Photography by Doris Evans of the Tucson Audubon Society
An ancient tradition is occurring right now in Southern Arizona, dating back to the pleistocene: the sandhill cranes have arrived at their winter stomping grounds — the wetlands and corn fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County. And while their larger cousin, the whooping crane, is endangered, the sandhill crane shows little sign of being interrupted by our rather intrusive human activities…at least relatively. Although sandhill cranes are not considered threatened as a species, some of their local subspecies in places like Florida, where their habitats have been greatly disturbed, are quite rare. The populations that visit us in Arizona are doing quite well.
Arriving in our region as early as September and staying as late as March, these majestic and somewhat gangly birds are here to escape the cold of the northerly climates, where they nest in the summer. Additionally they flock to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The taxonomy of sandhill cranes can get rather sticky, but keep in mind there are two basic kinds: the greater sandhill crane, a giant bird standing at about 5 feet tall (sharing the honor of tallest bird in the United States with the whooping crane), and the lesser sandhill crane which usually reaches a standing height of three and a half feet. The lesser sandhill cranes are the most prevalent being about four times more common than the greater sandhill cranes.
Sandhill cranes prefer to roost in areas with lightly vegetated, shallow wetlands, especially those close to agriculture fields. When the sun rises, they flock to nearby farm fields with corn, sorghum, or alfalfa, and forage for about three to four hours (they are also known to feed on small mammals, insects, snails, reptiles, and amphibians). After this, they find a loafing spot — this can be in a fallow field, in the wetlands where they roost, or even just out in the desert grassland. They prefer very open spots for loafing, where they can see any predators approach from a safe distance. They may return for a late afternoon snack to their favorite foraging spots, but they always return to their roosting sites at sunset.
The best places to see sandhill cranes
When going to see these birds, know their daily schedule which entails three basic activities: roosting, foraging, and loafing. One could plan a whole day around the routines of these birds, starting off in Willcox at one of their main roosting spots, following them to their foraging and loafing locations in the agriculture fields just south of Willcox and north of Elfrida, and ending up in another major roosting area in McNeal. I prefer to spend some time in the roosting spots to look at other birds since all the roosting sites mentioned here are fantastic birding locations. You can make a nice weekend of birdwatching and add in a little wine tasting along the way since many wineries are found in the area!
THE ROOSTING SITES
Most people visit these sites between about 11am and 2pm, when many (but not all) of the cranes come back to chill after their daily foraging. If you are a morning person, you can catch them as they depart for the day at sunrise. For those of us who are not so bright-eyed in the morning but want to still see them en masse, check them out at sunset, when they all come back to roost.
Once used for agriculture, this land has been set aside as important bird habitat (it was acquired by Arizona Game an.d Fish Department in 1997). Of the 1509 acres, 600 of them are under water.
The Apache Station Wildlife Area, located next to Apache Generating Station near Cochise, is a primary winter roosting location for sandhill cranes. AEPCO established the Wildlife Area in 1997 and operates it under a stewardship agreement with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The Willcox Playa is a larger, alkaline lakebed which was once used to test bombs but is not being used currently. Much of it is posted for not trespassing but there are two areas surrounding this giant playa for birdwatching: the lakes, wetlands, and alkali flats of Lake Cochise, and the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area containing Crane Lake.
THE FORAGING SITES
In the morning before about 11am, and sometimes during the late afternoon 3-5pm, you can find the sandhill cranes helping themselves to the corn, sorghum, and alfalfa of our local farmers. In the fallow fields and surrounding desert grasslands you may find the cranes loafing about.
Sunsites This is mostly an agriculture community, though there is the famous ghost town Pearce to check out.
McNeal South of Elfrida, along Central Highway and Davis Roads, west of highway 191.
When planning a trip to the area, you may consider this: a huge birding event happens in Willcox every year (where there are more wineries!) called Wings Over Willcox: for over a week in the beginning of January, bird-nerds of all levels and ages spend 5 days birdwatching, attending lectures on birdwatching, and more. It’s a nice way to spend the new year!