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Birds of the San Luis Valley: When and Where to See Them

“The Other Colorado.” That’s how birdwatchers and nature lovers often refer to the San Luis Valley. This isn’t ski country or the eastern plains, and it’s certainly not the Front Range urban corridor. The massive San Luis Valley, larger than whole Eastern states, is sui generis, presenting a suite of ecosystems and landscapes found nowhere else. To get a feel for the diversity and beauty of the land, here’s a whirlwind tour of the places and special birds you might find on your visit to “the Valley.”


Where to see them: Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge

Sandhill Cranes fly overhead at the Monte Vista Wildlife Refuge – Photo by Ross Vigil

Probably the most celebrated bird species in the Valley! The best time for a visit is mid-March when thousands of northbound cranes stage in fields and wetlands everywhere. Revel in the huge flocks of “dancing” cranes, and listen for their stentorian trumpeting high overhead.


Where to see them: John James Canyon

Black Throated Sparrow – Photo by Steve Berardi

If you’re up for a bit of an adventure, head into this south-facing canyon near the New Mexico border. Rare butterflies abound, and rattlesnakes are common. And stunning Black-throated Sparrows, found nowhere else in the valley, nest in the mouth of the canyon.


Where to see them: Zapata Ranch

Pinyon Jay – Photo by James St. John

These highly sociable “blue crows,” as they are sometimes called, roam the quiet pinewoods in this holding of The Nature Conservancy. Try to be there at sunrise, when the jays go bonkers with their joyous socializing. (Restricted access; call first.)


Where to see them: Russell Lakes State Wildlife Area

White-faced Ibis – Photo by Dan Pancamo

You have to visit this place as you depart the valley on U. S. 285! In just an hour or two in the summer, you will find 50+ bird species, including these lovely ibises. Their pink and green and chestnut hues shimmer in the summer sunshine.


Where to see them: Great Sand Dunes National Park

Mountain Bluebird – Photo by Ted Floyd

When it is still winter in the Valley, these outrageously colorful sprites start to show up in the Valley. It’s a special treat to get out on the sand dunes, and see small flocks of bluebirds foraging in the sand and snow.


Where to see them: Zapata Falls

Black Swift being outfitted with a geolocation transmitter at Zapata Falls – Photo by Madeline Jorden

This is a rare bird, a birder’s bird. The only way to find one in the Valley is to go the falls at first light. Watch as the birds blast out of the waterfall where they nest. They spend the rest of the day way up high, pretty much out of view.


Where to see them: Blanca Wetlands

Snowy Plover – Photo by Lisa Mcgloin

They’re so dainty, yet so hardy. These tiny shorebirds nest right out in the open on the hot sands adjacent to the pools and small ponds here. They are perfectly camouflaged, so you may to search a while. (Restricted access; call first in the summer months.)


Where to see them: Moon Pass

Dusky Grouse Photo by NPS / Neal Herbert

The Valley is ringed by “fourteeners,” and you’ll want to get up into the high country for the special birds near timberline. This large grouse walks stealthily through the deep woods, but it will also come right out onto logging and roads where you have a good chance of spotting one.

Ted Floyd is the Editor of Birding magazine, the award-winning flagship publication of the American Birding Association. He has written five bird books, including the Field Guide to Birds of Colorado and How to Know the Birds.



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