2016 Sandhill Crane Counts

2016 CRANE COUNT for Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Hart’s Basin – in Eckert, Colorado

In the Spring, Sandhill Cranes tend to land at the Reservoir after 3:30 p.m (MDT) and may land as late as sunset, and on rare special nights have been known to land after dark.  Liftoff generally occurs after 9:00 am (MDT) – usually after the mid-morning winds provide an uplift to help give them the elevation to clear the Grand Mesa.

We try to count Sandhill Cranes every evening anywhere they may roost along Fruitgrowers Reservoir.  This is an informal process, but we try to be as accurate and honest with you (and ourselves) as we can.  There are a handful of us counters who rely on each other.  Some evenings we get better counts than others, and on evenings where we are not sure we look to others for insight.  EH = Evelyn Horn Count, JW = Jim Wallace count.

We post previous years counts on the web site.  This information is best viewed as anecdotal information that suggest trends and offer the observations and biases of your reporter(s).

[It’s March 7th and we have just got the website up using a new server.  This is will be in transition for the next several days.  We hope to get as user-friendly and reliable as we can.] February 28:   1,500 [JW] March 3:   1,500 [JW] March 4:   400 +/-    (350-375 by JW)  Generally – Hundreds of Cranes today – starting with bunches flying flying at mid-morning west if Hiway 65 ( at least 800 cranes).   None were seen leaving the area in the morning.   An estimated 1,500 cranes were seen flying around in a rather unorganized fashion.  Along the same note, I have heard (I was not able to check things out for myself) that a wintering population of about 1,500 cranes stayed in the vicinity of Delta along the Gunnison and perhaps the Uncompahgre rivers.  I can only draw inferences, not conclusions.  JW saw about 400 flying high from the SE go over the Reservoir and continue on over the Grand Mesa and did not appear to him they were part of the morning exercises.  He calls them flybys.  Today was very unusual for this many birds this early – so we’ll see what we can make of it and if there may be valid attributions to climate change.
March 5:     no count  made
March 6:   25 [JW]
March 7:      9   Cranes at 6:20 pm at Fruitgrowers Reservoir.  [ JW had 40 cranes] March 8:      800 +/-  No doubt about it, Migration has started early this year.  At around 6:25 p.m. about 240 flew to join the group that was in the NE corner of the Reservoir  – probably from the cornfields  on the south side of the Vela farm.  At that time there were still cranes walking out of the dense cattails in the NE corner.
March 9:      500  – I don’t think that count is excessive.  Almost half the cranes arrived well after sunset in very low light, making the count more challenging .
March 10:      300 ++  –  [JW had 350 on an earlier count] These were cranes counted on the north side of North Road, most landing around 6:30 pm or later;  but there were still birds calling from the west side of the Reservoir south of North Road.    The Sandhills were very unsettled this evening to a very unusual degree – more flying about than feeding, making counting quite difficult.  In fact, a mile and a half west of the reservoir I could hear cranes west of me after 7:00 pm in very low light.   Perhaps we can get a updated count in the morning.
March 11:      1,250   (+/ – 100)  [JW – 1,100] The low light from the overcast evening, and the cranes dispersal in the taller grass and distant fields, and the late day re-positioning of the birds from place to place lowered my confidence in the accuracy of my suggested number.  (And I lost a few minutes of counting time mesmerized by the very late and very beautiful sunset.)
March 12:      450   Lots of small groups landing very late on the north side of North Road.  Tomorrow starts Daylight Savings Time.  The Cranes probably do not know this and will be leaving about an hour later than they have been the past few days.
March 13:      150 – 225  – I know, I know – What kind of count is that?   Like last night there were lots of small groups landing very late on the north side of North Road – even later than last night.  It was mostly dark when more cranes kept coming.   There has been a lot of unsettled behavior with the cranes this spring, or so it seems to me.  But it has made evening counts more difficult than I remember.  Update:  JW counted 120 earlier in the day, but also noted 200+ flybys.
March 14:     300 – This evening a small weather front drove the cranes to the water earlier than the past few days.
