Sandhill Cranes
Ancient birds that announce spring

Eckert Crane Days

[This article is reprinted from Eckert Crane Days, Eckert, Colo. Written by Jim Durr. Courtesy image.]

Eckert Crane Days is the acknowledgment of the gift of Sandhill Cranes who profoundly announce the arrival of Spring to the Surface Creek area of Delta County. It is an attitude . . . a state of mind.

But the singular voice of the Crane is a much larger affirmation of a connection to a species far older than our own. Cranes are ancient birds that offered announcements of Spring long before the appearance of human species that was just developing (my apologies to creationists – just kidding about that one, actually). These magnificent birds remind us of a rich legacy that is owned by the ears and eyes and hearts and minds of all those who have the capacity to receive such treasures.

We should thank the Grand Mesa for giving these birds pause before trying to spiral over the mountain. We celebrate the many already-pregnant females who, with their mates, are anxious to leave here and, in a few days, the grand chorus with whom they arrived. They are anxious to become quiet duos fiercely defending solitary nesting ground to raise at least one colt, or, unlikely, two . . . if the food and weather and predators agree.

In 2002 when we created Eckert Crane Days we were looking to create events to celebrate this stop on the Sandhill Cranes northward migration. But now I feel differently about Eckert Crane Days.

I now see Eckert Crane Days as an OPEN HOUSE to which all are invited by the Cranes themselves, as they have always done, to come see the Cranes land and leave Fruitgrowers Reservoir (and yes, even celebrate those Cranes who bypass us to land near Delta or Montrose instead.)

Open House generally begins March 10th, plus or minus a couple of days, and usually ends sometime around April 20th. This year it started February 23rd because the Winter has been so mild making it more difficult to predict when the Sandhills may make their moves northward through Hart’s Basin.  As has become the custom the past several years,  some groups of cranes may visit Fruitgrowers before the 10th, but the consensus is those particular birds are likely part of the approximately 3,000 others who have been wintering north and west of Delta and who may be exercising their flight muscles.  I subscribe to the theory that the earliest migrants seem to be in a bigger hurry to claim their nesting places ahead of the others. The later ones, I imagine, tend more to be the yet-to-breed youngsters who are dating and learning the nuances of being adults. – So stop by at least twice and see if you too can notice how the early groups act the same or differently compared to the later ones.

Jim Durr

P.S.This website once provided information to organized activities but now fulfills a somewhat different mission.   It will remain a work in progress by experimenting with community-based opportunities for participation (if we are more successful avoiding spammers and scammers) – especially with postings of Crane Counts and sightings of other birds and wildlife in and around Fruitgrowers Reservoir and Hart’s Basin.

—And sketch and photograph and write and feel frivolous and profound, and instill this ancient ritual into your hearts. —And find your own stories to tell about the Sandhill Cranes.

Learn more:

Monte Vista Crane Festival

[This article is reprinted from “Cranes in the Sky,” Monte Vista Crane Festival, 2021.]

In February, Sandhill Cranes, the San Luis Valley’s oldest visitors, begin their annual migration north from their wintering grounds on and around Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. They congregate in large numbers on the Monte Vista National Wildlife Refuge to take advantage of the open water the refuge provides for roosting and grain for food. They return to the San Luis Valley during the fall on their way back to New Mexico.

For millions of years, the Sandhills have been spending their “Spring Break” in Colorado’s Valley of the Cranes. While in the San Luis Valley the cranes perform their courtship dance — leaping and bowing while raising and lowering their wings, and making a croaking sound to one another. Once a male and female bond they form a pair for life.

Greater Sandhill Cranes are about four feet tall with a six-foot wingspan. They weigh around 12 to 13 pounds and are uniformly gray except for a red patch of skin on their foreheads.

Similar-looking, but much smaller birds, are Lesser Sandhill Cranes. About 1,200 of them are part of the Rocky Mountain flock. Most Lesser Sandhill Cranes stay east of the Continental Divide in a flock of 500,000 that make a well-known migratory stop in the Platte River basin of Nebraska.

Petrogylph: Photo courtesy Joe Crane

No one really knows what the early residents of southern Colorado thought about this majestic migration of cranes, but they were paying attention to it. High on a rocky cliff face in the San Juan Mountains on the edge of the valley is a well-protected, six-foot long petroglyph that is unmistakably a Sandhill Crane. So, as much as 2,000 years ago, humans were celebrating the return of these magnificent birds to the Valley of the Cranes.

The site was initially recorded in 1984 in the Rio Grande National Forest. Because of its significance, rarity and vulnerability to vandalism, the Rio Grande National Forest does not share the location of this site with the public.  Read more about the petroglyph site…

Today, crane watchers come from far and wide to join the celebration at the Monte Vista Crane Festival held the second weekend in March. While the festival offers outstanding opportunities for celebrating and understanding cranes and other wildlife, the common denominator that brings visitors back year after year is the 20,000 or so greater Sandhill Cranes and a few thousand Lesser Sandhills.

Besides the cranes there are thousands of waterfowl, numerous wintering bald eagles and other raptors that highlight the wildlife viewing.

Learn more: Cranes in the SLV. Monte Vista Crane Festival, 2021. Contact:   719-289-7522.