2020 Sandhill Crane Counts

2020 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 or just after, and on rare special nights have been known to land after dark.  Liftoff is when the cranes spiral upward typically relying on the mid-morning winds provide an uplift to help give them the elevation to clear the Grand Mesa. Generally this occurs after 9:00 am (MDT) – and sometimes as late as noon. (Liftoff should not be confused with early flights away from the roost when groups of cranes fly off somewhere for a morning feed before lifting off – sometimes in fields outside the confines of Harts Basin.)

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 only a few of us counters who rely on each other.  Some evenings we get better counts than others.

We post previous years’ counts on the web site.  Go to Past Crane Counts at the menu at the top of the page. This information is best viewed as anecdotal information that suggest trends and offer the observations and biases of your reporter(s).

April 8 – 100

April 7 – 37 – Beautiful pink supermoon rise over the Reservoir. The coyotes agreed.

April 6 – 66 – Plus the few that stayed in the tall vegetation and were not counted tonight.

April 5 – 170 – This is the count of the cranes at 6:00 pm on Velas’ field closest to the causeway. Waiting for them to come to the water to roost was not so straightforward. The groups from Velas landed all over the place after sunset and in the last bit of light I could only confirm about 125 of the birds in or next to the water.

April 4 – 80 – Includes the handful that I thought were lurking in the dried cattails.

April 3 – 185 – (Plus or minus 5 or 6)

April 2 – 140 – Twenty arrived very late after being pushed off course by a Bald Eagle. Another chilly evening.

April 1 – 170

March 31 – 500 – Or close to it. This was a beautiful evening — warm and calm with a lovely sunset. The cranes stayed near the roost area and relatively late a flock of about 125 landed from very high, coming in from the east. Their vocalizations at dusk were very loud and entertaining.

March 30 – 165 – Beautiful alpenglow on the West Elks this evening. However the wind was pretty cold. Some warm, calm evenings its nice to stand outside and make several counts. Tonight it was a couple of quick counts and then huddling in the car waiting to see if anymore appeared. (Marcy saw four.)

March 29 – 1,200 – We were due, if we are owed anything. The cranes that spend tonight at the Reservoir were not the only ones that came through here. There were significant numbers that were flying high towards the Grand Mesa from 3:00 pm on. (If someone made a credible count and said 400 cranes kept flying, I’d believe ’em.) I kept hearing Sandhills but hardly saw any. So I don’t really know how many bypassed us.

March 28 – 100 – The lonely pair of cranes at the roost had to wait until after 7:30 to not be so lonely. (To make waiting more interesting, I saw my first Western Grebe.)

March 27 – 200 – Pretty sure there’s not many more than that. During the first part of the evening it was snowing too intensely to see any cranes at a distance. By the time the snow stopped it was too dark to get a very good count. My observations are based on the cranes I could see near the roost waters.

March 26 – 47 – (No cranes at 7:30 pm.) With the wind we had since late morning I am not surprised with the low number.

March 25 – 155 (+/-5) – Cool and breezy afternoon and evening.

March 24 – 600 – Total of two separate roost groups that formed well after sunset. A much warmer and friendlier evening compared last night. Mid afternoon and later we heard cranes up high – well north of North Road. Don’t know how many may have gone over the Grand Mesa.

March 23 – 275 Based on what I earlier saw in a distant Vela ranch field and what was already down along the reservoir, I was expecting a final roost count of about 400. I even stayed behind longer than normal, especially when the wind is as biting as it was tonight, to catch very late arrivals. Nothing. The cranes that didn’t show up were either imagined or roosted somewhere else. I can’t count what I can’t see (and sometimes, like tonight, I don’t count what I thought I did see.)
I have been getting several requests to forecast which days big groups will arrive and at what time will they take off the next morning. First, after doing this for 18 seasons I know better than trying to predict such things. My usual answer is: Maybe tomorrow? Second, so far, this year’s liftoffs have been somewhat different than usual because larger portions of cranes are leaving the Basin early to feed elsewhere before departing for their next stop later in the morning – using the developing updrafts to lift them to elevations high enough to cruise over the Grand Mesa.

March 22 – 53 Very late arrivals counted before they landed. A couple more may have sneaked in undetected but overall a very light flight.

March 21 – 225 – 240 Very late arrivals. About 60 were reported seen earlier in a field to the south along 2100 Road. 200+, in mostly in two large groups, flew in from that direction. I don’t know if these are yesterday’s birds – heard them high overhead around noon but don’t know if what was heard had actually left.

March 20 – 250 +/- Very cold with the high humidity and wind chill.

March 19 – 850 +/- Tonight looked like what we saw last night and most likely these are the same birds. With the heavy and deep snowfall facing the cranes at normal liftoff hours, it appears they grounded themselves. A check around 4:00 pm revealed no cranes along the causeway and only about half the number feeding in distant fields. They stayed away until well past sunset. Thanks, Marcy.

March 18 – 850 +/- I heard overhead at least some of this morning’s cranes north of the Basin when I was on Cedar Mesa around 10:45. I suspect most, if not all, of tonight’s birds are new ones. Wet and chilly evening. We’ll see what tonight’s cold front with its rain and snow does to crane behavior.
(I heard that Black Canyon Audubon cancelled their crane event this coming weekend because of the coronavirus situation.)

March 17 – 575 +/- Another pretty sunset this evening.