March 15:    6   I am unable to count cranes tonight and tomorrow nights.    I got this number from Evie and she got it from Jim W.
March 16:    15   This number is also courtesy of Evelyn Horn.  Seems the cold weather may be grounding the Sandhills until better weather.
March 17:    64   – We had a count of 46 in the fields close to sunset.  This number is what flew from the fields and elsewhere to the water’s edge long after sunset.  At least I got some entertainment from a bunch of Western Grebes while I was waiting.
March 18:    61   – The sunset made it worth the wait for the cranes to move to the water from the field.  Much like last night but with nicer weather.
March 19:    20   – Just before sunset I saw 9 birds in Vela’s field below”Crane Point” and was almost tempted to go with that number, but waited along the “causeway” and counted these cranes as they flew to the water after 7:30.  They came in six groups.
March 20:    3,200  +/-    MORNING COUNT (6:30 – 7:00 am March 21) we’re calling it 2,700 (2,500 – 2,800)    With all the crane noise in the neighborhood this afternoon I had my suspicions, so I went to check things out before 5:00.  When I left around 5:30 I was thinking about maybe 500 birds tonight.  When I went back an hour later I knew I’d have to stay late just to see just how wrong I was.   With all the late large flights landing this evening, counting was a tricky business – so we’ll try to get a confirming count in the morning and update this site if we have to.   Could be the biggest night of the season.  Morning Notes:  Question – Is a crane in the air worth 3/4 cranes in the bush?  I was wrong either last night or this morning . . . or both.   Counting each time had its challenge.  With the optics available (inside and in front of my eyes) and the light available, the morning is a race with the dawn.  By that I mean having  enough light to see the cranes sufficient for a good estimate while there are so many birds confined in such a relatively  limited space.  But, once the light is good enough to plainly see them, we plainly see them begin flying off to nearby fields for their morning feed (the first started leaving the roost by 7:00 am) before their grand liftoff over the Grand Mesa.    Regardless of how difficult they are to track for counting, it is a good morning for cranes in Hart’s Basin.
March 21:   370  (+/- 20)
March 22:   280  (+/- 10)  With the wind blowing so hard since early this morning it is hard to guess how many of these cranes may be holdovers from last night and how many may be new arrivals.  The forecast calls for a 50% chance of snow /rain until tomorrow afternoon; but tomorrow’s prediction for Monte Vista is sunshine and fairly high winds – windier than here.    I guess we’ll have to wait to see what birds leave and what birds arrive (and see if we can tell the difference.)
March 23:   300+   The cranes assembled to the roost area well after sunset, mostly in low light, with lots  of them moving around in nearby tall grasses.  Jim W. had a pretty clean count of 320 cranes in a nearby field this morning around 10:30 and it did not appear to him that these cranes left today.  It was windy and cold this morning after the light snow last night, and the sun did not break out till mid afternoon.   Our best guess is that most of these evening cranes are holdovers from previous days because of the storm front.
March 24:   400 – Maybe a little less.  Unlike the past few nights, the cranes decided to land late in both roosting areas north of the road (“causeway”), instead of just one location.   With these conditions I don’t know how big a confidence interval to place on the count.
March 25:   290 (+/10).   Counting very similar to last night with late count of cranes landing in two roosts.
March 26:   165  (+/-5)
March 27:   100  (+/-)  Not sure about cranes staying in the tall vegetation until it got too dark.  Could be as many as 130.
March 28:   450   – Perhaps a few less.    Bunch of big gulls showed up tonight – too dark to know which ones.
March 29:   360   – Same birds?  Bitter cold, biting wind.  I wimped out and left a half hour earlier than normal, so I don’t know about any super-late arrivals.
March 30:   170   –  Another cold one tonight.
March 31:   200   –  I was not able to get to the cranes or to  the computer last night.  Sorry about that.  This count was provided by Jim Wallace.
April 1750 – 800   –  Again, I was absent.  JW again provided this count.
