On January 11, 2018 eleven Pima County, Master Naturalists from cohorts (1) and (2) joined, noted humorist and part time ornithologist, Jeff Babson on a visit to the Sulphur Springs Valley to observe and appreciate Sandhill Cranes. The Sulphur Springs Valley is east of Tucson and extends from Wilcox to Douglas, Arizona. The cranes start showing up as early as September and may extend their winter vacation into March. The best time to appreciate them, however, is between Thanksgiving and Valentine’s Day.
Jeff explained that there are several subspecies of Sandhills that visit the Wilcox Valley. One group is known as the Rocky Mountain population and come down from nesting areas in Idaho, Wyoming and Southern Canada. The other, Mid-Continent population, is from Northern Canada, Alaska and as far away as Siberia. Between 25,000 and 35,000 birds visit Southern Arizona each winter.
The cranes are grayish, with black feet and legs. They have a very distinctive red patch on their foreheads. Most of the ones we observed appeared to be about 4 feet tall and were VERY noisy, especially in flight! We observed flocks returning from feeding, in fallow fields of corn and alfalfa, of several hundred birds but also loners and couples. It was interesting to speculate on the dynamics going on. There were also many young among the cranes at the White Water Reserve, making their first visit to Arizona with their parents. Next year they’ll be on their own.
In addition to the Sandhill Cranes there were dozens of other bird species, both native and visitor, that Jeff was able to identify for us. A partial list, compiled by Deborah H., follows. The trip was rewarding and fun so we’ll probably try and arrange it again next February. Thanks to Pete Pfeiffer for the great photos.