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 other.

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).

April 27:     7    JW

April 24:    19   JW

April 23:    12  JW

April 22:    24  JW

April 21:    40  JW

April 20:    43    This is the last night of the Eckert Crane Days daily count.    This Spring I will continue to visit Fruitgrowers Reservoir from time to time and may, for the record here, note any interesting observations about cranes on this page and about other birds on the Other Bird Species Sighted page.           Cheers,    Jim Durr

April 19:    63    Just after 8:00 pm a bunch flew from the roost area, but by the time we left most came back.

April 18:    25  At least.  Maybe 30 or so.  (First sighting of swallows – Tree Swallows? – to fast and too late to know for sure.)

April 17:    42  After a very windy day it took a while for the last of the cranes to walk into the roost.  Note: About 4 dozen or so White Pelicans arrived today.

April 16:     44  JW counted these about an hour after I saw 26 looking to land at a roost area.

April 15:     24  Again, thanks to JW

April 14:     37  Tonight’s count was the same as this morning.  Thanks, JW.

April 13:     53  A late count as it started to snow a little bit – Thanks, Marcy.

April 12:     35  [Please note:  For the next few days the posting of the daily count may be delayed and not available in time to make plans for the next morning.  We are coming up to the end of the spring migration season and do not expect any big number from now on.   (I typically close the to count around April 20th most years and expect that will be the same for 2018.)]

April 11:     42  That’s the number when we gave up well after sunset waiting for the last cranes (if there were any more hiding) to come out of the tall vegetation.

April 10:     79  I’m pretty sure. (I got a comment that a plain old number of cranes is not enough.  My apologies to those so offended.)

April 9:     92  [If I remember correctly.]

April 8:     140-150

April 7:     450 +  This is an estimate or a best guess.  This evening’s rain contributed to the uncertainty . . .but we can live with that as long as we get this much-needed moisture!

April 6:     300  Or close to it.   Although a couple of large groups flew out of the Basin in the heavy overcast during the day, we are not sure if they returned (which they have done in the past) or happen to be replaced by new birds.

April 5:     300+  Maybe we’ll get a second chance Friday morning for a recount.

April 4:     160  – A early morning roost count tomorrow may  reveal a few more than this.  [JW Thursday morning roost count was closer to 200.]

April 3:     170  – I was prepared to go home with a 150 count.  But it seems with the lengthening days and milder evenings there is a trend for a few late-feeding cranes (well after 8:00 pm)  to quietly join the others at the roosting areas.

April 2:     75  –

April 1:     70  –  This count relies on JW’s count for the last 20 cranes.   He thinks 25 of tonight’s total may be new birds.   I  couldn’t stay late for a final confirmation.

March 31:     227  –  JW’s count tonight.  He figures about 175 were new birds.   This morning he found 156 at Fruitgrowers roost sites.   Also this morning, west of Eckert during liftoff times 10:45-11:20,  I saw well over 300 Sandhills spiral up overhead and go over the Grand Mesa.  That far exceeds anything seen at Fruitgrowers last night, suggesting that many roosted elsewhere nearby because most did not have the altitude of birds coming from further away.

March 30:     130  +/- 10  Tonight’s uncertainty, in addition to the usual distractions,  was caused by very late arrivals and movements between roost sites.  (JW estimated 130 Cranes roosting  early this morning and others are certain that at least 50 cranes left the county; this suggests that there are at least some new birds tonight.)

March 29:     111 –   (+/- the number of lunies  by the road trying to count cranes under the moonshine two evenings before a blue moon.   (You had to be there.))

March 28:     81 +/-3    (This confidence interval is brought to you by M., who was certain there was a handful of cranes hiding in the tall vegetation intentionally avoiding the count.)

March 27:     100 +/-1  For those trying to keep a running tally of Sandhills migrating through Hart’s Basin, we can’t suggest how to treat tonight’s count.

March 26:     400 +    Based on late evening feeding patterns I don’t think they are all new birds.

March 25:     900 +/-    At least 250  were holdovers (JW) and at least 473 were new arrivals (N & C – the usual groupies from Aspen).  I don’t know where the rest of them spent last night.  [Also, the vehicle count on North Road this morning was 67.  Our reporter (Marcy) got “carstrophobic” and went back home.]

March 24:     2,500 – 3,000   –   Could be the biggest flight of the season.  With these numbers will come lots of crane watchers in the morning.  (Here’s hoping  tomorrow’s birders will park and walk along North Road in a safe and respectful manner; this is a public road and many non-crane watchers also need to use it.)

March 23:     ,300 +/-   –   This evening was unique as many cranes WALKED from various directions to the roost water instead of their normal fly-in.  Had to wait until quite late to see the last 40 or so hike in.   JW reports that this morning’s birds all seemed to leave from 11:00 to 11:45 and probably returned.

March 22:     1,100  –    1,200 is not unlikely.   I arrived late, but luckily JW, who had more time and light, came up with this count.  What I saw certainly confirms this.  These are most probably new cranes.

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.