Early Risers

I still don’t know what the terrain looks like between Phoenix and Tuscon, because we were through Tuscon before the dawn. Wren and I woke up at 4AM, and were on the road by quarter to five, headed for the Willcox Playa in Southeast Arizona in search of sandhill cranes.

For those of you unfamiliar with Arizona, the area around Willcox is one of the relatively high elevation parts, with lots of grass and rolling hills, heading up into the “sky island” mountains of the region.

The Playa itself is a large, grassy, very flat bit of silty land, sort of a classic floodplain. There are plenty of dips and channels throughout, of course, but the general lay of the land.

Like Devil’s Lake in North Dakota, and the Great Basin in the Southwest, it’s an endorheic basin, meaning there’s no natural outlet to it under normal circumstances. Obviously, if you get anything full enough, it overflows, but basically this is a 25 square mile bucket. Wikipedia puts the size of the Playa at four square miles, but that’s definitely very, very, wrong.

Most of the time, it’s mostly dry. This week, though, after heavy rains and heavy snows at the end of December and early January, it’s a pretty huge lake–or at least looks like one, because it’s very shallow, and very muddy. Which may explain why there was a bald eagle sitting on this post, sulking.


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The main attraction of the playa, besides as a source of fossil pollen cores from the last ice age and number one spot in the United States for tiger beetle diversity, is as a wintering place for waterfowl; in particular, large numbers of sandhill cranes.

Unfortunately, they weren’t all squished up into the smaller areas of reliable water for us to look at, since they had the entire playa to choose from. So we only got to see them from a distance in the early morning.

We arrived just after sunrise, and wandered across the frozen mud of the Willcox Playa Wildlife Area. There were tons of great tracks to be found, since they’d frozen right into the mud. Which was loads of fun for me.


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And we did see plenty of birds, just no cranes up close. If you want to see one hundred or two harriers, spend a day wandering the Willcox Playa.


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One flock of cranes flew over us, but even with a telephoto lens they were too far away to photograph well. Hardly the thronging hordes of cranes taking off we were led to anticipate. Even at that distance, I did learn one thing: Cranes are not the silent creatures you’d expect from their graceful appearance, they’re noisy honking, croaking, blabbermouths.


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The most annoying aspect of their loquaciousness was that, at many points throughout the day, we were staring out a sea of brush or grass and could, quite clearly, hear them hooting and hollering away.

A Bit About the Cranes

The cranes sleep on the playa, and they siesta on the playa, meaning you see them at dawn, dusk, and about lunchtime. They spend the rest of the day in the cornfields around the playa, chowing down.

Wren and I had a good day driving around and exploring, and were about to pack it in to head home at sunset when we noticed a few cranes coming in to land relatively near us. It was only a couple dozen cranes, and one very confused cow, wondering where they all came from.

A bit further out, though, heading from somewhere we didn’t check to somewhere we couldn’t see, was every crane in existence. Thousands upon thousands of cranes, in the distance, black strings floating against the western sky.

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