This past week I returned to Whitewater Draw in AZ
Many many Sandhill Cranes!
to view the Sandhill Cranes. I understand over 20k are there and I can easily believe it.
A typical day for them starts out between 0600 and 0700 when they fly out to the harvested fields to feed. The farmers receive a supplement from the AZ G&F department to leave some for the cranes. I was out each morning by 0630 to hear and watch them. They are all making noise and it is
Before sunrise, many had already flown out
almost a roar as they start to leave. Of course the temperatures were about 20º so bundling up was required, there was ice on the water in spots! Until the sun rises it’s almost pointless to try to get any decent images but I always had my camera with me.
Early morning sun lights this one up
Between 11 am and noon the birds return by the
Returning at mid day
thousands, literally! You see them in the distance as they fly towards you and their roosting place to rest and get water. As the groups of cranes get closer they fly at different elevations, swirling around preparing to land.
Different groups of cranes at different elevations as they return at mid day
It is an awesome sight! They hang around for a few hours then may fly out again, returning around sunset.
Late afternoon, some returning
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On this trip west I returned to a NFS campground in Colorado that I first visited in August 2017.The election is about 9300′ so it was very pleasant after the extreme heat to get there. There are some interesting birds there,including the Western Tanager and Stellar Jay. Both photos were taken through the trailer window so not the best. I even saw a bit of wildlife in the form of numerous chipmunks and a marmot.
The goal was to get to the Tetons and it’s wonderful to be back here. The first night was very clear so the pull of the night sky won out. What a spectacular view of the Milky Way.
Two morning later when I got the dogs out I looked across the main drive and there was a bull moose grazing on the willows! He kept looking off a ways so I thought there might be another moose around. Sure enough, there was a cow.
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A pair of Great Horned Owls have returned to the hay shed and she is sitting on a nest.
On Wednesday I moved to the over-flow camping area. This is north of the main one and right in the flight path of the cranes as they leave and return to the roosting area. Late one afternoon a great number of them settled in to a harvested cornfield to glean.Something spooked them and they all took off, flying right overhead.
It’s a challenge to photograph them overhead but fun to try.
Last evening there was a pretty colorful sunset and this evening while it wasn’t as colorful I was able to capture some of the cranes against the color. A pleasant way to finish up a good visit!
Whitewater Draw AZ G&F refuge makes a wonderful stop as a place to relax and enjoy nature. It is a major winter stop for thousands of Sandhill Cranes, along with some Snow Geese and various ducks. In March it isn’t as cold as it is in January and the birds are still there.
The geese fly out to feed in the morning then return to relax before flying out for a late feed. Sometimes you get lucky and see them dance. Other times they’re just resting.
This visit there is a large flock of Yellow Headed Blackbirds. At one point they flew over the cranes and for some reason that caused many of the cranes to leap into the air very briefly.
While a lot of folks think “ducks are ducks” I have to admit some of them are very handsome with their vibrant coloring.
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The last few days I spent in Arizona were at a state game & fish wildlife refuge. What a wonderful place! It is home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes in the winter. There is also a variety of ducks and a pair of resident Great Horned Owls.
The cranes fly out early so getting up before down to capture them as they fly out can be challenging. It’s usually pretty cold, but definitely worth the effort as the sun rises and highlights the birds.
They return late in the morning, coming back in great groups. Then the sun is high and it’s more a matter of looking for interesting behavior as they mingle.
The ducks are very fast, hard to capture. The owls were a different matter entirely. She was sitting on a nest and he was perched at the opposite end of the shed high up so the challenge wasn’t in capturing action but getting the lighting right.
There were a also some Snow Geese there but they tended to stay pretty from from the berms where watchers can stand.
The last evening I was there there was a spectacular sunset. As I and others watched it just got better and better, the colors so strong. Then some of the Cranes flew across, making it even better!
This was my second visit to this refuge and it was well worth the time. It was also a lot warmer this time than in mid January last year!
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My stay at Valdez was timed with the salmon run and the first night I was there they were in the weir with the seal lions catching them. As the days went and the run got stronger the sheer number of fish was amazing. Instead of filling maybe 1/3 of the area in front of the weir they totally filled it and you could look outside it and see them.
There were also seals and sea otters in the area but none of them came into the weirs and they seemed to stay away from the sea lions. The sea gulls were everywhere, trying to grab bits of fish.
Every day started out foggy but then it burned off by around lunch time. Early one evening I headed back up the highway to see if the light would be right on Bridal Veil Falls, sure enough it was and I even saw a rainbow in the falls.
I found a good camping spot (no hookups) right across the road from the water and a very short drive to the weir. I made a few trips a day, sort of timed by the tides. High tide the sea lions would come in very close for the salmon, low tide I went further down the road to the large mud flats. That’s where the eagles hang out for the scraps.
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Today it was time to leave the falcons and the friendly photographers I spent so many long but exciting days with. The local folks were very welcoming to all of us from further away. They shared the history of the eyrie and these particular adult falcons so we could enjoy the whole experience much more than otherwise possible.
Yesterday the birds flew a bit, sometimes they seem to fly in formation, or one was sometimes doing a
Adult Male (dad)
very good job of copying the moves of the other. The adult male (dad) graced the cliffs with his presence for a while, very handsome fellow.
This morning I was fortunate to watch and capture a hand off from the adult male to one of the fledgelings .
We also got to see another fledge take off after a turkey vulture. He didn’t engage it as we’ve seen the adults do but for a fledge that hasn’t been flying a week to even approach such a large bird was impressive.
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The Peregrine fledgelings are all flying with amazing skill for their young age. As they get better it gets much harder to capture them because they are so fast. We’re seeing them fly after the parents, sometimes with food as a lure and sometimes just following them, learning by watching and mimicking. They also seem to fly at times just for for the thrill of it. I know it thrills us! They seem to play tag, and chase with each other, all very good practice and getting them in prime condition.
After a few photos with blur spots in them I realized that the blur is really another bird, out of focus, not a spot on my lens or camera sensor, so I’ve decided to leave the blur there, since that bird was participating as much as the ones in focus.
When a parent brings
Taking his food away
food now the fledgelings pounce, one claims it quickly, usually flying a ways away to keep it from the others.
It is sheer joy to watch these raptors fly, the chicks have learned so much so quickly it amazes us all.
As we stand in the parking lot with our cameras we answer many questions from visitors to the lighthouse area and often encourage people to look through our cameras so they can see the birds better. Of course now, viewing the birds is a lot less simple since they are flying so well but we do what we can.
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All 3 of the chicks have fledged. The female took off and was missing for over 24 hours but
she has returned and has shown that the adventure didn’t dampen her spirits at all.
The adults are bringing them food, often a hapless pigeon, and the chicks now tend to grab whatever is brought and take it away. The adult female will sometimes claim a bit of it and give it to one of the other chicks but the one on one feeding seems to have pretty much ceased.
All 3 fledgelings
The chicks are starting to fly with more enthusiasm and we’ve seen them chase each other and the adult female. We’re looking forward to seeing more action as they get more confident. This is all fun to watch but it also reminds us as they get better and as the parent demonstrates technique that we will be very lucky to get a lot of good action shots. When one of the adults dives we all stand in awe. Seeing that you can understand their reputation as the fastest birds.
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