Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Sandhill Cranes winter by the tens (hundreds?) of thousands in southeast Arizona. Perhaps the best-known place to see them is the Willcox Playa, home base for the annual Wings over Willcox birding festival. We opted to travel another fifty miles or so south, to the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. The gravel road leading to it through the arid grassland of the Chihuahuan Desert biome makes it feel like you’re in the middle of a wasteland that couldn’t possibly harbor an extensive wetland… but it does.

It’s not just cranes – I spotted a Virginia Rail skulking in the brush, there were Northern Harriers coursing back and forth over the marsh, there was a HUGE flock of gorgeous, noisy Yellow-headed Blackbirds that came in to roost at dusk, and there were LOTS of great ducks, including Redheads and displaying male Cinnamon Teals.

But oh, the cranes… click to view full size!

For some reason a lot of my photos turned out sort of blurry, and none of them show the cranes close up since I just have a pocket-sized point-and-shoot. If you want to see a closer look at Sandhill Cranes check out this post from my visit to the Okefenokee last year. But wow, were there a lot of them. There were a few Snow Geese mixed in with them as well, which was also a treat.

We stayed until around sunset, and I loved the color of the water reflecting the darkening sky.

Not a bad way to spend an evening. One final thought: if there were 10,000 Sandhill Cranes at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area when we were there yesterday, which is a reasonable rough estimate, then in one look we were seeing about twenty-five times the entire remaining wild population of America’s other native crane, the endangered Whooping Crane.

On the Boardwalk

After our boat tour into the Okefenokee, we decided to walk the 0.75-mile boardwalk back to the observation tower.  Okefenokee is really not a swamp at all, but a massive peat bog, and along the boardwalk we saw plentiful Sphagnum moss as well as a few pitcher plants, which are carnivorous.  In a bog the soil tends to be acidic and nitrogen-poor, and carnivorous plants compensate for the lack of nutrients in the soil by trapping and digesting insects.

We looked for Pileated Woodpeckers, because my mother has never seen one, but though we heard them calling and saw the cavities they’d excavated in dead trees we never spotted one.

Finally we reached the tower…

…and at the top we found not a long-haired princess but a birdwatcher from Chicago on vacation with his family.  Like almost every birder I’ve met, he was eager to point out to us the birds he was looking at (and I didn’t have the heart to tell him that there was no way that distant raptor could be a Snail Kite, as we were too far north).  He gave us a tip about where to look for Sandhill Cranes on our way back…

…and what a pair they were, with their magnificent lack of concern for the humans admiring them and photographing them and talking quietly.  Get a load of that yellow eye!

As we walked back, we could hear baby alligators chirping to their mama and Brown-headed Nuthatches calling their squeaky-toy calls in the pines overhead.  Not, overall, a bad way to spend a Sunday.