The Land of Sandhill Cranes

In Southeast Arizona there is a wonderland called Sulphur Springs Valley. It lies between the Chiricahua and Dragoon Mountains, and it’s a treasure for bird enthusiasts. The sleepy little town of Wilcox is situated in the center of this valley that serves as headquarters for the Wings Over Wilcox Bird Festival held in mid January every year. This is truly a snowbird haven as a great variety of avian species winter in the area.

There are great flocks of lark buntings in their winter colors, yellow eyed juncos in the Chiricahua Mountains where the infamous Apache warrior Geronimo hid from the U. S. Army for several years. A wide variety of raptors can be found in the open spaces where red-tailed hawks, Harris’s hawks, kestrels, prairie falcons, sharp-shinned hawks, ferruginous hawks, merlins, and both bald and golden eagles abound in great numbers. However, the greatest attraction is the sandhill cranes.

As dawn begins to break you can view great flocks in their V formation flying out to their feeding grounds calling out to each other along the way as their flight path fills the sky. The cranes begin to arrive in Arizona in October and stay until late February. They fly from roosting areas to feeding areas and feed for about three hours then fly to loafing places that may be the roost, wetland areas, fallow fields or grasslands. At this time of the year they feed mostly on grain left in fields after harvest. The adult greater sandhill crane weighs from 11 to13 pounds. The Arizona record is 15 pounds. The lesser crane weighs from 6 to 7 pounds.

There are two populations of cranes in the Sulphur Valley, the Rocky Mountain (RMP) and the Mid- Continent (M-C). The RMP is the greater subspecies, Grus Canadensis tabida , whose nesting area centers around Grays Lake NWR in Idaho. The M-C includes three subspecies; the lesser Grus Canadensis, the Canadian Grus Canadensis rowani and the greater Grus Canadensis tabida. The M-C population nesting range includes central and northern Canada, Alaska and northeaster Siberia. The wintering crane here are estimated to have a population of around 30,000. A map shows the winter range around southeastern Arizona, southwestern New Mexico and an area south of this going into Mexico. The summer range for the RMP is shown covering southeastern Idaho, western Wyoming and southwestern, western and central Montana. Winter range for the M-C covers almost all of Texas, the very south of New Mexico, the tip of southeastern Arizona and a great part of Mexico to the south. (Arizona Fish and Game Department)

There are areas around Wilcox, where one can watch the cranes in action. The most convenient places are in the corn fields near Wilcox Playa. It is a great sight to see them go to their roosting places around sunset. The V formations are intact and then they set their wings to descend around ponds that have high dry grasses for them to settle into. There is again much calling back and forth, probably communicating which is the best spot to land, or saying “that’s my spot you’re in”. These are such stately graceful birds in flight and on the ground that it is a pleasure to watch them in their natural surroundings.

by Judy Bungarz

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