Sandhill Crane

A sandhill crane.

Special to Delta County Independent

The sandhill cranes are making their way north again. Sightings of a few to several hundred have already been made in Hart’s Basin near Eckert. Larger numbers will congregate as the weather warms and good weather for flying becomes more dominant.

Although Black Canyon Audubon Society will not be hosting Eckert Crane days due to COVID-19, the group does encourage all nature enthusiasts to take a trip to Fruitgrowers Reservoir (aka Hart’s Basin) to witness the annual migration of these inspiring birds and also to listen for their calls throughout Montrose and Delta counties.

According to the National Audubon Society, 25% of the world’s population of Greater Sandhill Cranes come to Fruitgrowers Reservoir each spring. Their typical path is from the Bosque del Apache in New Mexico to Monte Vista State Wildlife area in Colorado, on to Eckert and finally up to Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge near Pocatello, Idaho. From here lifelong mates spread out for breeding and rearing of young.

Their stop at Fruitgrowers provides good habitat for food and protection, a much needed rest along their way. Their diet consists mainly of plant material such as grain, roots, berries and seeds but they also rely on insects and snails. The shallow waters of the reservoir provide safety from predators at night.

Cranes will travel 200 miles per day at speeds up to 35 miles per hour. It is a dangerous time for them and conservation of habitat is critical for their survival. At one time, their numbers were declining due to hunting and loss of habitat. Currently crane populations in the Rocky Mountain Corridor are on the upswing due to research, protections, ongoing studies and improved management.

If you have seen sandhill cranes this winter, they are most likely from a group that winters in Delta County and leaves as the cranes from New Mexico are arriving. These wintering cranes can typically be seen along Highway 50 as you are driving north out of Delta, or along G-50 road in the Escalante State Wildlife area. There have also been some sightings near the Uncompahgre River around Montrose in the past couple of years.

If you haven’t seen sandhill cranes, it is a thrill to watch them. The best time of day to catch the newly-arriving cranes is late afternoon as they fly into Hart’s Basin or mid-to-late morning when they take off. New groups arrive most days from early March to mid-April and typically only stay one day.

To get to Fruitgrowers Reservoir from Delta or Montrose, take Highway 92 east to Highway 65. Head north to Eckert and turn right (east) on North St. The reservoir is about 1-1.5 miles from the junction. There is a pull-off before the reservoir that is typically good for viewing. There is also a parking area near the reservoir and additional pull-offs along the roadway. Cranes are not the only birds to look for. Keep an eye out for water, shore and song birds. The reservoir provides habitat for many species and has been designated an important bird area by National Audubon Society, with over 200 species sighted.

For many, it is an annual outing and the cranes’ arrival is one of the great harbingers of spring. For additional information and daily counts, eckertcranedays.com is a great website to visit. Also check out ebird.org for a list of species sighted at the reservoir. You can find local birding information, field trips and programs offered at Black Canyon Audubon Society’s website blackcanyonaudubon.org or on its facebook page.

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