Sandhill cranes in the spotlight

By Don Benjamin

Sandhill cranes in the spotlight | Eckert, Crane Days,

This family of bird watchers kept a close eye on sandhill cranes flocking east of Eckert. From left to right are Anja (age 7), Craig, Whittier (age 4), and Shannon Ullmann of Hotchkiss.

Bird enthusiasts gathered last weekend to celebrate the seventh annual Eckert Crane Days. Although the sandhill cranes proved somewhat elusive, the human attendance was comparable to past years. Crowds surrounding Fruitgrowers Reservoir east of Eckert were estimated at 50 souls on Friday; 200 on Saturday; and another 40 on a stormy Sunday.

Using telescopes and binoculars, people of all ages (and a wide assortment of dogs) assembled in viewing areas and gazed into the distance as cranes landed, fed, and took off again on their journey north. Considering that as many as 1,000 cranes were counted on March 11 and again on March 12, the numbers sighted during the March 16-18 weekend were not particularly spectacular. During Crane Days the largest daily count, which occurred on Saturday night and Sunday morning, was around 300. But -- regardless of the number sighted -- people who flocked to the area to observe the handsome birds seemed content to enjoy the comradeship of like-minded crane lovers.

Although the official Crane Days celebration has ended for this year, the birds can still be observed at Fruitgrower's Reservoir and adjacent fields for the remainder of March. And, based on previous years' sightings, their overnight visits may continue until the closing days of April. The birds generally arrive each day in the late afternoon between 3 p.m. and dusk. They spend the night and take off around 11 a.m. when upper air currents are ideal to aid them in their journey over Grand Mesa. The Audubon Society estimates that as many as 20,000 cranes -- in groups large and small -- will pass through Delta County this spring on their way to breeding grounds further north.

The Crane Days event was a local and regional community effort. The Montrose-based Black Canyon Chapter of the Audubon Society provided spotting scopes, interpretive experts, and crane literature throughout the weekend. The Graystone of Eckert hosted a winemaker's reception on Friday featuring Bret Neal of Cedaredge's Stoney Mesa Winery. Stacy's on Main from Cedaredge sold coffee and treats at the viewing site. And the Cedaredge 'Craniacs' were on hand to sell origami fashioned paper cranes as a fund-raiser for the new Grand Mesa Arts and Events Center.

A combination of crane watchers and local residents enjoyed a free barbeque luncheon hosted last Saturday by Conscience Bay Company (the new owners of Hart's Basin Ranch) and catered by Zack's of Hotchkiss.A highlight of Saturday, March 17, was a free barbeque lunch hosted by Conscience Bay Company, the new owners of Hart's Mountain Ranch. A combination of crane watchers and other local residents attended the luncheon. David Price, owner of Zack's Texas Style Barbeque of Hotchkiss, catered the event and he estimated the number served at 211 diners.