We set out for Whitewater Draw at 4 A.M. expecting to arrive just before sunrise which was at 6:15 A.M. We knew we would be cutting it close because Sandhills as is their habit leave their roosting area at or just before sunrise and head to the grain fields.
As we arrived at 6:05 A.M. it was immediately clear that the birds were already heading out to feed. Within minutes there were only a few Sandhills that remained. There were about 200 or so cranes that headed out.
Happy to have at least seen and heard the birds moving to the feeding grounds we decided to do a little bird watching and take some photos and so we set out to do just that not knowing if we would see any Sandhills again during the day.
Whitewater Draw is a fairly remote destination and we had the whole place to ourselves from our arrival at six until after ten when a couple of other folks showed up.
This is a view of the pavilion looking east as the sun clears the mountains in the background.
We could see and hear well enough to know that there were hundreds of blackbirds present and as many if not more swallows. Shorebirds, ducks, and many flycatchers were also present in good numbers as well.
It was around 50 degrees early on so it was very pleasant as far as the temperature was concerned but walking was a little difficult as mud from the walkways built up on the heels of our shoes.
There were several Killdeers and many wading birds, mostly Greater Yellowlegs.
As we had come to see Sandhills we spent very little time trying to identify the birds that we saw and just tried to enjoy the peacefulness of the place and we ended up walking about for over three and a half hours.
This web with inhabitant was spotted on the south side of the preserve and I couldn't resist trying to get a shot for the blog. I believe that this is an Orb Weaver. You can find more information about the Orb Weaver here at: fireflyforest.net/firefly/2006/09/08/orb-weaver-spider/
There were two Northern Harriers that cruised along the marsh never getting more than twenty feet above the ground. We see these hawks in many of the preserves that we frequent but never more than one or two in any one place. More about Northern Harriers at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Harrier/id
Lots and lots of grasshoppers and other insects around and this tiny toad that was no bigger than a the fist joint of my thumb. It was so small in fact that I had trouble finding it with my camera. It also looked allot like the soil in which it was sitting.
The Great Horned Owls were sleeping in the pavilion which is where we saw them the last time we were at Whitewater. Find out more about Great Horned Owls here at: www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/great_horned_owl/id
At around ten o'clock we discussed whether to go looking for the Sandhills in the fields or to stick around and just do a little photography and see if they returned to the marsh. We decided to stay at the marsh and set up on one of the viewing platforms. This was the view, about a dozen or so Sandhills and a Great White Egret and one lonely Snow Goose.
Our timing could not have been better because at 10 o'clock we spotted maybe twenty Sandhills coming from the north and joining up with the few that remained at the pool. Originally I thought that these were birds returning from the fields but then I realized that the cranes that left earlier had headed to the east.
We were entertained by waders and Harriers for a while and just enjoyed the quiet of this place while we waited to see if any more Sandhills would arrive.
The scenery is quite beautiful and relaxing but there is very little shade to be found anywhere so we were happy to have brought an umbrella to shelter us from time to time.
About ten minutes later we heard the familiar call from the sky and what seems to be a low response from the birds already on the ground as kind of a locator for the incoming birds. This time the flock was larger and our excitement grew accordingly.
And then more came, and more. It wasn't long before we realized that we could reach 1000 Cranes.
For every flight that came in there was a calling from the sky and a low call form the ground. Each flight came to the exact location and the Sandhills gathered together as close to one another as they could. No incoming cranes landed in any other location. It was clear that this was as much a social gathering as it was for protection. Truly remarkable behavior and amazing to witness.
Sandhills are obviously strong flyers but their flight has some very noticeable characteristics. My first observation was that their flight while not as organized as geese has a general spacing that keeps them from collisions and it seems to me that there is an individual who leads although I couldn't pick one out. They also break into smaller groups to land if there are too many for a single landing. At times their landings look like pure chaos as they prepare to touch down with their legs extended well before the get near the ground.
As you can see the flock grew and grew. 1000 Birds
Our final count was between 1,600 and 1,800 Sandhills had arrived at their wintering home. It was a magnificent day and I will always remember flight after flight of these beautiful birds landing as close to one another as possible. I will be attending the Grasslands Fair at Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge next Saturday the 23rd and will return to Whitewater Draw the following weekend to see how the numbers have increased. Last year there were a reported 44,000 individuals here at Whitewater.