2017 Sandhill Crane Counts

2017 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.   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 are late getting this started for this year.   Blame the weather, blame my schedule, blame me, blame the cranes – but the cranes started without this web page.  So here goes:]

March 3:   235 [JW]

March 4:   325 +/-    [ JW]

March 6:   550-600  [JW]

March 7:      100   [JW]   My first day back.  The reservoir is full, the weather sunny but brisk at 10:30 am and I saw about 100 birds in Velas fields and a few small flocks taking flight.  JW said most of them left much earlier.   The evening count was made after sunset. Saw Bald eagle, heard several reports of Golden eagles and one report of an Osprey.  Nice flock of Mountain bluebirds and no ducks until late evening when it was too dark tell what species of shadows were flying in.

March 8:      275 – 300     I’m convinced there’s at least the first number and no more than the second.   A few small groups at the very last light (6:30 or so MST) landed and others walked out of the cattails.  Delicate pinks in the sunset, and still air allowed a far greater chorus of bird songs.

March 9:      14     A little after the  sun set over Utah about two dozen cranes flew in low from the SE, flew north along the ridge east of the reservoir,  and turned  back towards where they seemed to come from.  Perhaps they chose the waters at Payne Siding for the evening.

March 10:      13     Way past sunset as I was leaving for home,  I was trying to find an explanation for why there were none.  But I pulled over when I heard a call and saw these shadows at the water’s edge.   If I had heard nothing I would have seen nothing,  and  then reported that there wasn’t any.

March 11:     400+     Perhaps as many as 500?  This was a difficult day for counting cranes.  The biggest groups were feeding hidden from the views along the roads.  Their roosting patterns were also quite different with lots of shifting late in the day and a widespread reluctance to roost north of the “causeway.”    In addition, a few reliable observers saw, mid to late afternoon, groups  fly high over the reservoir and continuing as if they were going beyond the Grand Mesa  in numbers (rough estimates) exceeding the number landing around the reservoir.    Little of this year’s migration season seems typical.  The cranes’ “relationship” with Fruitgrowers Reservoir seems as if it may be changing from past years.  Furthermore, visitations by ducks and other waterfowl (species and numbers) are not nearly as high as we expect from past experience.
Stay tuned.

March 12:     41   

March 13:      13     These nights with a dozen or so are most likely the same cranes showing an affinity for the place, not new migrants.

March 14:      750     A morning count may suggest otherwise, but tonight’s estimate, which may be conservative, seems close to what was observed.   – Lots of movements from, and late returns to, north of North Road, plus new arrivals from on high at around sunset.   This seemed more like a traditional migration afternoon and evening.

March 15:      2,000+     When we arrived I started with an impression that we could top 2,000 and as the evening went on I moved from impression to an estimate.  Counting was out of the question with so many cranes everywhere on the ground and others swirling in the air.   2,500 cranes is not out of the question.  (And amid all that three Tundra Swans  were serenely swimming out in the reservoir.) . . . And then there was that sunset!   (JW count the next morning: 2,300)

March 16:      550  . . .    +3  (Thank you Marcy)

March 17:      800+    Probably more than 800, but we would need a confirming morning count to put the total past 850.    If I hear differently I post a note of it here.

March 18:      1,000 – 1,100    More than half of these cranes flew into roost on the north side of North Road starting a few minutes after sunset.

March 19:      100    Maybe a couple more.  (This evening at the “causeway” Marcy brought  me a couple of newspaper blurbs stating that Crane Days were over today.   News to me.    I think I’ll keep the counts going anyway.)

March 20:      700 +/- 50   Given tonight’s conditions  we offer no apologies for a low confidence in the numbers.  Compared to the mild weather of the past several evenings, the blustery conditions seem to have unsettled the cranes’ behavior.  This is conjecture on my part, but at the last light I sensed much crane uncertainty on choosing final roosting spots to wade into, and there was relatively little vocalization associated with flights from field to field or from late arrivals to the area.

March 21:      750: JW;    712: Marcy;    675 +/- 25: Me   Tonight was similar to last night – windy, choppy water – just not quite as bitter.   I don’t know if any of these were holdovers but I did see several fly over our place after 11:00 and another group about an hour later.  This liftoff was later than normal but it was a very still morning.  All those flying cranes that I saw were flapping their wings the whole way without gliding or soaring , apparently  unaided from uplifting winds.

March 22:      1,100 – 1,200    JW came up with the smaller number;   I had the larger.
Strange day for cranes  around here.   (More on that later.)

March 23:      800 +/-   I don’t know how many of these cranes are holdovers from yesterday, but I suspect at least some are.  The current cold front is of a type that has held cranes back in the past, but I see from a noon report by JW that it looked to him that most of the cranes (all but about 100) were gone.  The only evidence I saw that these might be mostly new cranes was the groups seemed to have a higher percentage of brown cranes than were here last night (see below).   A few birds arrived this evening descending from quite high up,  providing more evidence there are some new ones.

The past couple of days it has become more obvious that we are in the second half of the migration.  There are far more brown cranes in the groups whereas the first migrators are nearly all gray birds.  The later ones have had more time to conduct their feather staining routines before getting here.  And generally we see later in the migration more staining activity by cranes while they stop here.

March 24:      110   It is clear tonight that many birds left today and were not replaced by a similar number of new arrivals.  As to where tonight’s birds actually spent last night, their provenance is uncertain.

