During the summer Sandhill Cranes are far to the north of us, in Wyoming, Montana, Alaska, Canada and even as far as northeastern Siberia. There they build nests in shallow water and raise their young. The nest is usually a mound of wet vegetation in a marshy area. The parents take turns incubating the (1 or 2) egg(s) over a period of about a month.
Sandhill Crane Pair, USFWS photo, Alaska Collection
A pair will generally raise one or two chicks each year. The chicks are downy and able to move about on their own within a couple of hours after they hatch.
Sandhill Crane Chick, USFWS photo by Bill West, Alaska Collection
The chicks are carefully raised by their parents for up to four months. The young cranes spend their first winter and spring with their parents, both in migration and at their wintering grounds.
Once the breeding season is over the birds begin to gather at pre-migration staging areas. From these they’ll make the long flight south in a few long, high-altitude stages, resting at some time-honored stopover points such as the Platte river in Nebraska.
The sandhill cranes begin to arrive in Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico in October and remain until February, when they return to the northern nesting areas.
While in these wintering areas, they prefer shallow water roosting sites near harvested grain fields. That makes the Sulphur Springs Valley ideal for them. They spend the nights in the wetland areas and go forth each morning to the harvested grain fields of the valley to feed. Corn is a favorite but they also eat sorghum, wheat, alfalfa and grasses. Sandhill Cranes are gray in color with black feet, legs and bill.
The Arizona Game and Fish Department estimates the average number of cranes in the local Sulphur Springs Valley to be between 8,000 to 12,000 birds each winter. However, the 1996 sandhill count showed the highest total ever with over 24,000 birds. This might have been due to drier than average conditions in other favored roosting areas in New Mexico and Mexico. Taking a larger area, which included the Willcox Playa, Crane Lake, Whitewater Draw, Safford Valley/Duncan and Bonita, biologists came up with a toal of 30,570 birds in 2005-2006. This number comes close to the record number of 31.442 spotted in 2004.
Birds can be seen in the evening in the wetland areas around Willcox, the Whitewater Draw area and the AEPCO (Arizona Electric Power Cooperative) viewing station (see directions below).
If you wish to see the birds in the feeding areas, highway 191 from the town of Cochise to Dragoon Road and Kansas Settlement Road from highway 186 to Baker Road are good spots to try. Early morning is the best time.
AEPCO Crane Viewing Station
The Apache Generating Station of the Arizona Electric Power Cooperative has created a wetland adjacent to the power plant, which is a prime viewing area for large migratory birds.To visit the site, take exit 33l (Highway 191) off the interstate. Six and a half miles south a sign marks the entrance of the viewing area. Free
Each January the town of Willcox pays homage to these impressive winter visitors at the “Wings over Willcox” birding festival.
January 12-16, 2011
Wings Over Willcox
A Birding and Nature Festival. Birding tours, trade show and much more. The annual event includes birding, natural history tours, and seminars.Tours go to the Willcox Playa (dry lake) and nearby wetlands to see wintering sandhill cranes, hawks and sparrows. For more information contact Willcox Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture at 520-384-2272 or www.wingsoverwillcox.com.
The cranes usually arrive in October, and they generally remain in the area until at least the end of February and sometimes into March.
The three photos at the top of this page are from the Alaska Collection of the USFWS National Conservation Training Center National Image Library. The line drawings above are from USFWS. They are by Bob Savannah. These and many other nature drawings are available at http://www.fws.gov/pictures/lineart/bobsavannah/