WHITEWATER DRAW – The Sulphur Springs Valley in Arizona attracted a record 40,499 wintering sandhill cranes, providing an unparalleled wildlife watching opportunity in southern Arizona this year, say Arizona Game and Fish Department biologists.
“In 2008 this agriculturally-rich valley in southern Arizona drew a record 36,708 sandhill cranes. This year circumstances and conditions conspired for this 80-mile-long valley to attract thousands more of these magnificent large birds,” said Mike Rabe, the department’s migratory game bird program manager.
Sandhill cranes are some of the largest birds in North America and have a wingspan of six to eight feet across, allowing them to fly and soar up to 100 miles in a single day in their quest for food. Huge V-shaped flights of sandhill cranes plying the skies provide a thrilling sight for wildlife viewers. When standing on the ground, adult sandhills can reach six feet tall.
“Experiencing the morning sandhill crane launch at the department’s two wildlife areas, especially Whitewater Draw, is truly spectacular. Witnessing the cranes return to roost at these wildlife areas can be equally spectacular, especially during one of Arizona’s brilliant sunsets,” Rabe said.
Although the cranes come to feed on the abundant grain crops in this broad desert valley near the border with Mexico, the Game and Fish Department’s properties – Whitewater Draw and the Willcox Playa wildlife areas – provide essential roosting grounds for these large holdovers from the Pleistocene epoch.
Rabe surmised that one of the contributing factors leading to increased numbers of sandhill cranes in Arizona is the lack of planted corn at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge in the Rio Grande Valley 70 miles south of Albuquerque. Thousands of cranes that typically winter at Bosque likely winged their way to Arizona this year instead.
“Another contributing factor might be the amount of grain currently being raised commercially in Arizona. But without wetlands for roosting, the crane-attracting dynamics would be entirely different here in Arizona,” Rabe said.
The Game and Fish Department’s 1,500-acre Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area attracted a record 33,533 sandhill cranes this year. The property’s acquisition in 1997 was made possible by the Heritage Fund, which is in jeopardy of being swept to balance the state budget.
More than 600 acres of the Whitewater Draw is intermittently flooded wetland with two small patches of riparian habitat that provide feeding and roosting opportunities for species such as cranes, waterfowl, doves, hawks and owls as well as numerous terrestrial wildlife species including deer, collard peccary and Chiricahua leopard frogs.
For those desiring to view vast flights of sandhill cranes, you’ll want to make your trip in the next several weeks or so. The sandhill cranes typically remain through the end of February or early March before heading back north to their breeding grounds. If you miss them this year, the cranes will return again this coming November or December.
Directions for crane viewing:
The crown jewels of the Sulphur Springs Valley are the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area and Willcox Playa Wildlife Area, both of which area operated by the Arizona Game and Fish Department to provide habitat for waterfowl and sandhill cranes plus wildlife viewing and hunting opportunities.
Located in the southwestern part of the immense valley between Bisbee and Elfrida, Whitewater Draw attracts thousands of sandhills cranes each winter and numerous other water-loving species from late summer through spring. You might even observe some roosting owls. There are wildlife viewing platforms, walkways and restrooms.
From Interstate 10, take Highway 191 south. The main entrance is located on Coffman Road, accessible either from Central Highway via Bagby Road, Lee Road or directly from Davis Road 1 mile west of Central Highway.
Game and Fish also operates the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area seven miles south of Willcox in Cochise County. From Willcox, take Highway 186 approximately five miles. Turn right (south) on the Kansas Settlement Road for about three to five miles. Turn right (west) at the wildlife area’s sign into the wildlife area parking area. There is about a half-mile walk to the viewing area.
Both wildlife areas are centerpieces for the annual Wings Over Willcox Festival each January during the Martin Luther King holiday weekend. Visit www.wingsoverwillcox.com for more information or for a downloadable viewing guide for cranes.