Yampa Valley Crane Festival founder invited to China to speak about local event

Nancy Merrill, who was instrumental in organizing the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, teaches a crane dance to students at the International Science School in China. She was invited to deliver one of the keynote speeches at first International Poyong Lake Birdwatching Week in December 2019. She spoke about the festival held in Steamboat and Hayden each year and how it works to help educate people about the importance of conserving cranes.
Courtesy photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — One year ago, Nancy Merrill found herself traveling through Asia with the International Crane Foundation. As a board member, her group was learning about cranes in Asia and visiting areas where about eight species of cranes reside throughout China, Japan and South Korea.

Her passion for cranes runs deep. Merrill is the also president of the Colorado Crane Conservation Coalition, the group that organizes and presents the Yampa Valley Crane Festival, which is now in its ninth year.

During this trip, while in the Poyong Lake area of China, Merrill and several other International Crane Foundation members were asked to pitch the idea of a festival to a Chinese government official, Mr. Qiu Shuiwen, director of the Jiagnxi Provincial Forest and Grasslands Department. Through a translator, Merrill explained the value of a crane festival and the awareness and education it could bring to the area, just as the Yampa Valley festival has done in Steamboat Springs and Routt County.

“Poyong Lake is a very important area to China and really the whole world.” Merrill said. “It’s a huge wintering area for cranes and other water birds. The ICF works closely with China to protect and monitor it.”

Several months later, Merrill received an invitation in the mail to attend the first International Poyong Lake Birdwatching Week in December 2019, nearly a year after her first visit to the area. She was invited to deliver one of the keynote speeches, as well as help lead educational activities at the International Nature School.

Nancy Merrill delivers one of the keynote speeches at the first International Poyong Lake Birdwatching Week in China.
Courtesy photo

In her own words, the festival turned out to be a “spectacular event.” Over 800 scientists, academics, government officials, dignitaries and representatives of many international conservation organizations were invited to attend. There were VIP receptions, banquets and an opening ceremony with singers and crane dancers.

“It was very different from our festival to say the least,” Merrill said. “They were trying to make it very grand and impressive for their first year, and they certainly succeeded. It was quite an experience.”

The five-day festival included speeches, forums and birdwatching activities. Merrill’s speech and slide presentation focused on Greater Sandhill Cranes, the species found here in the Yampa Valley, and the ways in which the Yampa Valley Crane Festival helps to promote crane conservation through education. Her talk was given in English with Chinese translation, and her slides were sent ahead of time to have Chinese text added to the English slides.

When interviewed for Chinese television, she emphasized the festival model as a way to not only benefit crane conservation but the fact that it is in line with the establishment of the “Ecological Civilization,” which has been put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping as one of the top priorities of the Chinese government.

Her favorite part of the week, though, was working with the children at the International Nature School.

Professional Chinese crane dancers perform at the opening ceremony of the China Bird Festival.
Courtesy photo

“The kids were in middle school and they were so friendly and curious.” Merrill said. “They didn’t speak too much English, but they were excited to try out the words and phrases they did know. My job was to teach them a crane dance, much like the one we do here in the Fourth of July parade each year. They really got into it, flapping their arms as wings and strutting around. We all had so much fun.”

When the week was over, Merrill left Poyong Lake with strong impressions.

“The primary thing that struck me,” she said, “is that cranes reach across different cultures in their appeal and bring people together.”

And while the Poyong Lake Festival might be a little bit different from the Yampa Valley Festival, Merrill said the message is all the same.

“We need to make a commitment to protect the birds,” Merrill said. “Birds connect us all around the world.”

Sophie Dingle is a contributing writer for Steamboat Pilot & Today.

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