The sandhills’ stop in the Southwest is perhaps their most famous performance. Scouting for a suitable mate, the birds spend nearly a month entertaining avid birders and the casually curious. The crane population peaks around St Patrick’s Day, before they depart en masse for the Arctic, where a demanding breeding season ensues.
I had heard about Wings Over Willcox and had been eager to introduce the birding extravaganza to my sons. My own interest in the cranes began when I first read A Sand County Almanac (Oxford University, 1970) in my 20s. Aldo Leopold, the late Wisconsin naturalist, wrote of his fondness for the sandhills in his 1949 classic.
Each year this farming community in Cochise County, roughly 80 miles east of Tucson, welcomes winter visitors of multiple species. Plenty of heat-seeking humans show up from places like Vancouver and Kansas. And as many as 30,000 sandhill cranes find their way to a 60-sq.-mile roosting site near Willcox. The Arizona Game and Fish Department owns the land where the birds roost and makes sure it is flooded each year to create the six-inch deep pool the cranes find so appealing.
In an era when Facebook, video games and sporting events are mainstays for the modern teen, it is not easy to arouse enthusiasm for a weekend spent in a small Arizona town, where the adventure’s highlight is a predawn excursion to see a mass of long-necked, pointy-billed, spindly legged birds take flight. I am fortunate to have raised nature lovers. When journalist and youth advocate Richard Louv, the author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2005), sparked a national discussion about the lack of time children spend in the natural world, I feel grateful my sons have grown up exposed to desert wild flowers, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and now, the dance of the sandhill cranes.
There is much to be learned from these ancient birds that live long lives, up to 25 years, despite an arduous lifestyle; some are known to commute as far as Siberia. The cranes also are monogamous, have several offspring and even dance for their mates. They will mightily defend their loved ones and their territory. Their young even go through voice changes, just as humans do, says Michael Forsberg, a nature photographer and expert on crane migration and social behaviors.
National Geographic considers this avian traveling show one of the continents two greatest wildlife events, sharing honors with the great caribou migration. The residents of Willcox must be proud.
So it was that we found ourselves in the cold, dark Arizona morning, swaddled in warm layers to ward off the chill, waiting for lift off.
Then we heard it. As the rising sun spewed light on the shallows, a jarring whoosh filled the air and washed over us like a wave over sand. In that moment, thousands of birds, with a five- to six-foot wingspans, and weighing as much as 14 pounds, took flight. They were embarking on a day that would include lollygagging in nearby cornfields and flying in V formation to the delight of mesmerized onlookers. Later they would return, to roost once again, in this Sulphur Springs Valley sanctuary.
Thankfully, the rising sun, and the somehow haunting ritual, warmed us as well.
As we settled into a welcome breakfast of eggs over easy and piles of pancakes, we spoke of the birds’ flight. And of the sound. The amazing sound of the sandhill cranes, in unison, breaking the sacred silence of morning.
If You Go
Every winter, tens of thousands of sandhill cranes come to roost around the town of Willcox, 83 miles east of Tucson off I-10. For several years now, the town has decided to celebrate this event by staging a major festival during the third weekend of January, with birding tours and field trips to Willcox Playa, Cochise lake and the Apache Station Wildlife Area (the main habitats of the famous cranes). Other excursions take visitors to see raptors, sparrows and waterfowl wintering in the mild Southern Arizona climate. Inquire about tour dates and prices. Seminars and presentations on local wildlife are free. Due to limited seating, registration is required for all tours.
If you go: