Sunday, January 10, 2010

Sandhill Cranes Willcox Arizona

We set out for Willcox at 5 A.M. It's a 90 minute drive from Tucson and we wanted to arrive before sun-up and hopefully catch the Sandhill Cranes before they started moving to the grain fields to feed.

We had checked the weather at Willcox and it said 30 degrees so we dressed for 30. When we arrived at the Playa it was actually 18 degrees! Cold, Cold, Cold!!!

Not wanting to miss the Sandhills that we came to see we put on all available clothing and set out towards the Playa. A short distance into the walk we saw our first flight of Sandhills against the morning sky.
I estimate approximately 1000 birds flew over on their way to feed.

Even though we are originally from New England and should be able to stand a little cold we began to realize that our faces, feet and hands were getting really frozen.

We pressed on until we were about a half mile out and we looked at each other and both said it was time to beat a hasty retreat to the truck to thaw out.

It was quite beautiful before sunrise and I managed to take more pictures even though my hands were numb and the auto focus on the camera was sluggish.

On their way to feed.

Sunrise finally came and helped a little but by this time we were walking very fast to the truck trying to stay warm. We set out to locate the feeding grounds and expected to find Sandhills in various fields along the way but we traveled the 37 mile loop and didn't see any at all.

On our second trip around the loop we went up side roads that lead out to the expansive farms and as you can see we located what I estimate to be more than 1000 birds. Sandhills are not easy to approach because they match your movements without you even realizing that your not getting any closer. They do not seem to mind the tractor.

Sandhills fly in formation like geese but if you observe their flight all of the sudden it looks like chaos and then they regroup. Look closely at the base of the trees and you will see a line of feeding cranes that stretches across the entire field.

                        Ferruginous Hawk springing into action.

We did witness them using a thermal to gain altitude in a group which was hawk like only not as graceful.
In the afternoon we decided to take the 2 1/2 mile hike out to the viewing area on the Playa.

It was extremely quiet on the entire walk out with very little bird activity and no other human beings. While we were at the viewing area we were fortunate to have about 300 or so Sandhills return in smaller groups to the lake. We were able to watch the multiple circles necessary for the cranes to be able to land where they intend. All in all this was a very successful trip.

Once we arrived at the viewing area we realized that we would not be allowed to approach the lake as it was closed. One of my personal rules is that I always respect the rules that protect wild places. Getting great pictures is important but not important enough to harm wildlife or habitat.

A Playa is a dry lake bed that occasionally turns into a lake when it gets significant rain.

This Cottontail amazingly sat a few feet from us on our return walk and didn't offer to run away. We did not get to Whitewater Draw which is home to 22,000 Sandhills but we will make another trip to see this area and report on it in the near future.


  1. Nice shots Ray! Sounds like a good, but cold trip. I totally agree with you on following the rules. I never pass an area closed sign to get a shot, even if it is barely a couple of feet. I also will abandon a shoot or stalk if I even suspect that I'm causing undue stress to the animal. I also try to avoid the large mobs of photographers that sometimes gather around subjects in the popular areas, unless I know the animals are habituated to it. Those mobs can often really stress the animal out. I'll come back later or just not photograph that particular subject. I'll also pull away if I've been photographing a subject and other photogs start to show up. I'm actually going to do a blog post on wildlife photography etiquette in the near future. I think it's really important and something that many photographers out there ignore or aren't aware of, giving us all a bad name and further restricting access in the process. The best moments are when the animal acts as if you aren't even there or better yet approaches you.

  2. I just love your art. I've been admiring your art-works and I think you are one of the best in this category. Each entry has something special and those pictures are spectacular.