Saturday, October 30, 2010

Sandhill Crane Watch Whitewater Draw Arizona

We arrived at Whitewater Draw Conservation Area at 2:30 P.M. on Friday October 29th. As we were getting our gear together we could see that the number of cranes had increased substantially since our visit two weeks ago when we counted 1,800 cranes. It was sunny, around 87 degrees with an intermittent breeze and very dry. This picture is of the first pool which did not have any cranes on our two previous visits. As you can see there were hundreds of birds here this time, coming and going on a regular basis.

Sandhills in flight can be both graceful and at other times awkward. I have however never witnessed a collision between two birds. This was the first time I had seen a smaller group separated from the main much larger group. They tend to stick together for protection and socialization when they are on the ground. We did witness many singular birds in flight moving from one group to the other as well as small groups of birds doing the same.

Sandhills have several different vocalizations which include contact calls, unison calls, and guard calls. You can hear these calls at: . At times they were very quiet and at other times they all seemed to be talking at the same time. Birds in flight make the contact call as they prepare to land in a group that is already on the ground.

The cranes in the first pool were as close as we could get as we are always as careful as possible not to disturb them just to get a better picture. Photographing wildlife should always be done with the well being of the subject coming before" getting the shot".

This is a small portion of the larger group which I estimated at between 10,000 and 15, 000 birds! Because the birds instinctively roost as far away from where humans are likely to be it was impossible to get close up shots that really showed the vast numbers of birds that we saw through the binoculars. Hopefully you can get a sense of how many cranes were present from the photographs.

Sandhill Cranes in flight preparing to land among the smaller group. The coming and going from this group went on the entire time we were there with most of the group eventually joining the larger grouping towards dusk.

Cranes feed on on a wide variety of plants and grains as well as small rodents and snakes. The agricultural nature of the area brings these birds here where they feed in the corn fields which we have yet to visit this year.

Truly an amazing sight to see especially when large numbers of them take to the skies at the same time. We have also yet to visit the playa at Willcox Arizona this year but will make our next trip to see cranes to this area where the numbers can be even greater. A playa is a large dry lake bed which is best hiked in cooler weather as there is absolutely no shade to be found.

Our next trip out will be in two weeks. Next week we are planning to head up Mt. Lemmon to see the foliage and take the ski lift to 10,000+ feet above sea level. Spectacular views and crisp air.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Grasslands- Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge

I can't say enough about the beauty and serenity that can be found at Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge near Sasabe Arizona. We headed out to the Grasslands Fair at BANWR early on Saturday so we could do a little bird watching and get in some exercise at the same time.
It was a gorgeous day in the 60's with bright sunshine. BANWR is home to quite a few endangered species including the Masked Bobwhite Quail which we were able to see in the enclosure located near the visitor center. They were quite shy and stayed under cover while we were there so I wasn't able to get the pictures that I had hoped to get but it was nice seeing them and knowing that because of the Refuge that these highly endangered birds have a fair chance of survival.
There is a grasslands restoration project underway at the refuge in an effort to increase Masked Bobwhite Quail habitat. Most of the trees and shrubs that you see are invasive species that developed due to the use of this place to graze cattle for many, many years.
One of the reasons I like this place so much is it's remote location. It's more than 50 miles south of Tucson down rt. 286 which has more hawks than houses. It is a place where you can travel the ten mile loop called Pronghorn Drive making frequent stops and be able to stand and not hear any human activity just the birds and the wind. Amazing!

A young mother prepares her herbs for sale prior to the fair kicking off around 10:30 A.M. There were quite a few food vendors and many exhibits pertaining to the ALTAR VALLEY and conservation issues in general.
We started our walk past the enclosure that has the endangered Chiricahua Leopard Frog and I was fortunate to catch this one sun bathing. One of the most serious threats to native frogs is the invasion of bull frogs which feed on other smaller frogs. We came across a wet area on our walk that had mesh fencing completely around it and later found out it was an attempt to keep it free of bull frogs as they travel across land to find food and water.

These Cassin's Sparrow photo's are my favorites from the day. There were many sparrows everywhere we went including many White Crowned.

As always we see many hawks and falcons when we travel to BANWR including this Cooper's Hawk. Pole sitters all along the way let us know that the annual influx of buteos and acipitors has begun and we should see many of these birds in the coming months. On this trip we saw Northern Harrier, Red Tailed Hawk, Gray Hawk, Cooper's Hawk, Turkey Vulture and some that went unidentified.

The weather here has stayed very warm and I was surprised to see two fauns this late in the season but here is the proof! We saw a total of six mule deer in our travels around the refuge which is always a treat. I really have a hard time understanding why anyone would want to shoot these magnificent creatures.

Baboquivari dominates the skyline here at BANWR and our hikes into Brown Canyon with Richard Conway are some of my best memories here at Buenos Aries.

People came and went and everyone seemed to enjoy the day even though the clouds set in and blocked out the sun for a good part of the day.
The music was excellent and the visitor center had some amazing exhibits. I really enjoyed the snakes and the raptors.
Apparently I wasn't the only one hoping to get that great shot!
Richard and Sara are the backbone of the Friends of Buenos Aries National Wildlife Refuge an organization that would be happy to have you as a member. More information about Friends can be found at: /
Educating the next generation to love the land and respect the creatures that inhabit these special places will ensure Buenos Aries will survive for years to come.
Mariachi Plata entertained us while we enjoyed our food and checked out some of the exhibits.

A Harris's Hawk has become an education bird because of it's inability to fly from a young age. Info on Harris's Hawks:
We didn't see any Pronghorn today but we did see a bevy of Quail fly up on our walk but identifying them was impossible as they came up out of the grass and flew rapidly away from us before going down in the tall grass never to be seen again. They could have been Gambel's or Montazuma's or they could have been Masked Bobwhite's. I'll have to try harder next time!

Hiding in the grass was this Hyles Lineata.

More Mule Deer.

These man made teepees are for Masked Bobwhite Quail habitat and can be seen on the road into the refuge. More information on Masked Bobwhite's can be found at:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sandhill Crane Watch Saturday October 16th 2010

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:

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:

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:

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

1,300 birds!

1,500 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.