Counting Cranes Without Jim Wallace

February 4, 2019

An email from Wendy last night told me it was time.

While driving through Debeque Canyon on I-70, she was startled to see a black-billed swan feeding in the Colorado River. She called others and googled and then asked me if Tundras stopped by Fruitgrowers Reservoir. She also mentioned seeing bluebirds, eagles, turkeys and Dan, so I have been given notice that her pre-Spring obsessions have begun.

That’s how Eckert Crane Days tends to start around here. It’s the emails, phone calls and the hey-have-you-seen-any-cranes-yet? asked in casual meetings at the Eckert Post Office or the Cedaredge Mercantile. But for me it did not really start until I received my first bird call or email from Jim Wallace. He would send alerts about crane sightings at Fruitgrowers sometime in February and opine about how what he saw were likely down valley Delta winter residents. He often would include sightings of Bald Eagles and other notable early Spring migrants.

But this year that is over. He will no longer be peering through his spotting scope from his red T-100 pickup. His friendly nature and engaging smile with the gap in his teeth are fond, if sad, memories. The light in his eyes, the excitement of big numbers of overnight crane visits, and the pride of his first sightings of rare and special species will now have to come from others.

Jim died July 6th at his Eckert home of a heart attack that took him unexpectedly and quickly. Marcy and I went to the Trap Club celebration of his life. Along with everyone else we struggled for words to say to Dee and his children and friends who we had not met before. Marcy and I went to acknowledge, at least to ourselves, our times along the “causeway” arguing and joking with Jim about crane counts and any other silly things that friends do in such situations. We, along with many others, assumed we would be sharing cranes with him far longer than the 69 years he was given. (Jim’s obituary)

For several months I have put off writing this. I was expecting a sign – some insight – that would help with this announcement of Jim’s death and remembrance of his part of Eckert Crane Days and his profound importance to this little web site. Such inspirations are sometimes slow to appear. This is one of those times. All that becomes available is witnessing the flow of time and the cycles of the seasons in which Sandhill Cranes and the many other species that fly to and from this part of the world. It is a small world many of us shared with Jim.

This afternoon I went to the reservoir. It was breezy and overcast with high, dark clouds – in the low 30’s – cold enough to be unwelcoming but not enough to drive you off. On the west side in the first trees opposite the parking lot perched a lone large, dark Golden eagle. Further south out on the middle of the mostly frozen-over reservoir stood a pair of mature Bald Eagles standing on the ice, looking eastward a few hundred yards at the open water edge filled with many mallards, several mergansers and a few geese. In the yellow and brown grasses and denuded shrubs flitted small birds made unidentifiable by dull light and drab winter plumage. Though the basin held no cranes today, its good to to come now to hear the silence of absent Sandhills – to remember this when they do return. But while contemplating the cranes that will return I contemplate further that Jim will not.

Last year on Feb. 8th Jim emailed his first report of cranes sighted around the reservoir. A week later came his next report. By March 1st Jim’s crane and other-bird reports came in almost daily as well as the phone calls and the meetings in the basin. Once the Sandhill migration began, he was there almost every day (sometimes two or three times a day) to count and recount. While I was away he was there to provide the daily counts for this website.

So we are preparing for the renewal of the reservoir. Water will be filling it, and seep and flow into its peripheral marshes and wetlands. Great Blue Herons will take their positions now occupied by ice. And some of Jim’s favorites will return: the eagles and the teals, the canvasbacks, ruddy ducks, and the egrets, the grebes, and gulls, and the pelicans and swans and willets and avocets.

Jim was here and he has left . . . except when his memory returns while the Sandhill Cranes fill Hart’s Basin and the skies overhead with their wings and their dancing and their chorusing that fill the heavens and our hearts. And when cranes are being counted during the very last light of the day, we’ll wonder what his number would have been.

— Jim Durr