Crane Train

The Wings Over Willcox Festival Is In Full Flight.

By Kevin Franklin

THOUSANDS UPON THOUSANDS of sandhill cranes are descending on Willcox and the Sulphur Springs Valley, which means it's time for the fifth-annual Wings Over Willcox festival.

This year is shaping up to be one of the best years for the festival. More than 21,000 cranes have come to winter in the area; that's nearly twice the average mid-winter count, says Ron Olding, Arizona Game and Fish Department regional wildlife program manager.

Review On top of that, Wings Over Willcox program chairman Bob Coder says the Willcox Chamber of Commerce will continue to expand its programs during the weekend.

"We have a lot more going on than just the cranes," he says.

This year's schedule includes seminars on birding, sky islands, grasslands, bats and even the condor release program going on in northern Arizona. There are also tours covering the geology and history of the area, including a walking tour of Fort Bowie, the staging area for General Nelson Miles' campaign against Cochise, the legendary Apache chief.

On average, 45 bird species can be seen in the Sulphur Springs Valley, and numerous tours during the festival will take people to view them. The area is known in particular for its raptors, including golden eagles, bald eagles, red tail hawks, ferruginous hawks, American kestrels and peregrine falcons.

Because of the standing water in and around Willcox, a number of waterfowl and wading species also come to the area. Combine that with birds from the surrounding grasslands and mountains, and it creates a birding Mecca.

Of course, center stage belongs to the mighty sandhills. One of the tallest birds in North America at nearly four feet (the exceedingly rare whooping crane is the tallest at 50 inches), 20,000 cranes make for a sight not soon forgotten. But more than the visual impact, the sound of these vast flocks stuns most people. Witnessing a morning flight, while thousands of cranes trumpet a chorus at sunrise, stands as one of the great phenomena of the natural world.

Sandhill cranes boast a wingspan of up to seven feet. Gray with a red crown, the striking sandhills winter here and breed during summer in Canada and Alaska. A few even venture all the way to Siberia, Olding says.

There are two primary factors that draw the cranes to this area. First, they require shallow standing water, which can be found in parts of Willcox Playa. When the cranes roost at night, they stand in the middle of shallow pools or lakes in order to avoid being eaten by coyotes, bobcats and the like. While able predators, bobcats and coyotes cannot approach the roosting birds undetected if they're out in these pools. Second, the cranes come to southeastern Arizona in order to feed on the debris left after farmers in the area harvest their various crops, especially corn.

"They're interesting birds in a lot of ways," Olding says. "They're extremely slow-producing, long-lived birds. Their habit of roosting with their feet in just a couple inches of water makes them kind of unique. Our country, as xeric (desert-like) as it is, makes them susceptible to not having correct habitat. That's one of the reasons we're working pretty hard on trying to make sure they have adequate and secure roosting areas down here."

The migration of these birds causes another migration, one of eco-tourists to Willcox.

"In the previous year we had 400 to 450 people come out," Coder says. "For a little town that's a lot of people all of a sudden. Some of the restaurant people say it's almost as good a weekend as the Rex Allen weekend."

Biologists from a host of different agencies--including U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Game and Fish, and the Bureau of Land Management--are volunteering their time to lead the tours during the weekend, says Diane Drobka, BLM Safford Office spokeswoman.

Pre-registration for the tours is over, but folks driving to Willcox can generally expect to get on one of the tours, especially those running with greater frequency.

"Some of the tours--like Lake Cochise--will be a lot easier to get on. It depends on the tour. If people came and all the tours were filled up, which is unlikely, there's plenty of things to do on your own," Drobka says.

Getting There

Willcox is about 80 miles east of Tucson, off Interstate 10. Tours and seminars begin at the Willcox Community Center at 312 W. Stewart St. Call 1-800-200-2272 for more information. TW

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