Gathering of cranes

At 5-feet tall, gregarious and among the most vocal of birds, Sandhill cranes offer a distinctive sign of the change of seasons. Local crane watchers report seeing thousands of cranes around Escalante State Wildlife Area west of Delta. It’s suspected by some birders the draw-down of Fruitgrowers Reservoir near Eckert has caused many of the cranes once at the reservoir to find new staging areas.

Among the distinctive sounds heralding the approach of spring is the long-distance gurgle and croon of migrating Sandhill cranes circling around the Grand Valley.

On many mid-March mornings, as the sun heats the ground, and thermals of warm air rise into a cloud-speckled sky, waves of migrating cranes cross the expanse, raining down their calls on the listeners below.

Most days I can pick out the V-shaped flocks patiently staging overhead, but occasionally the birds fly high against the sun, and it’s only the distinctive call that tells me of their passing.

For many years, crane watchers have been attracted to the annual gathering of cranes at Fruitgrowers Reservoir, also known as Hart’s Basin Reservoir.

This year, though, the reservoir is attracting fewer cranes. Reports from local birders who know these things say the cranes instead are gathering in the open fields and wetlands in and around Escalante State Wildlife Area west of Delta.

Here, avid birder Andrea Robinsong offers her well-considered opinion as to why the cranes have shifted their staging point.

Robinsong recently posted this entry on the Facebook page for, which, according to radio station KVNF in Paonia, is “a crowd-sourced reporting project ... that draws on community observations about seasonal shifts in the weather.”

The post underwent some minor editing.

Robinsong notes the initial dates for the Eckert Crane Days were changed when too few cranes were seen.

“As long as anyone can remember, during their northward migration thousands of migrating Sandhill cranes have staged overnight around Fruitgrowers Reservoir in Hart’s Basin,” Robinsong wrote.

“This past weekend (March 9–10), the annual Crane Days festival should have been held in Eckert, but there weren’t enough cranes coming through the basin. I learned that the crane migration is actually right on schedule, but the birds are staging at a new location west of Delta, at the Escalante State Wildlife Area.”

Robinson went to Escalante at sunset on March 10 and was rewarded when “more than 1,000 Sandhill cranes rained down all around me. Wonderful!”

“…I think the mass of the birds has left its traditional Hart’s Basin staging area as a direct result of climate change,” she wrote. “Fruitgrowers Reservoir is owned and operated by an irrigation water company that has refused to consider the astounding array of migratory birds that utilize(d) the area.”

It’s important to note, as does Robinsong, the Audubon Society has selected Fruitgrowers Reservoir a designated Important Birding Area, one that provides essential habitat for a variety of bird species.

The long drought, however, pays no attention to IBAs.

“For the past five years the lake has been repeatedly drained,” Robinsong lamented. “There was no lake at all when the cranes arrived last spring.”

In addition to the loss of the Sandhill cranes, she wrote, the water management in Fruitgrower’s has adversely affected other water-dependent birds, including Great Blue herons, Western grebes, American bitterns, Sora and Virginia rails and American White pelicans.

The cranes, at least, have found another staging spot for their migrational gathering.

Tuesday, Robinsong reported, “Groups of talking cranes filled the sky (at Escalante) for more than 2½ hours. The largest vortex that I saw form had around 600 birds.”

A handful of cranes were viewed Monday at Fruitgrower’s Reservoir, but the majority will be around the Escalante wildlife area.

Eckert Crane Days will take place Friday through Sunday. For information, contact the Black Canyon Audubon Society, 874-9532.


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