowledge and understanding of how to live life builds incrementally in immeasurable particles. I thought of how important reasoning is in our ability to navigate life safely. It’s actually a pleasure to be able to think.

In the early evening we returned to the Refuge, this time to a more distant spot, a barley field that had been mowed to attract the cranes. There were three school buses of Crane Tourists, and thousands of cranes in the field. There was also the 360 degree spectacle which is sun set in the San Luis Valley.

Most photos were taken by my friend Lois. My photo is the cranes in the field.

Snow, Cranes and Wind

Last year Colorado had a drought. This year, thank goodness, no. But…

In my youth, I remember avalanches most often as a phenomenon of fall snows, when the base laid by an early snow had melted and refrozen and more snow fell on top — basically a slippery slide for future snow layers. This year is the heaviest avalanche year on record, not just down here in the San Juans, but up there in the sexy parts, Summit County and nearby environs (Black — High Avalanche Danger — in the map below).

The Rocky Mountains are generally not as sharp and pointy as the Alps and avalanches are somewhat less common, but they do happen. In ski areas, avalanches are triggered ahead of opening in the morning.

As I’ve followed the stories of the avalanches, I’ve been amazed at how many people interviewed believed that avalanches in our mountains are ALL manmade. Several people (in cars) were trapped in an avalanche yesterday — all are OK.

Meanwhile, here in the San Luis Valley (Alamosa and environs on the map) spring is forcing itself upon me. Yesterday, right on time, my crocus bloomed.


My friend E and I headed out in Bella (my new Jeep) to see cranes. It was an intensely windy day and it was a little difficult to find the cranes, but we did. I don’t have any great photos since I went out to look more than shoot pictures. There were thousands of cranes in a barley field on the far east side of the wildlife refuge. They were a lot of fun to watch.

The wind was blowing like a mofo and E and I just enjoyed it. E has a wonderful capacity to be enthusiastically in the moment, one of the great things about her. The featured photo is primarily of a cloud at war with the wind. The wind from the east is blowing it toward the San Juans. At this very spot, it has crashed into a Chinook. The only camera I had was my phone.

The Cranes have Come Home to Mate

This is Sandhill Crane season in the San Luis Valley — and especially in my town which, thanks to a Wildlife Refuge south of town attracts upwards of 20,000 Sandhill cranes every year. They gather to dance, mate, swoop, circle, evade predation and sing to each other in surprisingly euphonious voices.

I recently watched several small groups assemble high in the sky. They called out to each other, got together bit by bit, forming an enormous gyre of hundreds of cranes, swirling upward in the infinite blue. Mesmerizing.

Sandhill Cranes are among the oldest species on earth, enduring for 2.5 million years. They have fine-tuned survival. Among their predators are large raptors, and when a bald eagle or golden eagle circles above them — whether they are in the air or are calmly “grazing” on land — they group together. They have had plenty of time to learn that one crane is far more vulnerable to attack than is a group. Other predators — foxes, coyotes, raccoons, bears — mostly prey on juvenile birds. The adults are formidable.

They are dinosaurs.

My town celebrates this big deal of nature. There will be a BIG craft and nature show down at what anyone would call the fairgrounds. Special movies are shown at our theater. Bus tours go out a couple of times a day with forest service and park naturalists. People come to my town from all over the world to see this. A couple weeks ago, the special festival banners went up…

What’s funny about this photo (for 20 points)?

Living here, I get to see the cranes begin to arrive. It’s part of my world and the first sign of spring for everyone in the San Luis Valley. I’ve had the wondrous experience this year of langlaufing all alone on the golf course on a cold, sunny/foggy afternoon listening to the cranes calling to each other not far above me.

I don’t make special trips out to the refuge to see them until the clamor of humanity has left. This year I’m thinking that I’ll take Bella (the Jeep) out to the Sand Dunes to see them, maybe an adventure with my friends. 🙂

This is a good video and explanation of their various sounds.

This Valley is for the Birds

Birds are big where I live, I mean that literally and figuratively. The biggest economic  boom to my town each year is the Crane Festival when people come from all over the world to watch Sandhill Cranes cavort. But there are other great birds here. All kinds of raptors (bald eagles nest here). The Rio Grande threads through the valley and there are hundreds of artesian wells. On a recent walk along the river, we watched a Great Blue Heron take flight in front of us. At the slough, of course, there is every kind of water bird who might like fishing in these climes. Last week I saw my first Killdeer. In my very yard are humingbirds, sparrows, house finches, gold finches and yellow warblers. Of course, I plant things for them. The finches like the seeds of Bachelor Buttons (aka cornflowers) and everything hangs around sunflowers.

Long long ago when the dinosaurs roamed this valley was a huge lake. The lake is now underground and farmers have relied on it for centuries. Because of that ancient lake what would otherwise be a desert is, well, still a desert, but one in which crops grow.

I have a political sign in my yard right now — the first one since 1980 when I worked on John Anderson’s campaign. Yes, that’s obscure but if you’re really interested there’s this thing called Google 😉 Yesterday on my walk with Bear, I was near home when I saw a young, tall, handsome Hispanic guy in a concha belt and cowboy hat in the sidewalk in front of me. Bear and I approached. He remained calm and just patted Bear’s head, demonstrating some knowledge of how to be with a big dog.

