“The crane is wilderness incarnate.”
ECKERT— Thousands of sandhill cranes on an overnight stop at Fruitgrowers Reservoir this spring also served as feathered advocates for habitat conservation.
That’s the hope, anyway, of Audubon Colorado and the Sopris Foundation, the organizations that partnered to bring two bus-loads of Roaring Fork Valley residents across McClure Pass to witness the natural phenomenon.
About 25,000 of the cranes migrate through Colorado every spring, following a predictable pattern of one-night stops between their winter home in southern New Mexico and Mexico, up to their summer roost on the Yellowstone plateau in Wyoming.
Dependably, before sundown everyday for a few weeks each spring, flocks of the majestic birds — often thousands at a time — fly in over the Grand Mesa and settle in at the reservoir for the night. The wetland here, set amid the orchards and pasture of Delta County, is ideal roosting terrain for the ground-dwelling birds.
Just as predictably, the next morning they lift off and make their way north for a stop on the Yampa River.
“Seeing it for the first time is breathtaking,” Audubon Colorado director Ken Strom said on the coach bus ride down Highway 133 from Carbondale.
After a two-hour bus ride — and a stop in a church basement for a crash course on cranes — the three dozen valley residents who took the ride were ready to have their breath taken away.
As the group arrived at Fruitgrowers, around 3:30 p.m., there were a dozen or so cranes congregating in a field at the edge of the reservoir.
No less than 25 parked cars already lined the North Road causeway, which crosses the rural reservoir. Hopeful bird watchers shuffled around the roadway — looking skyward, setting up spotting scopes and beach chairs, awaiting the cranes.
An expectant, collective silence soon broke, as someone spotted a group of 20-some birds circling in from the south, silhouetted against the clear blue sky.
It began as a trickle of flocks. But soon the cranes were coming in veritable Hitchcock-worthy swarms — groups of dozens to hundreds at a time gliding in slowly, onlookers on the causeway looking up and mindlessly stumbling into traffic on the highway.
Bemused locals occasionally drove by, shaking their heads and grinning knowingly at the distracted birders.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” said Bronwyn Anglin, of Basalt. She made the trip with her young daughter Stephanie, who had learned about the cranes as part of a Roaring Fork Valley-wide school program from Audubon, teaching students about the crane migration.
Along the reservoir, groups of kids made a game of trying to count the birds as they came in: “Now it’s 243! No, 244!”
As the birds circled closer to the ground, the gathered onlookers heard choruses of the crane call: a rattling, high-pitched gargle.
“By the end of the afternoon, you’ll never forget that sound,” said Chris Lazo, who runs Black Canyon Audubon and spent the afternoon sharing his spotting scope with a line of kids and adults.
On the ground, the growing crowd of birds preened and foraged. Within 90 minutes of the first flocks, there were more than 1,000 of them standing waterside.
“They’ve just flown 200 miles and they just want to sit at the bar and socialize,” Lazo laughed.
Sandhill cranes have battleship gray plumage, black wing tips and a flourish of red on their foreheads. On the ground, they stand about 4 feet tall on stilt-like legs, but their most impressive feature is their in-flight 6-foot wingspan.
Their three-toed feet aren’t able to grasp branches, so they live and lay eggs flat on the ground, choosing marshy areas rich in worms and bugs — like Fruitgrowers.
During their migration, they only fly during the daytime, which aids the predictability of their stopping time at Fruitgrowers.
Before taking flight in the morning, they wait for thermals to generate — much like Aspen area paragliders. They need the thermals to soar over the mountains. Before landing in Eckert, for instance, they need to top the 10,000-foot Grand Mesa.
Among the aspects of the crane migration is the heights they can reach. The birds soar thousands of feet above Colorado’s peaks.
The migratory group that stops in Fruitgrowers annually is the second-highest elevation crane population on Earth. The first is a flock that travels over the Himalayas.
If there was a chief crane-iac on the pond, it was Evelyn Horn. A retired school teacher with a wide smile and a crane-emblazoned denim shirt, she discovered sandhill cranes only after moving nearby in 1989.
“They were so beautiful and they flew right over our house,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know them very well since then.”
Horn is a fixture at Fruitgrowers every evening, when she makes an official count of how many birds landed that night. As an amateur naturalist — and author of two books on sandhill cranes — her counts have since helped scientists gauge changes in the migratory pattern.
With the temperature in the low 70s and the sky clear, this late March day provided unusually temperate crane-vewing weather for Colorado. Birders who make the trip to Fruitgrowers annually said it is normally far nastier when the cranes come through.
“I had just gotten used to the idea that if you wanted to see cranes you were going to have to be miserable in the snow,” Lazo laughed.
Strom, the state Audubon director, said he hoped that the wonder and whimsy of the community field trip would help foster a conservation ethic for Roaring Fork Valley residents.
Unlike whooping cranes and many of the world’s 15 crane species, the sandhill crane is not endangered. The threat facing it, however, is a loss of wild places to roost.
“They are not endangered, but a lot of their habitat is endangered,” Strom explained. “We have eaten up a lot of the wide open spaces they need.”
Global warming also appears to be affecting their migration. Over the last seven years, the cranes have stopped going as far south into Mexico as they historically have.
Audubon officials have at times found themselves fending off possible threats to the thousands-of-years-old migration of these prehistoric birds.
A proposed mountain flight training program by the U.S. Air Force last year drew concern from the Audubon. The bird advocates have lobbied the military not to do any training flights during the spring migration, fearing collisions.
“That wouldn’t work out for plane or bird,” Lazo said.
And in crane Meccas like Eckert, the townspeople also rally around their birds. The Eckert Crane Days, an annual March outdoor festival timed to coincide with the migrations, is one of 14 known crane festivals around the west.
Even demand to go on the Audubon field trip, Strom said, overwhelmed their resources for a day and led to miscommunications with some potential participants, who were left without a bus ride to Fruitgrowers in March.
The biggest destination for sandhill crane watchers, however, is Rowe Sanctuary, on Nebraska’s Platte River. The annual migration there attracts about 500,000 cranes. Strom, before coming to Colorado, oversaw the sanctuary, which has become an international tourist destination.
“More and more rural communities are realizing there is a real economic value to nature,” Strom said of crane tourism. “We would say there’s an intrinsic value, too.”