from Deanna Travis
Publisher & Owner
My husband Trav and I played tourist yesterday, February 16, 2011, and made the 70 mile trip from Tucson to south of Brisbee, a gorgeous summer day by our northern standards, blue sky and about 75 degrees. We were headed to an Arizona state wildlife preserve called The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. This is a well-known place which has drawn the Sandhill Cranes since the 1950's probably in response to the abundant food available in harvested grain fields; primarily corn. Doves and other birds have also benefitted from a period of peak sorghum production in the area.
The area lies within the Chihuahuan desert grassland habitat type. There are several wells in the area and it can be flooded as needed to provide the water necessary for the wintering birds.
We drove down in the morning, timing our arrival to be there before the birds returned from their morning feeding. They leave at dawn and fly 30 to 40 miles to fields around Wilcox Arizona. After filling up they head back to the draw to roost for the day and night. By 11:30 am they began to arrive. There was wave after wave after wave of a mixture of Greater and Lesser Sandhill Cranes, literally thousands and thousands of cranes. The official count by Arizona Fish and Game is 22,000 cranes.
Sandhills are not small birds. We have the Lesser which nests and rears young at DePuy’s Spring Creek, Livingston Montana.
The star of the show is the cranes. They appear far off on the horizon, almost like a poof of smoke or a faint line. As they get closer they can totally disappear with just a flash of their wings, trading on the wind. And then they begin to fall out of the sky. Not really but it almost looks like they are. They are talking as they come down, to each other, perhaps family members (they do travel with their last years young) and find a place to land. They fly over and around us. Just everywhere.
There are plenty of viewing areas, several dikes with pathways and wooden decks, some with permanent scopes mounted on them so folks can get an up close look at these amazing birds.
It takes about two hours before almost all the cranes are on the ground. Since they do move around it seems the ground really is moving, a sea of pale gray or tan depending on whether their feathers have sun-bleached out. The Lesser cranes are also more of the tan color.
There were other birds as well; lots of Shoveler Ducks, Snow Geese, some Mallards, a few shorebirds and just one American Avocet. I love the Avocets, we had a lot of them at the Ninepipe National Wildlife Refuge just outside Pablo Montana. They seem to be so elegant, just beautiful birds.
There were forty or so other bird watchers at the Whitewater Draw yesterday, mostly our age, some with big spotting scopes and other with cameras. Our scope in almost always in the car but we didn’t haul it out yesterday.
We walked back to a large open barn which has places in the shade to sit and a picnic table which we shared with some other folks. There was a nice Great Horned Owl perched in the roof supports of the barn too.
This absolutely ranks as one of the most beautiful and spectacular things I have been permitted to see in my lifetime.
I hope Trav’s photos have helped you to share a bit of what we saw, here is one more, I have no way of knowing how long this video will be available since it isn’t on FAOL, but for the moment you can also see and hear what we saw:
The birds will begin their migration north shortly, the time is dependent on the lengthening of days and the amount of daylight not on air temperature. They do migrate north to the Yukon (the smaller Lesser Cranes migrate the furthest north) and there is another rather famous migrating place in Nebraska where they can be seen in great numbers on the Platte River.
If you have an opportunity to see such a marvelous scene, do it. It is really good for the soul.