I’ve lived in the Southwest for over ten years, spending most of that time in urban areas. My goals were more aligned with pounding-out an education, whatever that means, and trying to scrape together some semblance of a living. Only after moving to Bisbee did I begin to wrap my mind around how unusual the territory is. Copper extraction in this little mining town has ceased. The hills are dotted with old miner shacks – some renovated and some decrepit – perched over tombstone canyon. Without the mining & precious metals industry – and the stock exchange that once directed commerce in this region – the town’s known more today for its sordid history of miners, gamblers, prostitutes and, of course, absurd tales of their lingering spirits. I prefer Bisbee’s ‘other’ attraction: artists, eccentrics, and junk-peddlers. At the end of the day, this is a place to drink, to sift through antique curios, and maybe grab a bite to eat at any of the decent restaurants we’ve got.
What I never would have known about, not living here, are the peculiar micro-climates. This is Arizona, we’re saddled-up along the Mexico border. This is the damned desert. But then, the San Pedro river rises and falls with the season. Fields of ocotillo and chaparral stretch out through the valley that demarcates the border – just as clearly as that hideous, rust-laden fence. Another location, a bit out of the way, is Whitewater Draw. If you can believe it, the desert of Southern Arizona boasts a wetlands, a major roost site for the Sandhill Crane.
Bird freaks, photographers, and outdoors-enthusiasts swarm this wildlife preserve during the winter season to watch the cranes descend into the wetlands; the birds spend their evening in the shallow waters evading natural predators, and then fly out in the morning to feed and socialize. It’s a sight to see, if you’re into that kind of thing. As the sun sets, flights scatter over the horizon. You can usually hear the beasts before you would ever see ’em. I didn’t have a tremendous amount of luck with my camera when I went out there a few weeks back, but you work with the hand you’re dealt. The area is tranquil and worthy of anybody’s camera.
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As a result of changing habitat and hunting, it’s estimated that the Sandhill Crane population hovered, maybe, around one-thousand in the 1940’s. With conservation efforts – and an unexplained genius on behalf of the birds to select insanely secure breeding habitats – the population has increased. At this point, it would appear that the greatest threat to the crane is inter-species competition with snow geese over food resources.
The cranes are social, generally encountered in family groups. During the migration & winter seasons, non-filial cranes band together, forming “survival groups” that forage and roost together. These are the kinds of groups that one can expect to encounter at Whitewater Draw during the winter here in Southern Arizona. This year’s migratory group is estimated over twenty-thousand.