Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Clouds of Sandhills

We’ve settled into our new home for three months at The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve near the little town of Patagona.  The job here fulfills all of our requirements – excellent site with hookups, interesting place to work, and lots to do in the area. Host Site Now if it only had a frozen yogurt bar, it would be perfect!  In return for our site, we open the gate three days a week at 7:30, host the many visitors here for birding, collect fees, and close the gate at 4:00.  Our site looks across a meadow and towering Cottonwoods with the Patagonia Mountains in the distance – an absolutely beautiful scene!  The preserve, just under 400 acres, is a mix of meadow and riparian area, with a year-round creek that attracts migrating birds and wildlife.  We’re looking forward to increasing our birding “life-list” and exploring the area during our stay.

One of our first road trips after getting settled was with our friends Don and Betty to Whitewater Draw, an area of ponds in a broad valley to the east of us where an estimated 30,000 Sandhill Cranes spend the winter.   Sandhill cranes are the world’s most abundant cranes, with an estimated population of over 500,000.  At an average 10 pounds and almost four feet tall, with an impressive wing span of up to seven feet, it doesn’t take many to fill up the sky.  And fill the sky they did!

We arrived shortly before noon, just as the huge flocks of cranes were returning after foraging in the area’s fields.  Incoming Cranes

As they got closer, the colors of their red crowns become visible and the loud trumpeting drowned out all other sound – truly magical.  Listen here.Cranes2Cranes1

They spiraled down in patterns that are not that different from an airplanes at an airport – but in all directions at one time.  As a former air traffic controller, they were making me nervous; but everyone landed without colliding – although there were a LOT of near misses!Cranes Landing

Some returned in formation, like this flight of four – just like jet fighters:Flight of FourOr this flight of two on final:Two on Final

Some seemed to enjoy buzzing through the formations with abandon.  As an Air Force guy I figured they must have been trained by the Navy:Cranes3

But taken as a group or individual, the Sandhill Cranes in flight are amazing to watch:Single Crane

Gradually, the skies cleared as the last cranes landed.  This is just one of the many flocks that landed during our visit:Cranes4

In another month or so, the Sandhills will begin migrating north for the summer.  Once there, pairs (who mate for life) build their nest, and have their young (usually one chick).  Surprisingly, these birds can live for 20 years, and the oldest on record survived over 37 years.  And at the end of summer, just like us, they’ll head south again for the winter.  And we’ll be looking forward to seeing them here again!

We’ve got a lot going on to share with you, so check back!


  1. Great photos of the Sandhill Cranes! We never made it to Whitewater Draw. That will definitely go on my To Do list.
    The site looks great. They must have cleaned up a lot of the underbrush. We are so happy that you are enjoying your time there.

  2. Looks like you have landed in a great spot. I love the melodic sound they make and how majestic they look in flight.

  3. Very nice Aunt Brenda and Uncle Keith