The Sandhill Cranes of Sulphur Springs Valley

Whitewater Draw View

Over the last few weeks I’ve been hearing increasingly more about a large population of Sandhill Cranes winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley  east of here. There was an article in a local paper talking about the City of Wilcox having an annual celebration, Wings Over Wilcox, that would be occurring soon. I ask a few local hikers and birders about this and they confirmed that it was one of the best sites to see Sandhill Cranes in north America.

That certainly sparked my interest and when I heard the Wings Over Wilcox event was this Wednesday through Sunday, I thought, I’d better go check it out before the throngs of serious birders arrive.  I found a map of the area with good viewing sites on it on the Wings Over Wilcox web page and talked to a few friends who had been there in the past.  I learned that you might not see  Cranes at all the sites so I ask around to find a few of the better ones.

The Cranes have a very nice winter vacation schedule that goes like this: About dawn most of them leave their “loafing-bedding” area and fly off to grain fields for breakfast. There are thousands of acres of wheat, corn, alfalfa and other crops that they scavenge for food. Around 11 am they have had their fill and fly back to their “loafing” area for a social gathering then later they may make a dinner run and return just before dark. Sounds like quite the life, doesn’t it.

Here are some web sites that have a lot of information on this area and the cranes:

http://www.wingsoverwillcox.com/images/PDF/Watching_Sandhill_Cranes.pdf

http://www.wildlifeviewingareas.com/wv-app/ParkDetail.aspx?ParkID=162

http://www.azgfd.gov/outdoor_recreation/wildlife_area_whitewater.shtml

My wife and I left early enough to arrive around 11:00 am so we could see the mass return of the Cranes from their breakfast run. I had seen a few pictures on the web that looked pretty impressive when the cranes were coming in.

Lower your landing gear.

I had heard that the Apache Station site, on the west side of Wilcox Dry Lake was pretty nice and had a raised viewing area. We arrived there about 10 and it was a very nice place. Unfortunately, we didn’t see a single crane and the wetland area which I assumed was a loafing ground was at least a quarter mile away with the land between posted. We decided to go check out  Whitewater Draw. This turned out to be about 45 minute or more south of the Apache Station site.  We arrived just a little late but could still see clouds of birds circling and landing.  This one is well developed too with a nice berm along the wetland area and a great viewing deck at one end.

Permission to land requested....

I was amazed at how many Cranes were out there and I could easily see that it could be 10,000 or more. We did get to see more small groups returning and also saw a few flocks of Snow Geese.

Which way is the beach?

Snow geese

Snow Geese

There were numerous ducks sharing the area and they all seemed to get along reasonable well with the Cranes.

Mixed bathing

Eat with them? You must be kidding....

Duck mucking.

I've got my eye on you....

We saw a Cooper’s Hawk hunting ducks and he fly very low over the cranes who didn’t seem to be bothered by it at all.  Just the size of the Sandhill Cranes must have been intimidating enough to keep him at bay.

A Cooper's hawk, looking for lunch.

Rats! Missed again.

I saw a few Killdeer on the mud flat and edges of the marsh as they were competing with the ducks for food in the mud.

Killdeer

Both of us were very impressed with the site and with the large numbers of Cranes we saw.  I would highly recommend a visit to this remote place if you have any interest in birds at all.  The Whitewater Draw viewing area is a wonderful place for photography, as with a decent lens, you can get close enough to get some good shots.

Emergency Landing! Clear the deck...

Here are a few more parting shots from the day. Enjoy and keep looking for interesting things in your world.

Dennis