Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A Visit to the Sandhills

It's been quite a while since I've checked in on the Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw so I thought I would use a little of my new found freedom and make the journey on Tuesday. Now it's about a 240 mile round trip so it's more time in the car then actually watching the cranes but it is a spectacular sight to see thousands of Sandhills return from feeding in the grain fields of area farms.


If you have ever been to this area you already know how "out there" you are due to long stretches of almost nothing. Fortunately Nan and I love to watch for the hawks that winter here and spend their time pole sitting along the roads leading to Whitewater. On this trip this guy caught my eye in the area known as "Sunsites" At first I thought it might be an eagle so I stopped turned around and got out the binoculars to identify the very dark bird. Turned out to be a Dark Morph Red Tail as you can see in the picture. It was munching on some poor bird who apparently wasn't fast enough to stay clear of this magnificent buteo. You can learn more about Red Tails here at:

Upon arriving at Whitewater it was immediately clear that water levels in the marshes had only recovered to about half their normal level since our last visit. Just to the left of the above picture there is water being pumped into the marsh at a pretty good rate so I expect that levels will continue to rise but it is a big area and without rain this could become quite dry in the summer months ahead.

Where ever I go here in extreme southern Arizona and there are marshes there are usually American Coot around making their distinctive call over and over to make sure everyone is aware of their presence.  Learn more about American Coot here at:

Cold nights and days in the 60's and 70's make this area a great place to spend time bird watching. When we started out it was with jackets and gloves and ice on the marsh. Beautiful Arizona sun was the order of the day with a slow warming trend that made the outer wear unnecessary.

I have never seen Coots on ice before and it was quite humorous. Their large feet make their strides on the hard surface awkward and I was quite amused when they all fell into line to transition from open water to the ice.

Although water levels were low there was quite a variety of birds at the marsh including many Northern Shovelers and other ducks using the various ponds. Black Phoebes were abundant as were the many sparrows that are always present here at whitewater.

WHO AM I? The above picture shows the one that got away. A beautiful not too often seen because it likes to hide medium sized creature that frequents marshes. Tell me what you think it is by leaving a note in the comment section and I will let you know if you are correct.

The Sandhills started returning to the Draw almost as soon as we arrived. You can pretty much tell time by these guys as they are truly creatures of habit. If you arrive at Whitewater at 10 A.M. and stick around until 2 P.M. you will witness thousands of birds returning from feeding in the grain fields. On this visit the cranes were roosting much farther away than last year. Perhaps due to changes in the water levels or just their natural inclination to land where the first groups land for protection from predators they chose to stay far from the reach of my camera. I would put the numbers of Sandhills at between 10 and 12,000 but I could be wrong because they were for the most part they were hundreds of yards away.

When I first saw Sandhills I thought what awkward flyers they are but I have since come to realize that they are quite masterful in flight especially landing as seen above. Learn about Sandhill Cranes here at:

This is what the skies look like as the cranes return to Whitewater.

There were a few Pied-billed Grebes present which are always fun to watch as they go about their business of feeding which consists of diving over and over for their food source. The grebes also sink out of sight whenever they sense danger as we observed when the Northern Harrier got a little too close for their comfort.

There are a few Northern Harriers at the Draw and they seem to be continually looking for food. Moving in sometimes very large circles and sometimes smaller ones they fly just above the marsh dropping down to grab their meal out of sight in the marsh grasses. A remarkable bird to watch.

1 comment: