Sand Hill Cranes in Arizona

Courtesy Free Photos

When we traveled in Alaska, we sometimes saw sandhill cranes with their bright red foreheads feeding in fields on the hills above Homer and Kachemak Bay. Sandhill cranes are some of America’s largest birds. Adults can stand up to six feet tall. Occasionally we glimpsed a nesting pair in a marshy area near our home in Fairbanks, in interior Alaska. We didn’t know then that some of those same birds joined flocks of thousands to winter in Southeastern Arizona, the very place we’ve chosen to spend a month of our winter this year.

The annual Wings Over Willcox Birding and Nature Festival had ended by the time we heard of it, but the cranes stay until March. So we drove with daughter Lenora nearly one hundred miles toward Arizona’s Dragoon Mountains and the Sulphur Springs Valley to see them. Every morning they lift off from their roosting areas by the thousands to fly, silhouetted against the sunrise, to their feeding fields in a 60-square-mile protected area. Swaddled against chilly morning temperatures, birdwatchers from all over the world are overwhelmed by the whoosh of wings and the cacophony of calls as the spindly-legged, red-crowned birds fly overhead.

By the time we reached Willcox and drove another nine miles to where we’d been told we could find a viewing area, it was two PM. The birds had finished their morning foraging and returned to their resting sites. A sign at the parking lot said, “Crane Lake Viewing Area, 1.2 miles.”

Crossing Willcox Playa

Inhospitable habitat

After the long drive, another mile on foot didn’t seem too much to ask. We started along a sandy track scraped through thickets of trees and brush. A couple of people coming toward us said yes, the cranes were there. Lots of them. But we would have to stay at a distance to view them.

We trudged across an alkali playa, dry and flat as a table top except for hillocks of fine drifted silt and arroyos cut by storm water. Arizona is part of America’s basin-and-range zone, where ranges of mountains thrust skyward while intervening blocks of land dropped. In prehistoric times the valleys thus formed often filled with large, shallow lakes, gone now except for their dry beds, like this Willcox Playa. We were heading for a remnant of the ancient lake, where the cranes found protection while they rested.

Alkali dust soon coated our shoes. Mounds of tough grasses and occasional trees seemed uninhabited at mid-day, but along with the footprints of innumerable birdwatchers on the path we followed, we saw prints of coyotes, javelinas (pig-like creatures of the southwest), bobcats, rabbits, and even deer, patterning the dust or petrified in dried mud. There were hundreds of burrows belonging to who-knew-which hidden desert denizens, and scat left by coyotes and some other creature that obviously lived on seeds. Old bird nests in the trees testified that this was a place to see other birds beside cranes. 

Finally the flat ground rose to low hills. We’d reached the edge of the playa and from a man-made rise we could see Crane Lake glinting, still a quarter-mile off. We could go no closer. Time for the binoculars. What might have been a line of vegetation extending out into the shallow water became instead a line of hundreds of sand hill cranes, drowsing motionless during their mid-afternoon rest break.

Through my telephoto lens: hundreds of cranes at rest in Crane Lake

Aldo Leopold said about the sand hill crane in his book Sand County Almanac, “ When we hear his call, we hear no mere bird, we hear the trumpet of evolution.” Who knows how long these magnificent birds have been winging their way between north and south? It’s good that humans are now working together to keep their resting and feeding places safer. It was worth a two-hundred mile round trip to see them.

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