March 25:      1,000 – 1,100   We’re pretty confident about the 1,000.  With the 1,100 we are sort of hedging some counting anomalies like birds in the open v. birds on the bushes and a couple dozen or so late cranes dropping in from up high like they were arriving from a distance much greater than a nearby field where they would have already been counted.

March 26:      200 +/-   Only 2 cranes cooperated with the count tonight.  The rest of this rough estimate were either hiding behind cattails or among shrubs and trees along a distant shoreline – only to fly in late (after 7:30)  And then in the very last light they flew low from one roost to another.   (Don’t anyone dare ask how many were new and how many were holdovers!!)   We might get a confirming count in the morning.    JW – Morning count 204 – 209.

March 27:      800 +   — JW’s earlier look came up with about 1,000.    I arrived a little later than normal in time to see the setting sun crack through the dark clouds along the horizon and paint a strip of a rainbow that reflected off the water where the cranes were standing.  Those few minutes were ended with more clouds and darkness and with a 5-10 minute thunderstorm where most of the intervals between flash and boom were 4 to 8 seconds.    Another dramatic finish to a wet and bitterly cold evening.   (The ducks, like the cranes,  flew in to roost earlier than normal – about twenty minutes or so.)

March 28:      500 – 600    I’m thinking closer to 500 but 600 is not an unreasonable number.   Again, lots of idiosyncratic behaviors by many smaller groups of cranes make assessments of numbers less accurate.  JW feels that most of this evening’s birds are holdovers.  Around 2:00 pm he saw and I heard a large group  of cranes gain elevation and appear to head NNW over the Grand Mesa – a departure which was unusual for the lateness in the day and that the cranes headed directly into a seriously dark-looking bank of clouds.

March 29:      66    (Marcy counted most of them and I counted the rest.)

March 30:      250-275    One of them might have been a Lesser Sandhill Crane.

March 31:      160 +/-     JW diligently counted cranes tonight and I diligently watched him do it.

April 1:     255    Marcy’s count.  I had about 225 but she stayed a bit later and counted longer than I did.  JW suspects these are likely new cranes and not holdovers.

April 2:      166  +/-4

April 3:      81   If I missed any I don’t think it was more than a couple.  (For you Big Bird aficionados I didn’t miss the three white American Pelicans that showed up today.)

April 4:      75   JW’s earlier count. We had about 40 come roost to water well after sunset but heard more off to the SW who did not reveal themselves by quitting time.

April 5:      90+   Lots of dancing and displays – most look like they are not in any hurry.   [Thursday morning JW saw about 105 at the roost.]

April 6:      63    At 7:45 pm I was prepared to report that I saw no cranes but heard a couple hidden in the distance.  Ten minutes later this group shows up, acting like they’ve been hanging around for a while.   [JW saw about 110 earlier in the evening.]

April 7:      87+   I heard a few more cranes I did not count. The 3 pelicans are still hanging around.

April 8:      85  –  JW’s number.  I had 56 but harbored deep suspicions that at least a few more were staying out the blustery winds in the cattails, shrubs and tall grasses.  I didn’t want to wait around until absolute darkness to test the hypothesis.

It looks like we are are ending the crane migration for this Spring.  The past few evenings have had the look of the same few holdovers who continue to prefer Harts Basin at least for a while longer.   I’ll count for a couple more days and post other reports from time to time over the next week or three.  The shorebirds seem a little late to show, so there’s always that to look for.

April 9:      100+  –  7:30 pm or so the wind finally died down and cranes started to congregate at the water’s edge.  More joined later on.   There’s still the impression that many of these have been counted before.

April 10:      125+  –  Right after sunset I thought were facing the usual suspects, but more kept coming during the moonrise.   A far nicer evening than yesterday.

April 11:      72  [I somehow deleted this count and will try to recreate it here]   JW reported this count and Marcy agreed.  JW also spotted White-faced Ibis and Greater Yellowlegs.

April 12:      42 – 45  – Marcy’s count.    JW reported cranes leaving mid-morning.

April 13:      32   – Marcy’s count on a warm and windy evening.

April 14:      32   – Marcy’s count – seem to be the same birds.  (JW’s Sat. morning count came up with 25.)

April 15:      32-35   – Marcy’s count – more of the same.+

April 16:      22 &32  – JW’s   & Marcy’s counts.

April 17:      2 dozen or so   – Marcy

April 18:      27 – JW’s    count.

April 19:      31 – After the wind died down after sunset.

April 20:      26 – JW’s count.

April 21:      21 – (JW again counted 26 earlier in the evening.)  Tonight I went to the Reservoir mostly as the swan song to this spring’s crane count.  It’s nice to see a few cranes hanging around so late.  From this point on I’ll keep an eye out for them but I won’t be recording numbers (here at least).   My binoculars will stay in my vehicle because I will still go there from time to time at more reasonable daylight hours and just see what the Basin has to offer.    I am still waiting for a few more species to show and a few other birds that I have reported seen by others this spring but whom I have not.

– Thanks especially to Jim Wallace for his obsession for cranes and the other flying feathers in the Basin.  He has filled in the counts on days I have been away, and on other evenings provided his own numbers that often came amazingly close to my own . . . and on those nights we disagreed, we easily worked things out.    I also want to thank Marcy Peterson for all the evenings she came to Fruitgrowers to provide her input on the evenings’ events, but mostly for her good cheer and funny observations.   I know it’s Spring when she and the cranes show up at the same time in the usual places.

Let’s see what next year brings.  Cheers!

Jim Durr