March 16 – 350 This morning’s mob completely cleared out of the Basin. Tonight’s cranes arrived relatively late – mostly after 5:00 pm.

March 16 – 1,800 MORNING REPORT : I went out as early as I could and most of the cranes appeared to still remain at the roosts. There were two large groups – one east and one west of the feeder ditch for the reservoir. As the light improved I saw closer to 1,800 cranes (Marcy’s estimate last night, I must admit) than the 2,000 I thought I saw last night, or the 2,000+ I thought I might see this morning. By sunrise cranes were going from the roost to feed. A majority were moving to the fields of the Vela and Figure 4 ranches, but a small percentage flew out of the Basin. (There are some mornings when fewer cranes are seen at lift off than were reported the night before. This is explained by those that leave the Basin early to feed in fields elsewhere.)

March 15 – 2,0001,800 At least. At 6:00 pm I was comfortable with a 1,500 estimate. The flocks that later came in to roost told a bigger story. They didn’t all come in a flood like last night, but came in many distinct groups of around 100 each. Perhaps in the morning we can fine tune tonight’s estimated number, which can be tricky because at first light some cranes leave the immediate area to feed elsewhere before they lift off over the Grand Mesa.

[Special tip to those who want to stop along the road to watch cranes: If, when you park, any of your wheels are on pavement, you are creating a dangerous situation for yourself and others.]

March 14 – 1,250 – At 5:00 pm I estimated around 800 total. Came back just before sunset and most cranes had moved off to distant fields. Around 7:00 pm almost all came in as a large single group to roost north of the causeway. Surprised me! Several small groups kept coming in for almost another half hour. Counting under such circumstances became a challenge, so the tally may be off +/- 50.

Earlier, around 4:00 pm, high overhead from our house we spotted about 250 that flew on west and southwest well past Harts Basin. We heard other distant voices that we couldn’t track , so it’s likely even more were fly-bys who spent the night elsewhere.

A shout out to Jon Horn and Don Marsh of Black Canyon Audubon who this afternoon were picking up trash alongside the North Road “causeway” in anticipation of their upcoming crane watching event. I am sure that bird watchers were not the only litterers, so we applaud their altruism.

A shout at cranes watchers who park in the road and obstruct traffic. Being a crane watcher does not bestow special rights to create dangerous traffic conditions. Please pull off the road before you start bird watching.

March 13 – 50 – Blustery, chilly evening. Waiting for significant numbers to start showing up. Today had a foot or so of snow falling in the San Juans and the Sange de Cristo mountains – strong weather fronts tend to keep them in the San Luis Valley. We’ll see what comes our way in the next few weeks. Stay tuned.

Today Darlene reported back from her visit to the Monte Vista and Alamosa Refuges. Initially she saw few cranes. The big payoff came late in the evening (after 6:00 pm) as cranes flew to the MV reservoirs and adjacent fields from the far flung private agricultural lands surrounding the Refuge – in waves of tens and hundreds and even thousands of birds. Like Marcy, she provided an affirmation that the cranes are still in the Valley and the best is yet to come.

March 12 – 60 – Estimate of two groups, one which was at quite a distance. (6:45 pm)

March 11 – 46

March 10 – 37 –  I had a 30+ field count. Marcy saw what landed to roost after I left. She had the better count.

March 9 – 40 to 50 –  Around 7:30 pm (MDT) 20 cranes flew to roost on north side of North Road from the SW fields of Velas’ ranch.

Today I received word that there are LOTS of Sandhill Cranes still in the San Luis Valley – estimates at around 20,000 with most at the Monte Vista and Alamosa National Wildlife Refuges. The rest are scattered throughout the rest of the valley. Marcy was there this past weekend. Darlene provided a message from others that correspond with what Marcy saw and headed down there to see for herself. We will provide updates here as we get them.

Although I have, throughout this winter, seen cranes in the western areas of Delta County, I do not yet have information or estimates for the number of cranes that spent their winter here. I will share that information – if and when I get it.

March 9 – Around 11:00 am (MDT) I saw about 75 or so cranes gain elevation west of Hart’s Basin, spiral up for more elevation over Tongue Creek , and then sail over the Grand Mesa. That is my first evidence that the Spring Migration has started!

March 8 – 210 –  Perhaps a few more. Forty-eight hours later and all the ice is gone – except for a football-sized slushy patch a couple of hundred yards from the dam. I don’t expect to see it tomorrow. A couple of Bald eagles continue to hang around. Lots of mergansers.

March 6 – 65 or 50 –  Morning and evening counts. Still look like locals. Still lots of ice but rapidly receding.

March 4 – (5:00 pm) –  0 to ? Another quick check. Heard some, saw none. Best part was seeing new bird species and that more surface ice turned to liquid. Still a little early for crane migration but the weather is warm and should remain so for the next few days.

February 26 – (5:00 pm) –  0 A quick check revealed no cranes. There is still lots of ice, but overall water levels seem higher than average for this time of year.

February 20 – (Mid afternoon) –   30 A reconnaissance on a sunny, 40 degree afternoon revealed these 30. A Feb. 17 report from Marcy suggested 35-50 cranes that evening. We are likely looking at wintering cranes who have been hanging out the Delta Uncompaghre/Gunnison valleys.

The reservoir is mostly full and mostly iced over. These is water outside the ditch north of the causeway (North Road). [Today we will start reporting other bird species we encounter near and at Fruitgrowers Reservoir.]