Sandhill Cranes in Cochise County
Wings Over Willcox Birding & Nature Festival, held every year during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, is a great event. At the festival, you can learn about Sandhill Cranes that winter in Cochise County. If you weren’t able to get to the festival this year, you can still view the cranes.
Sandhill Crane Photo by Tom Whetten
Cranes are regularly found during the winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley of southeastern Arizona. They migrate into the valley as early as September and stay as late as March. The majority of the Sandhill Cranes are present between November and February. Their nesting ranges include Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, Utah, central and northern Canada, Alaska, and even northeastern Siberia.
If you want to see the Sandhill Cranes for yourself, plan a trip to Cochise County. We’ve included some tips for viewing birds, thanks to the Wings Over Willcox festival organizers.
Sandhill Cranes’ habits
- Cranes select wintering areas that are shallow-water roosting areas with low or no vegetation.
- The cranes leave their roosting areas daily, usually around sunrise, and fly to feeding areas where they spend 3 to 4 hours.
- After feeding, the birds fly to “loafing areas,” which may be their night roost site, other wetland areas, fallow fields or simply desert grassland areas.
- Sometimes the cranes return to feeding areas in the afternoon for an hour or two, but the afternoon feeding flight is much more variable than the morning flight.
Tips on identifying Sandhill Cranes
- Sandhill Cranes are overall gray in color with black feet, legs and bill, and a dull red patch of skin on the forehead. In flight, you can see blackish primary feathers.
- Some cranes may stain their body and wing feathers a rusty brown by preening mud containing ferric oxide into their feathers.
- The greater Sandhill Cranes may stand as tall as 5 feet and their wingspan is an impressive 6 to 7 feet.
- An adult greater Sandhill Crane normally weighs between 10 and 14 pounds.
- The cranes are a very vocal bird and their loud bugling rattle, kar-r-r-o-o-o kar-r-r-o-o-o, can be heard more than a mile away.
Four roosting areas within the Sulphur Springs Valley
The Sulphur Springs Valley covers an area more than 80 miles long, from Bonita (north of Willcox) to Douglas (along the border with Mexico). The cranes can generally be seen at 4 roosting areas within the valley.
Click on the map shown to download a copy from the Wings Over Willcox website.
Arrive at one of these locations at least 15 minutes before sunrise to see the cranes as they depart for the fields. Many cranes also return to these roosting areas between 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. In the evening, Sandhill Cranes return to their roosting areas around sundown.
Roosting areas and links:
- Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area on Coffman Road southwest of Elfrida. To learn more visit www.azgfd.gov/outdoor_recreation/wildlife_area_whitewater.shtml
- AEPCO Viewing Area north of the power station along Highway 191 north of Sunsites: Click here to learn more.
- Willcox Playa Wildlife Area, on Kansas Settlement Road east of Willcox. For better viewing, follow the small, blue signs for 1/4 to 1/2 mile past the wooded area. See more at: www.azgfd.gov/outdoor_recreation/wildlife_area_wilcox_playa.shtml
- West of Cochise Lake in Willcox - Directions and map at: www.wingsoverwillcox.com/directionsAndMap.asp
Note: While viewing cranes in the fields, please respect private property rights and remain on the roadways.
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