April 2700  (+/- 50)  This may be a little inflated, but if it is I don’t think by much.  Anyway, these are fresh cranes, given that several witnesses saw last night’s group leave.   A couple dozen White Pelicans landed early evening, adding to the show.    MORNING COUNT Jim Wallace came up with 850 early this morning.
April 3100   – 97 to be precise, but I am certain I did not count them all, but I don’t know how many I missed.
April 4430-440   – JW’s count.  I did a quicker estimate count and came up with fewer cranes, but he was able to take more time and count individual birds.
April 5220 
–  Mornings normal but we had big winds all afternoon, so we don’t know how many took off (obviously some did) and how many are new arrivals.  (First arrival of White-faced Ibis.)
April 6140  –  Last group of 14 came in just after 8:00 pm.  I only stayed that long because the evening was so nice.  A short time after I saw the last GB Heron leave I heard a large chorus of frogs start up.
April 7130  –  About the same as last night, except my count this evening was early (6:00 pm) and most of the cranes I saw were still out in Vela’s fields among the cattle.  FRIDAY MORNING:  JW estimates there are 190 cranes at or near the roost area this morning.
April 8150  –  Count by JW
April 9140  –  Count by JW – He’s figuring that about 50 cranes were holdovers and 90 were likely new arrivals.  Windy, rainy day.
April 10150  –  Count by JW – He’s pretty sure these are new birds.
April 11100  –  maybe a couple less.
April 1289  –  At the roost at 8:10 pm.  Earlier in the nearby fields JW had about 100.    No idea if these are yesterday’s birds
April 13101  –  At the roost after a count of 88 in the field an hour earlier.  I was entertained by a solitary marmot (yellow-bellied) and a mink while waiting for the cranes to fly in.
Because how consistent the crane numbers have been the past few days, their routine in the evening, and what little in the way of vocalizations I have heard while birds are in flight, there’s an increasing suspicion these are the same birds.   I have not heard of or seen birds migrating out the past few days.  This may signal the end of our Crane Days –  it’s about that time.  So I’ll stop posting these counts soon, but  I’ll let you know first.
April 14102  –  About a carbon copy of last night – numbers,  time, and locations for feeding and roost areas  – this must be same ones who like Hart’s Basin.
April 15130  –  An earlier count in the field by JW  revealed 102 cranes.  A late, low-light count – more came to the roost.
April 16130  –  An earlier count in the field by JW  came up with this same number as last night.  I went to the reservoir a little after he did, the cranes were still in the feeding fields, Jim’s count looked about right, I did not make my own count and went home.  I am more convinced that these are the same cranes as before.
April 1780+?  –  This is being posted early Monday afternoon.  When I returned from Fruitgrowers last night we had no phone or internet service (we have TDS – pronounced “tedious”).  The inability to post accurate numbers matched my ambivalence from bitter cold and blustery wind with cranes in and out of tall vegetation, refusing to be counted.  So I am pretty sure of about 80 cranes but think there were probably more . . . and thinking that these remain as holdovers.
The other source of ambivalence is from staring at a solitary sub-adult swan and trying to determine if it was “Trumpeter” or Tundra.   There’s a case for going either way.  Probability, as well as some of its characteristics,  suggest Trumpeter, but I also respect the opinion that it may be a Tundra.   We are seeking a higher authority and will reveal any further information in the  Other Bird Species Sighted page.
April 1861  –  Roost count at 8:08 pm.  An earlier estimate of cranes in the fields was a little bit higher that this.
April 1992  –  Perhaps a few more in the neighborhood defying detection.  We had the impression that most of last night’s cranes  left today, but the number so close to the past several counts, we don’t know if these are new or previous birds.  (Frankly, I was hoping for just a handful of, or no, cranes so I could wrap up this little exercise.)
The chilly, bug-less evening surprised us with a huge mixed-species flock of many hundreds of swallows (see Other Species Page), many dozens of yellow-headed blackbirds, and some small shorebirds unidentifiable to me in  the dusky light.
April 2048  –  That’s all, folks!    This is my last regularly scheduled crane report.  I will continue to go to Fruitgrowers from time to time and I may make reports here or on the Other Bird Species Sighted page, but it’s time to give the cranes their privacy and wish them luck with this year’s hatch.