2021 Sandhill Crane Counts

2021 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).

February 17 – About 200. Mid afternoon. I wasn’t looking for them, they were just there when I drove through.

These were, undoubtedly, wintering cranes. This winter has has been following the increasing trend of cranes staying in the area. The lighter snowpack (i.e. more open fields and other feeding areas) and open water along the lower drainages of the Gunnison, the Uncompaghre, the North Fork and the Colorado Rivers are all associated with the generally warmer climate we are all experiencing. I have received several anecdotal reports of much larger groups around Delta and down along the Colorado River.

March 1 – 100+ These came to roost after sunset to the distant shores along the winter-shrunken waters of the reservoir. I suspect these are winter birds. The weather’s nice so I thought I’d start getting into the practice of evening counts, even though I don’t expect to see clearly migrating cranes for a few days more. Their vocalizations were mostly drowned out by the several hundred Canada Geese staying around and in the reservoir.

March 2 – 150 Looks much like last night.

March 3 & 4 – Didn’t make it out to the pond.

March 5 – 150 to 200 Probably closer to 200. Heard many canes in the air around 10:30 am but saw no evidence of any leaving in migration to the north or northwest.

March 6 – 175 or so after sunset. Looked much like last night. The Reservoir is filling very slowly, if at all.

March 7 – 150 or so after sunset. Again, much like yesterday except Marcy showed up.

March 8 – 180 – 190. Most of the cranes came to roost at least a half hour after sunset. Instead of roosting the usual 100 yards from the road when the reservoir is full, they are currently 300 to 450 yards away, so you can guess how tricky being very accurate becomes in low light. Still no evidence of migrating cranes coming through Hart’s Basin.

March 9 – 200 +/- Got to the reservoir after 6:00 pm – after an overcast day and a dark sunset, except for a dozen or so, the cranes were already at the roost area and most of them standing in water.

March 10 – 200 +/- Like last night except the day was not so heavily overcast and the sunset was a little brighter.

March 11 – 200 +/-

March 12 – 225 +/- A lot like last night. Reports from the San Luis Valley that the refuges are still full of cranes.

March 13 – ? – (Missing in action)

March 14 – 210 (+/-5) After a cool overcast day and last night’s light snow and rain, it looks like the same group hanging around and feeding. I suspect this week we’ll start seeing migrants coming through from the south.

March 15 – 100 +/- I’m not surprised by the lower number this evening. This morning just after 10:30 am (DST), by the time I heard them west of the reservoir, several cranes were high overhead and they continued to fly over the Grand Mesa. I was sure there were at least 20 but wouldn’t have been surprised if there were as many as 50. This was the first migration out of the area that I witnessed this year, while acknowledging that I may have missed earlier exits.

March 16 – 230 +/- Stayed late for the stragglers – about 30 came in after I first wanted to go home, so perhaps there were a few more after I was gone.
Around 4:00 I stopped by Harts Basin out of curiosity and it seems to me that the 80 cranes standing tight in the water likely were new arrivals because they were not feeding in the fields like other groups of cranes in Velas’ pastures and hayfield below Crane (Vela) Point.

March 17 – 94 Very late arrival of 40-50 from Velas’ fields. This morning I was not outside during normal liftoff times so I saw and heard nothing, but I think more left the Basin today and headed north.

March 18 – 400 +

March 19 – 800 This is an estimate. There are several reasons for the approximate number:
First, Fruitgrowers Reservoir remains quite low and the shoreline where the cranes landed and went to roost this afternoon is about 700 yards from North Road. Almost always by this time of the month the reservoir is full, or close to it, so that North Road may be called a causeway. But not this year. We are in a drought and water managers may not allow the reservoir to fill for a couple of weeks or so. Anyway, the cranes are much farther away from the road and correspondingly more difficult to count.
Second, the flats around the exposed water are quite dry and do not provide roosting and feeding habitat. Eckert Crane Days was first held in 2002 and we have records of daily crane visits to Harts Basin since 2005. In all these years we have not had water levels as low as this by this date. So things are different.
Third, the extreme dry conditions have left areas that are normally submerged or very muddy, quite easy for humans to walk on. This situation seems to have encouraged a few nature enthusiasts to spend their late afternoons and early evening in these now-dry places at the west end near the parking lot. It would appear that this presence of people (and sometimes dogs) is creating an aversion for the cranes and changing their landing and roosting behavior. So this evening all these migrating cranes that arrived did so at the far eastern end of the reservoir, something that has not been witnessed in the past twenty years.
So, for the moment, we are are looking at an aberration or a new normal. I don’t know how this will affect the cranes’ normal behavior, including the morning’s dispersal flights to feeding areas before liftoff, and the timing and paths of the migration flight out of the basin itself. We’ll just have to see what happens. Stay tuned.

