Thousands of wintering cranes create a wildlife spectacle

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December 22nd, 2008

If you crave one of Arizona’s most impressive winter wildlife spectacles, load up lots of camera memory, grab your trusty binoculars, and shepherd the family to the Sulphur Springs Valley of southern Arizona to witness thousands upon thousands of wintering sandhill cranes.

In fact, last year the large wetlands and vast agricultural areas located about 85 miles southeast of Tucson attracted a record 36,000-plus wintering sandhill cranes. And by all indications, the number of visiting sandhills is increasing each year.

Sandhill cranes are some of the largest migratory birds found in North America and can have wingspans of up to 6½ feet and can stand up to 47 inches tall. Wintering cranes can journey here from as far away as Siberia, although most migrate each winter to this southern Arizona valley from Canada and the Rocky Mountain region.

“This large flat valley, which includes the Willcox Playa, attracts one of the largest wintering concentrations of sandhill cranes in the Southwest,” said Mike Rabe, the migratory bird biologist with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The only area with more wintering cranes is the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge in West Texas, which has recorded up to a quarter-million visiting sandhills in the 1980s. Even the famed Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico along the Rio Grande Valley typically gets less than 7,000 wintering sandhills.

The December holidays provide a prime opportunity to visit southern Arizona to view these magnificent holdovers from the Pleistocene epoch. “Seeing thousands of these long-legged birds taking to the air simultaneously is a thrilling spectacle that can leave you awestruck,” Rabe said.

The two best places to view cranes are the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area and the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department, especially at first and last light.

Each morning, the roosting cranes take to flight, which itself can be a spectacle, and then soar aloft to visit area grain fields. During the late afternoon, the cranes come soaring back – seemingly from all points of the compass – to roost in these large maintained wetlands in the state wildlife areas.

“During the day, vast numbers of sandhills can be found feeding in the extensive grain fields of the Sulphur Springs Valley, especially in the Elfrida area,” Rabe advises.

The premier viewing location is probably the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area between Bisbee and Elfrida. From Interstate 10, take Highway 191 south. The main entrance on Coffman Road is accessible either from Central Highway via Bagby Road, or directly from Davis Road one mile west of Central Highway. There are viewing platforms, bathrooms and a large parking area at this state wildlife area.

The Willcox Playa Wildlife Area is located seven miles south of Willcox. Take State Route 186 south to the Kansas Settlement Road, and then travel another five miles to the parking lot of the wildlife area. There is about a half-mile hike into Crane Lake.

The wintering sandhill cranes are also the centerpiece for an annual nature festival, Wings Over Willcox (Jan. 14-18, 2009), which is scheduled every year for the Martin Luther King holiday weekend.

If you would like more information on wintering sandhill cranes, be sure to get the January-February edition of the “Arizona Wildlife Views” magazine, which is featuring an article about three of the best viewing areas for these magnificent birds that winter here each year. In fact, if you give a gift subscription of the award-winning wildlife magazine as a present this holiday season, you will get a free $3 wildlife calendar (while supplies last). To order, just visit the Game and Fish Department’s Web site at

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