Whitewater Draw, a wetlands operated by Arizona Fish and Game. If you are new to the local population of cranes, feel free to peruse the search that reveals some of our recent visits. Word is getting out now, but a few years back, few knew that upwards of 30,000 sandhill cranes wintered there from Mid-October to Mid-February. With all our alternate activities over this Winter, we hadn't made it yet, and with the end of their stay approaching, we jumped at the chance for a road trip yesterday with the new Ford Van.
We left late in the day for us, about 1:30, and once we hit Benson, decided to stop and pay a short visit to friends Pat and Betty, who we've not seen or talked to much since Christmas. Our "15 minute" visit turned into a half hour, and after driving through Tombstone without even thinking about another stop, got to Whitewater Draw right at 4pm, 2 hours before sunset.
We feared that last year's drought and rumors of a broken irrigation system might have left permanent damage to the bird population, but with plenty of rain this year, the ponds and wetland's water level was about the highest I've ever seen! With a quick latrine stop, we snagged the last parking spot in the lower lot and hiked in towards the hiking trails. Fortunately, the rattling calls of the cranes greeted us like old friends, and as we approached a crowd of observers nearest a group of cranes about 75 yards away, we recognized friends Gary Rosenbaum and Frank Gacon, who we'd just seen at the astronomy club meeting the night before! After chatting for a bit, we continued on to an overlook with a bench for relaxing.
I had a new lens to check out - a Canon 300mm F/4 gotten recently from Astromart. While not a pricey fast one for astronomy (and seemingly football games!), with a 1.4X converter, it got me into the 400+mm focal length that seems the minimum for shooting birds. While I've got telescopes for ultra-closeups, the autofocus of a real camera lens allows shooting in dim light and on moving objects that I don't even try with a 700mm or longer telescope. The shots above are testament that it works pretty well, though even stopped down to F/9 or so seemed to have a narrow depth of field...
Once parked at our little overlook (where most of the benches I recall had been removed!), it was nice to take the standard shots I shoot every year - at left is shown the distant mountaintop profile of "Cochise's Head" with part of the flock of cranes in the foreground. Certainly the 300mm was a perfect focal length for that! And at right is shown the Large Binocular Telescope atop Mount Graham, a good 80 miles (!) distant, with a flight of cranes crossing in front. I was shocked to see the white snow atop Graham. We had plenty of rain in Tucson last weekend, but the mountains near Tucson didn't get any snow, but it was certainly there.
While most of the cranes kept their distance, fortunately we had other diversions. Not far from the seat we found on the trail on one of the dikes, a mated pair of northern shovelers were easier to catch with tails in the air, feet furiously pumping to keep their heads under water, than their heads above water. And at right is an American Coot coming ashore right below our vantage point. While they have a distinctive look above water, their disturbingly ugly feet are only spotted on land - eww gross!
The sun continued on its path, sinking below mountains to our west. Of course the cranes that have been out feeding wait till after sunset to return, some flying right over us, as shown at left. At right a trio of distant cranes pass the last rays of sunlight illuminating hills to our north. It was about this time that I met a woman from Prescott having issues with her camera. While she said she was taking a class in using it, she knew little about it and was randomly changing modes on it trying to get decent results. Near tears, I gave her some advice on using her equipment which seemed to improve her mood.
But even as darkness descended upon us and picture taking became more of a challenge, the action picked up! While we wandered back to our vehicle, the noise of the cranes increased in volume as the skies filled with their return. At left the silhouette of dozens of birds were captured against the deep twilight. And finally at right, the last images taken were of an American Coot with somewhere to go, leaving a wake against the twilight...
All in all it was a fun trip. The 300mm lens worked well - it took all the above pictures, though the early ones used the 1.4X converter. The van worked great too, was fun to drive, getting us back home in less than 2 hours, after we decided to again not stop in Tombstone. We're still thinking of another trip before the cranes leave - we'll see!