Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Cranes of Whitewater Draw

Melinda and I made what was my 4th trip to Whitewater Draw (her second), a wildlife preserve built around a man-made wetlands where Sandhill Cranes spend their winters. Thanks again to Tom and Jenn Polakis who first exposed me to the place (with David Healy and Jeff Medkeff), about 25 miles east of Tombstone, AZ.

In all my previous trips, the "lake", varying between 10 and 40 acres, was literally crowded with up to 30,000 cranes. Today, at mid afternoon, it was totally devoid of cranes, though there were a few American Coots, Northern Shovelers, Buffleheads, Northern Shrikes, and a few others I've yet to ID. It was eerie - the normal din of tens of thousands of cranes was replaced by silence. The few birders braving the cold wondered where they were - we had seen and heard a few groups pass over, but none landed near the water.

Then, 'round about 4pm the masses arrived! From the north up towards Mt Graham (about 85 miles away), waves and waves of thousands of cranes descended, most all of them landing in a pasture about a mile to the west of us. The clouds of cranes could be seen tens of miles away. This photo shows 3 or 4 waves of them against the snow-covered Graham mountains, with ground fog near the base, and the LBT telescope seen on the western slope.

About the time dusk was falling, we could no longer stand the cold, and headed back to the car, there was a mass ascension from the pasture and the sky was filled with incoming cranes. We scrambled back down the trail to take these images. It really was amazing with them darkening the twilight sky. They slowly settled into the lake and we soon spotted Jupiter and Mercury through the masses. The sight and sounds of their calls is not to be soon forgotten.

Just for grins, before leaving I thought I would see if the camera flash would be bright enough to illuminate the closest of the bunch, perhaps 50 yards away. It was not, but interestingly, the cranes show a "catseye" effect where the light is reflected back to the source, making most all of them showing at least one eye brightly illuminated.

It would have been nice to stay and observe for a while, but we were already chilled to the bone. The cranes stay till mid February, so perhaps next dark of the moon. As it was, just the bird watching was memorable enough! BTW, all photos taken by the Canon XSi, the top 3 images taken with the 80mm Meade APO F/6, the last 3 with 70-200 F/2.8 Canon zoom.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Ketelsens - Tyou for alerting us to what we've been missing in our OWN backyard for yrs. . .lived in Phoenix area for yrs and only just this week learned of the great crane migration/descent on Whitewater - in our great state. Do you know how long they remain in the area - Dec. only? Jan-Feb? Lisa