March 20 – 1,250 to 1,300 Lots of late afternoon and post sunset movements, so, again, tonight’s count conditions were challenging. Squatters returned to the west end of the reservoir and the cranes again landed at the east end. The afternoon’s strong winds from the WSW seems to explain their relatively late arrival at the reservoir.
[I’ve been told that the comment feature if this website is not working. I will try to fix that as soon as I can. Thanks.]

March 21 – 102 – plus or minus the ghost cranes, seen and unseen. At 6:15 pm no cranes were to be easily found at the reservoir. An hour later there were a few dozen and when it got much darker this is the number we came up with . . . without night vision optics.
It seems this morning’s hoard dispersed quite early so that only a few remained to stage a modest liftoff. I surmise that the current conditions in Hart’s Basin lead the cranes to find more suitable morning feeding areas elsewhere and then ultimately leaving sometime before noon for points to the north and northwest.

March 22 – 190 – 200 This includes the couple dozen that came in very late and in extreme darkness.

March 23 – 950 – 1,000 This recurring theme of many, very late arrivals adds more evidence to the notion that this year a much higher percentage of migrating cranes are doing their late day feeding outside Harts Basin itself.

March 24 – 68 Please note, the Comment Page for this website is working again.

March 25- 56 This is Marcy’s count. I couldn’t go to the reservoir late so she handled it. Thanks, Marcy!

March 26 – 270 +/- The shrunken water line of the reservoir remains largely unchanged.

March 27 – 60 +/- Almost all of the cranes that came to roost arrived after 7:40 pm . . . mostly silently with a full moon. Another challenging count.

March 28 – 750 – 800 A beautiful day. Warm and sunny, with cranes.

March 29 – 87 – There were over 80 cranes at last light. Nancy said 87.

March 30 – 84 – Don’t know if these are last night’s birds.

March 31 – 550-600 – At 7:25 pm after several counts I was absolutely certain there were at least 700 and even texted Marcy that. But by the time she got there, and after another half hour of them flying around in small groups, I don’t know what happened to a hundred or so of the cranes. But final counts are final counts.

April 1 – 950 – 1,000 It seems like most of last night’s cranes left this morning. Don’t know what today’s landing pattern was. This count was made between 7:30 to 8:00 pm.

April 2 – 240 – 250

April 3 – 24

April 4 – 250 (+/- 5) [Sorry about the earlier mixup on this number.]

April 5 – 41

April 6 – 1 – A late arrival on a windy and chilly day. (Under her that theory cranes only arrive in groups of two or more, Marcy said the count should be zero.)

April 7 – 15

April 8 -77

April 9 – 37

April 10 – 21

April 11 – 61

April 12 – 47

April 13 – 56

April 14 – 48 Notes: About 6 of tonight’s cranes were significantly smaller, suggesting they were likely Lesser Sandhill Cranes. We see this from time to time over several seasons. Also, for the past several nights, we have been observing a solitary crane that seems indifferent to the clustering of the roosting parties; and the assumption is that it is the same bird. There also is a pair of Bald Eagles that appear to be nesting in Hart’s Basin. Their tree is on private land so hopefully they will remain undisturbed by the public and have nesting success.

April 15 – 47 Plus one. (You figure it out.)

April 16 – 47, +1. It seems that Plus One has a right leg that does not work.

April 17 – 45 (+0)

April 18 – 13

April 19 – 20 Plus One; (who was driven to isolation by a gang of five.)

April 20 – 25 Well, that does it for this season. April 20th is usually the latest I go for these counts. I’m working on a little summary for this season and will post it soon. Thanks.