Crane Festival takes flight this week in the Yampa Valley

Sophie Dingle
Steamboat Pilot & Today
A sedge of cranes takes flight from a field near Steamboat Springs. The birds are a welcome sight in the Steamboat Springs area and will be celebrated Aug. 29 to Sept. 1 at the Yampa Valley Crane Festival.
John F. Russell

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The eighth annual Yampa Valley Crane Festival returns to Steamboat Springs and Hayden this week to honor the majestic greater sandhill crane.

The festival is a four-day event that runs from Thursday, Aug. 29, to Sunday, Sept. 1. The purpose of the festival is to educate the public about the cranes and celebrate their presence in the Yampa Valley.

The greater sandhill crane is a species local to Northwest Colorado. They return to this area each spring to nest and raise their young in the wetland areas throughout the Yampa Valley. The cranes will migrate to their wintering grounds in New Mexico and Arizona in mid to late September, and this festival occurs each year before they leave the area.

The festival is presented by the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, an organization that formed in 2012 as a response to a community discussion surrounding the hunting of the cranes in Northwest Colorado. In the 1970s, the state of Colorado deemed the greater sandhill crane “endangered.” Nature lovers and bird watchers, concerned that these migratory birds — still on a “species of concern” list — would disappear all together from the area, came together to form this coalition.

For years, a group of enthusiastic bird watchers gathered each fall at a small ranch near Hayden to watch the cranes. Their shared vision was an event in which locals and tourists would come together to learn about this population of cranes.

“The festival has grown in attendance and scope throughout the past eight years,” said Nancy Merrill, president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition. “It has helped to raise awareness of sandhill cranes but also to showcase the many beautiful natural areas of the Yampa Valley where various festival activities take place.”

Events include guided viewings, expert speakers, films, bird and nature walks, workshops, live raptors, children’s activities and more.

“I think one of the unique aspects of our festival is that most events are free and open to the public,” Merrill explained.

The keynote speaker this year is Kerryn Morrison, the International Crane Foundation’s Africa Crane Conservation manager. Morrison, who is originally from South Africa, is an African crane expert and works to help protect the four threatened and endangered crane species in Africa.

In total, there are 15 species of crane in the world, 11 of which are threatened or endangered.

“I never thought I’d get involved with birds,” Morrison said. “All my life I wanted to work with big, charismatic cats. But then I had the opportunity to work with larger bird species, and I realized that birds provide so much opportunity to study and address larger conservation issues.”

Merrill agrees.

“When you protect cranes and their habitats, you are not only saving an ancient bird species but also all the other birds and wildlife that share a habitat with the cranes,” Merrill explained.

This year, the festival will focus not only on the local species but also on four endangered crane species in Africa, which Morrison works with — the blue, black-crowned, grey-crowned and wattled cranes.

This is Morrison’s first year at the festival. She will offer her free talk, “Africa’s Cranes, Wetlands and Communities: An Exciting Story of Hope and Success,” at 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31, at Bud Werner Memorial Library.

“I’ve heard such fantastic things about the festival and the area in general,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that you can have so many people excited about a species coming together to learn and celebrate.”

Other speakers include: naturalist and author Julie Zickefoose; self-described “bird nerds” Sandra Noll and Erv Nichols; “Birding” magazine editor Ted Floyd; and Denver Zoo’s Curator of Birds John Azua.

Events are planned from 4 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 29 through 3 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1. There will be crane viewings, bird walks and nature walks planned at various locations across Routt County, free films and educational presentations and talks at Bud Werner Memorial Library and a special Carpenter Ranch picnic dinner with talks and a guided crane viewing at sunset from 4:30 to 8:45 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31.

The festival also includes educational crane displays, a silent auction for crane art, kids activities, live raptors, crane yoga and live music by Yer State Birds. A full schedule of events is available online at

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