The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge is run by Arizona Game and Fish, and they estimate more than 25,000 Sandhill cranes are currently wintering over at the area. The cranes congregate near the marshy shoreline, a sprawling crowd of 3-foot-tall birds, each preserving its own bit of personal space. Beyond the cranes and the marsh stretch miles of grassland edged with distant blue mountains.
The cranes spread their massive wings and rise up from their roosting area every morning at daybreak, flying to fallow agriculture fields. They probe the rubble with stout bills, gleaning leftover corn, as well as insects and any sprouts of greenery. After a morning of feeding, the cranes fly back to the marsh.
I arrived about noon, and by then thousands of Sandhill cranes were already on the ground, some wading in the water, some standing along the banks. High overhead, incoming cranes appeared as dark specks in the endless blue, a scattering like pepper corns. Gradually small groups or pairs dropped lower, circling overhead, honing in on where they would land, calling out to announce their arrival. Wings outspread, they spiraled ever more tightly downward until their long legs reached to touch land.
There are six different migratory populations of Sandhill cranes on the continent. These gathering in Arizona are likely from a couple of different populations. The Mid-Continent population has breeding grounds in western and central Canada, western Alaska and northeastern Siberia. These cranes winter in northern Texas as well as central and northern Mexico, and southeast Arizona. A Rocky Mountain population also contributes to Arizona’s winter residents.
In optimal situations, tail winds and thermals boost the birds on their journeys, and they cover up to 150 miles per day. The cranes can fly 50 miles an hour in good conditions, but in some cases must labor along at only 15 miles per hour.
Sandhill crane pairs mate for life, and the youngsters often stay on with the family group for a year or two. Breeding does not start until cranes are two to eight years old. The young hatch covered in down and soon leave the nest. By early winter they appear adult-like, lacking only the red crown patch.
Sandhill cranes communicate via an extensive language of trumpets, bugles, rattles, honks, moans, purrs and hisses combined with posturing that includes bows, feather ruffled bows, stretches, stabs and kicks. The Unison Call is a duet sung by courting males and females, and accompanies elegant dance moves – leaps, head pumps and tosses of vegetation. Guard Calls used with Tall Alert Posture defend nesting territory or warn of predators. Rattle Calls allow individuals to find each other in migration. Chicks peep and trill.
The Sandhill cranes will stay at Whitewater Draw until early to mid-April, resting and feeding in preparation for their next migration.