Monday, November 26, 2012

Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw

We had a great trip to Whitewater Draw on Saturday arriving at about 10 A.M. which is about an hour before the Sandhills return from the grain fields to roost for the remainder of the day. The first thing I noticed was the water levels were low due to the continuing drought in the area. In fact the water levels are being kept as high as they are by Fish and Wildlife pumping in water from a couple of wells.

There weren't as many birds around as we have seen in past visits but there were Wilson's Snipe, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Pectoral Sandpiper, Snow Geese, Ross's Goose, Black Phoebe, Pintails, American Coot, Northern Harrier, Great Blue Heron, Red-tailed Hawk, Swainson's Hawk, possible prairie falcon, American Kestrel and a few others .

Whitewater is about a 120 miles from our home in Tucson but it is well worth the trip. It is quite remote and the first time you travel here it feels like you're traveling  into the wilds of the borderlands. For those of you who would prefer to visit Whitewater with knowledgable birders Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory has some guided trips that you can sign up for here:
SABO is also involved in lots of interesting and fun activities involving birds and birding including the Sandhill Crane Watch and I suggest that you check them out at:

Each morning before sunrise the Sandhills leave Whitewater and head to the grain fields of Wilcox and Elfrida and the surrounding areas. It's a sight I have personally enjoyed only once but I'm happy to say that I have witnessed their return to the roosting area at Whitewater many times. Usually you can expect to see what looks like smoke on the horizon before the cranes are close enough to make out. They come in groups of 3 or 50 or 100 or 300 and sometimes as many as a thousand in the skies overhead. On any given day the cranes start their return around 11 A.M. and continue for a couple of hours until they are mostly all back.

Sandhill Cranes that come to Southern Arizona come from Wyoming, Alaska, Canada, and northeastern Siberia where they breed usually having one or two offspring each season. All of the breeding takes place in the north country but you can see younger birds here in Arizona.

Most of the Sandhills that come to Whitewater are the Lesser Sandhill Crane which is the smaller of the two but if you look carefully you will see that there are quite a few Greater Sandhill Cranes which are a sub species of Grus canadensis canadensis (Lesser Sandhill) mixed in with the flocks. Here are a few web sites that will give you a more detailed look at Sandhill Cranes as well as the other cranes around the world. 

Sandhills mostly like to stay in large groups for protection but if they feel safe some birds will venture out from the main group as can be seen here. It is very rare to see a Sandhill separated from the main flock essentially by itself. There is strength in numbers and Sandhills even though they are large birds they do have predators such as Eagles and Coyotes.

While I didn't get the photographs I had hoped for I was happy to be there and witness approximately 10,000 Sandhills return from feeding. The birds as is their habit stayed fairly far away while I was there I think in large part to the large number of people who came to see them. My next trip will be planned on a weekday which may give me a better chance of some close up photos.

I expect that the number of cranes here will grow considerably by the end of December. There have been as many as 40,000 in Southern Arizona in past years and I have witnessed 30,000 in a single day.

 We're not sure what caused this fly up but it could have been a nervous reaction to a Great Blue Heron that flew over at the precise moment these birds moved from one roosting area to another.

This Great Blue Heron flew right at my camera while I was trying to focus on some Sandhills so I took the opportunity to get a few shots. If you click on the photo you can get a really good look at it's anatomy.

In my next post I will be including some photos of Sparrows that I took during a quick stop over at San Pedro National Wildlife Refuge. I will be heading back there next week for some more photography and walking.

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