Each spring and fall, sandhill cranes migrate over our home on the west slope of the Sierra. Like so many of my friends and neighbors, I run outside to hear their calls and witness their grace. So, imagine my delight on vacation here in Abbey Country, when my friends Sheri Williamson and Tom Wood, who run the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, asked me if I’d like to take a drive and see sandhills in their “loafing place”–Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near the Mexican border in Cochise County, Arizona. I met up with them on a cold, clear day in Bisbee. Snow had dusted the town the night before.
The cranes leave this loafing area around dawn to go feed miles away. Here, we can see them on the distant horizon as they return to rest and digest their meal.
The Whitewater Draw is in a riverless basin. The water is accumulated rain water from the last monsoon season. The cranes bathe in it and use the water to soften the corn in their crops–corn they gleaned earlier in the day over 10 miles away.
The viewing deck is quite a distance from the cranes; the only close up view is with a scope. Here’s my attempt to take a photo through the scope. Not elegant, but at least you can get an idea of what they look like up close.
Each day, dozens of people come to visit the cranes, ducks, geese, falcons, hawks, and doves that frequent the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Here, Sheri and Tom adjust their scope for this young birdwatcher.
Through her work at Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory, Sheri teaches hundreds of children each year.
The cranes rest and digest near the ducks, with whom they live in harmony. The crane’s most significant predator is the eagle.
Noon approaches and more birdwatchers arrive. Sheri spontaneously fields questions and offers fascinating bits of information. For instance, within the huge flocks, the sandhills travel in family pods of three or four birds. Sadly, if a youngster is orphaned, he or she will not be adopted by other adults.
Tom explains to fellow birdwatchers about the daily migration of the cranes from the cornfield–their feeding place–to Whitewater Draw–their loafing area.
More and more cranes kept arriving. Tom estimated there were about 10,000 cranes on the ground and in the air. Each crane consumes a pound of corn a day.
The cranes will feed and loaf in Cochise County until midwinter, when they will begin their migrations. Some will travel as far as Siberia. These aren’t the cranes that pass over my house in the Sierra, Tom says. Those sandhills winter in California’s central valley.
Reluctantly we left Whitewater Draw a bit after noon, stopping on the way to glimpse some doves camouflaged in the brush, then to attempt to photograph elusive Merlins and hawks. “We’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Sheri said to Tom, “for a hawk stalk.” For twenty five years they have been visiting here, first when they were stewards of the Ramsey Canyon Nature Preserve, and now as administrators of the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory–SABO. For more information about their work, or to make a contribution to SABO, visit them at http://www.sabo.org.