2018 Sandhill Crane Counts

2018 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).

March 21:     385 +/-   –    Probably new birds that arrived relatively later in the afternoon.

March 20:     230-240 –    They act like new birds.   Considering  the weather the past few days, I was a little surprised it wasn’t a big number.

March 19:     600  –  It became too cold to stay late to more precisely refine the count.  These are likely new birds – JW witnessed rather atypical departures from the Basin this morning.

March 18:     360 +/-      Given today’s overcast and cold and wind and occasional precipitation, it looks like these are yesterday’s cranes.

March 17:     325-350 –    Low confidence in tonight’s count.  Lots of movements between roosts well after sunset, some deciding to take refuge out of sight in willow-lined shores.  The count is largely influenced by the 300+ field estimates.

March 16:     132 –   A cold day that cleared up but warmed a little only for the last couple hours of sunlight.    – Don’t know how many of these cranes are holdovers.

March 15:     600 +/-    – This corresponds with JW’s morning count and his count this evening.  The significant cold front seems to have kept the birds in the Basin and not brought in any more.  We’ll see what tomorrow brings.

March 14:     450-500  –  Based mostly on field counts.  Roost flights were late and in small, sporadic groups difficult to add up in the dark.  [UPDATE:   JW counted cranes Thursday (15th) morning and came up with 600 he found in the fields.]

March 13:     1,100  –  The past couple of days significant groups (of 100 or 200) appeared to fly further west and north, and forego stopping at Fruitgrowers reservoir.  Now that we’re in a proper migration pattern we are reminded that we only tend to see 2/3 to 3/4 of the cranes that are migrating out of the San Luis Valley (perhaps even fewer).  Add to that the 3,000 +/- Sandhills that have wintered over in the Escalante wildlife areas downstream from Delta and we find ourselves appreciating that what we see in Hart’s Basin tells only part of the crane story in our flyway.   (Initial liftoff was around 11:00)

March 12:    650 –   (Hear tell liftoff this morning was about 11:30.)

March 11:     1,000  – Perhaps more.  Although I thought it was closer to 800-850, the local brain trust said it was closer to a thousand.  Around 7:40 pm (Daylight Savings started today) after JW and Marcy left, significantly  more cranes flew in from the south to make this estimate more comfortable.

March 10:    65+/-   Another quiet evening with the usual suspects.

March 9:    75   Perhaps if I stayed a little longer I might have caught a couple more sneaking in, but you get the picture.  (A note from JW this evening from the Escalante wildlife area https://cpw.state.co.us/learn/Maps/EscalanteSWA.pdf west and downstream from Delta that he estimates several groups coming into roost there totaled 1,000 or so.)

March 8:    85   This roost count agrees with JW’s late afternoon field count.  The 500 count on March 2nd now appears to be an anomaly and not an early migration trend.  There is a suspicion that there is a core group of wintering locals (perhaps 50 or more) that remain  part of our counts over the past two weeks.

Report from the Monte Vista wildlife refuge:  On the 6th and 7th Jeanne and I watched crane evening flights to roost and the numbers were overwhelming – impossible to count; all I could do was to say ‘see you later’ as they flew by.    This weekend is their crane festival in the San Luis Valley, which is very popular . . . the place is flooded with bird watchers. (Maybe that’s what we need to encourage the cranes to head our way.)    With personnel cutbacks to the US Fish & Wildlife Service it seems impossible to find official counts or population trends for the cranes.  The refuge office was closed both days.  I could not find anyone who could provide staging and migration information like we were able to get in the past.   So we will wait at Hart’s Basin and see what happens.   – Jim Durr

March 7:    120    (Sorry we missed the evening posting.)  This number is from JW’s early morning count on Thurs. (8th)

March 6:    10,000+  Oops – That’s the report from Monte Vista

March 6:    150    JW count . .  .  No cranes appeared to leave in the morning.

March 5:    170    (No more than.)  This coincides with JW’s field counts.  JW also saw 100 birds leave this morning.  He suggests there might be 50 new birds in today’s group.  I don’t know; I wasn’t around until this evening.

March 4:    300    Or quite close to it.   Based on the cold blustery weather, the guess is these are yesterday’s cranes with a few additions.

March 3:    200+   The count at the roost kept coming at about this number.  But when I had to leave because supper was calling, small groups 2-5 continued to land in the darkness.   JW had estimated about 250 in the fields before the roost, so what we saw at the end makes sense.   JW also observed that about 200 of tonight’s cranes appear to be holdovers from last night.   (Liftoff this morning was around 10:00 am. – I heard them but did not go to the reservoir to watch.)

March 2:    450-500   These are the first to look/act like migrating cranes.   JW estimated about 400 cranes feeding at sunset before they flew to roost at the west shore of the reservoir, south of North Road.  The marsh area on the north side of North Road is starting to fill in with water – if that keeps up there will be lots more bird species to see in a week or so.    Beautiful evening.

March 1:    58    Darker skies tonight, earlier flight to roost.

February 28:    55   or so.  The past six days have been the same, except I haven’t seen the Bald Eagle in three days.

February 27:    55.   Same behavior

February 26:    Ditto – all the same except roosting a few minutes later each day.

February 25:    Same number and behavior as last evening

February 24:    60 (approx.) Cranes  roosted along the south side of North Road – both ends

February 23:    55 Cranes – winter residents most likely – in the corn field S of Meyers Road.  At 5:30 pm . . .  didn’t wait around to see where they spent the night.

February 23:    So this starts it for this year’s migration season.  It’s a bit earlier than normal but it’s not been much of a winter so it may be hard to know when Spring will start and how the Sandhill Cranes will be reacting these conditions.

February 22:    8 Cranes . . . no doubt these are part of the wintering crowd. 

February 13, 2018, 2:00 pm         First reconnaissance for crane season this year

I swung by without binoculars to check on three things:  the water level of Fruitgrowers Reservoir, the possibility of Sandhill Cranes, and the possibility of Bald Eagles.   I was surprised to see as much water as I did.  Although there was little standing water on the north side of North Road, the south side was mostly covered by water.

Halfway across the North Road causeway at the feeder ditch lined with trees winging low and unhurriedly towards the west I saw a half dozen cranes.  Then another pair.  And then another.  Here, weeks before the grand migration of the Sandhills from the south, are ten cranes acting like they belong to the place.  This conforms to the reports that up to thirty cranes have typically been hanging around the reservoir – a small fraction of the 3,000 that reliable reports put wintering over north of Delta along the Uncompaghre and Gunnison rivers.

The increasing numbers of over-wintering cranes the past several years is becoming less surprising.  And given this light-weight pseudo-winter, these hibernal cranes seem to be cashing on a bet that they don’t have to fly south and east over the Cochetopa Hills, and La Garita and San Juan mountains.

Turning around and heading west I saw a couple of big birds in the tall cottonwoods north of the road.  A naked-eye assessment could easily confirm at least one to be a Bald Eagle.  We can expect these raptors to start their northward migration this time of year.