“Nice dog. I’m Donald Valdez. I’m running for State Legislature.”

“What do you stand for?”

He was taken back a bit but he answered. “I stand for farmers and ranches, affordable health care and education. I believe in education. People complain about crowded prisons, but I think spending on education is more important. A good farmer doesn’t just put a seed in the ground and forget about it. Seeds are like children. They have to be taught and nurtured.”

I don’t know how you teach a seed, but I got his point. I had to ask the requisite question of the San Luis Valley which is, “Are you from here?” Not from the usual reason but because if he represents the people here, he should know who they are. His family has a ranch in La Jara and he pronounced La Jarrrra correctly.

And now I have his sign in my yard.

Back to birds.

At the moment there are white pelicans at the lake. They are beautiful birds, especially in flight.

Now we are waiting for the fall return of the Sandhill Cranes on their commute from Yellowstone to New Mexico. The cranes ARE our seasons. When they begin flying over again in February, we know spring is on the way. When they come south again, we know winter is coming.

They’re EVERYWHERE!!!!

Just got back from a walk with Dusty and Bear. It was a legit walk even though there were other people at “our” place. I’m just going to have to find a different time of day or branch out to new locales.

It’s an incredibly wonderful thing to take a real stride and follow it with another. I never took that ability for granted as my dad couldn’t walk well or easily because of his MS, still, I’m so savoring the miracle of the cortisone shot, however long it lasts. My research indicates 2 months is about average. That’s fine. I know it’s not a cure.

My town is getting ready for the Crane Festival which is this weekend. It’s rolling out the red carpet. Restaurants are featuring special “crane themed” items. Banners are hanging where the Christmas decorations were hanging until two weeks ago (we don’t hurry here in Monte Vista), the “fair grounds” are going to host an indoor craft and nature fair.

I don’t think the cranes care much about all this follderol, but they should. The wildlife refuge has been flooded (dry winter) for their benefit, and the Amish farmers around the refuge have mowed their fields and left barley on the ground. I wonder if the ancestral memory of this millions of years old species has any recollection of the old days. I wonder what grain originally drew them here — probably the same as draws them to my slough, wild grasses, wild rye, wild barley.

I might charge up the “good” camera (though my iPhone is approaching the quality) and take some photos after the festival is over.

I wrote to this prompt earlier today. I really hated my post so I’ve deleted it. I was doing something I don’t even believe in by writing it. SO… It’s gone.

The Cranes of Monte Vista

They’ll be here soon if they’re not here already. I’m not sure they ever completely left for the southern climes of New Mexico this winter as we’ve had virtually no snow, comparatively (compared to Cutbank, Montana) warm temperatures, and the water in the various sloughs, rivers and preserves has not completely frozen. If I were a Sandhill Crane, I’d still migrate. I think most of the fun is with the extended flock.

In a month Monte Vista will open its arms to a profusion of crane tourists from all over the world who have dreamed all their lives of visiting a small town in Colorado and seeing more than 20,000 Sandhill Cranes. It is truly one of life’s most amazing sights, hundreds of bundled up baby-boomer wayfarers with binoculars pointed at the meadow of the world, listening to a park ranger explain what the cranes are doing.

And what are they doing? They dance. They are VERY busy finding luv’ and making babies.

Last year — a real winter — I saw cranes every month of the year, but this year, because it’s been so warm, there have been a lot more people out where I walk with the dogs. That has got to be at least as disturbing to the lingering cranes as it is to me.

Along with the advent of the cranes, in early March most of the wildlife area where we walk will close to allow geese and various other birds to nest unmolested. This will leave one small place for us to walk. The golf course usually opens around the time the wildlife area closes, signifying the arrival of my dogs’ and my least favorite seasons — spring and summer.

P.S. Rereading this, I guess I woke up on the curmudgeonly side of the bed this morning…

You can learn more about the Crane Festival here.


After a long cold afternoon working on eliminating more stuff from my life, I took my camera out to the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge to take pictures. I didn’t want to interfere with the people who have paid good money to see the cranes — and they are already here. That’s the best thing that can happen to my town. I also got to see some of the work that’s done to prep the refuge for visitors. One field that the cranes really love is right now being mowed to crane-specific levels so that when all the people come for the Crane Festival they’ll be able to watch the cranes graze close up. This is the first time I’ve been able to take photos with my good camera so… And, honestly, cranes don’t do much until they do something and then you’d better be ready to focus fast.

You’ll see all the Canada geese with them. I didn’t see any Snow geese this time, but last year there were several.

Heralds of Spring in the San Luis Valley

Yeah, the first robin is nice, but here in the San Luis Valley, we look for the first crane. This morning when I let the dogs out, I heard the glorious racket of cranes flying over. They’ve slowly been arriving since about a month ago. They are beginning to be here in force — every year more than 20,000 Sandhill Cranes converge to meet, mate, eat and socialize. It’s been a cold, windy day, but having found my good camera, I had to give this a try. All my previous crane photos were taken with my phone. Definitely an improvement.


The Monte Vista Crane Festival will take place in two weeks. It’s a great event with educational tours, a science and craft fair, and special movies at the local theater.