Really Weird Red Crane

According to the Cornell Labs of Ornithology, ' Juvenile Sandhill Cranes have mostly rusty brown upperparts and gray underparts, with no red cap,'  This family photo obviously includes a younger bird.
Actually, ALL Sandhill Cranes are rust colored in the summer months, and they have patches of rust colored feathers all year round.  Usually, however, Sandhill Cranes are mostly gray in the winter months, except for their red crowns.
So, what is the story with this strange looking crane on the right?  It's no juvenile, because it clearly has a red crown.  But it is very different looking then the other 9,999 cranes we saw that day.  (Actually, I might be exaggerating a bit.  I think I saw two of these red cranes out of the 10,000 cranes there!)

He flies just like the other Sandhills.
He looks pretty much like a summer Sandhill Crane, but I still can't figure out why he isn't gray like all the rest.  Any ideas?


Harrier Haven

Whitewater Draw might be famous for it's wintering Sandhill Cranes, but I have never seen so many Northern Harriers in one area.  They were everywhere you looked!

Tom captured this fellow looking for prey.  He is quite intent on his task!

Here You get a glimpse of the Harrier's white marking just above the tail.

But this is a much better view.  If you needed any other clue to identify a harrier (besides the owl-like face and size, that is!),  the white marking would make your Northern Harrier a sure thing!

Not that anyone could resist that face, of course!


Loafing Around Grounds

Whitewater Draw is a 'Loafing Ground' for Sandhill Cranes.  That is where the cranes go to rest and hang out after a busy morning spent foraging for food all around Southeastern Arizona.  We arrived just as the cranes were coming in,and there were hundreds of them dropping out of the sky every minute.

They just kept coming: droves and droves of very loud, very large, and very graceful birds.  For someone who had always dreamed of seeing just one, the sight of so many was almost too much for my brain to process! 

And the sound was deafening - and completely unique in my experience.  You can hear a Sandhill Crane's call for miles, so the sound of thousands of them vocalizing was deafening!  This link will bring you to a page where you can hear the sound of a Sandhill Crane: Sandhill Crane sounds, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Everywhere you turned was another vista filled with cranes.  No single picture can do justice to the vast numbers of Sandhill Cranes we saw that day.

Imagine seeing this sight in every direction!  That is almost an accurate depiction of the sheer numbers of cranes at the Loafing Ground on a winter's day.


Flight of the Cranes

There is nothing in the world that can prepare you for seeing a Sandhill Crane in flight!  This 'artistic' rendition of some Sandhill Cranes floating down to earth is just a heavily Photoshop-edited photograph, but I liked it so much I had it printed and I hung it on my wall.  I love having a memento of the day I saw 10,000 Sandhill Cranes!

Sandhill Cranes FLOAT!  Seriously!  They are huge birds, but they hang in the air and gently float to earth like a child's balloon drifting out of the sky. It's incredible!

Look at this guy drifting in for a landing.  He doesn't flap or flutter or dive; he just stands still in the sky and ever-so-slowly descends.  Tom shot this series of a single crane in flight, and I think the photos are phenomenal!

Here he is just a little closer to ground . . .

And this is one of my very favorite Sandhill Crane shots - check out the humongous wingspan of this bird as he softly lowers himself to solid ground.  He barely moved a muscle during the entire descent!

Even more surprising is that these gentle giants float UPWARDS, too! When you think of Sandhill Cranes, think of an apparently weightless Muhammad Ali-like bird who 'floats like a butterfly' through the endless skies out west. If you can imagine such a seemingly impossible image, you'll be well prepared for seeing your first Sandhill Crane in flight!


Ten Thousand Sandhill Cranes!

What could beat the Elegant Trogon?  For me, seeing a Sandhill Crane has been a lifetime dream.  I was so disappointed not to get a good look at a Sandhill Crane in Nebraska in October.  I bought a postcard of a Sandhill Crane just to remind me how close I'd come. My dream was more than fulfilled in Arizona this December, though!

The Sandhill Cranes were even better than I'd imagined, too! Bigger, louder, stranger, and more beautiful than I had been imagining since I was just a little kid.

Seeing the cranes in flight is an experience not to be missed.  It is like no other bird I've ever seen.  When they float down from the sky they seem more angelic than avian!

What was truly magical was the sheer and unimaginable quantity of Sandhill Cranes we saw!  When we arrived at Whitewater Draw, the birds wintering 'loafing grounds', we were just in time to see hundreds upon hundreds descend from the sky. The sounds they make are indescribable - and very LOUD.  Their calls can carry for miles, or so I've heard.

It wasn't long before hundreds turned into thousands upon thousand of birds!   If my estimating skills learned from eBird were even close, then we saw about 10,000 Sandhill Cranes!


A Barking Bird!

Madera Canyon held a few more surprises for us during the few hours we spent there.  You'd think an Elegant Trogan, a Painted Redstart, A Bridled Titmouse, an Acorn Woodpecker, and dozens of Mexican Jays would be more than enough for any birder - especially since every one was a life-lister for both of us.  But soon after the Trogon left I heard what sounded like loud barking coming from high in the trees above.  A moment later I caught sight of a HUGE bird in the tree, and whatever kind of bird it was, it was definitely the source of the barking!

By the time I saw a second monstrous bird hidden in the foliage, my mind was jumping to outrageous conclusions at the speed of sound.  "it must be a Crested Caracara,' I thought, 'or something else equally exotic and rare!'  After all, it was a MASSIVE bird that was making the strangest and loudest sound ever heard!  Imagine my surprise to finally get the bird in focus and discover it was a very familiar looking Wild Turkey.  Evidently the Wild Turkeys in Arizona don't make the 'gobble gobble' sound we're used to hearing in Massachusetts.  In Arizona, the turkeys BARK!

There were other familiar birds that acted much more normally.  We saw plenty of finches.

We saw a nuthatch or two.

And our last life-lister for the day was a Lesser Goldfinch.  This isn't the greatest picture of one, but I can personally attest to the fact tat they are much smaller than regular goldfinches.
And throughout the day we had to marvel at the unparalleled beauty of this gorgeous place.  It was pretty close to being in paradise!
Ever since I left Arizona, all I can think about is going back!


Arizona Mexican Jay

Most New Englanders recognize the familiar blue and white blue Jay, and some think that's the only Jay there is. In fact, there are many Jays, all of which are members of the Corvid family.  The handsome bird pictured above is a Mexican Jay that we saw in Madera Canyon, Arizona.

If you look carefully, you can see some similarities between the Mexican Jay and the Blue Jay. Both are primarily blue-and-white, for instance. If you ever saw a Mexican Jay in real life, however, the similarities would overwhelm you.

The two species of Jay behave very much the same. Both are intelligent, aggressive, and very loud!  Even a New Englander like myself instantly recognized Jay behavior!

Mexican Jays, like the Blue Jays I'm more familiar with, are very large birds that are hard to miss.  Both species will sound an alarm if there's a predator near, although in this case the Jays didn't appear to think we were predators.

These stunningly beautiful blue birds are just one more reason to make a trip to Madera Canyon in Arizona. Not only are there birds galore, but it might just be one of the most beautiful places on earth.


Arizona Canyon Rarities

This incredible bird is sometimes called a 'Clown Woodpecker'.  Can you see where he may have got such a name?  What you're actually looking at is an Acorn Woodpecker, a very interesting bird in all respects!  For one thing, the Acorn Woodpeckers spend an inordinate amount of time finding and storing acorns for future use.  The whole family unit often stores acorns in a single tree, which could have as many as 50,000 acorns stuffed into every available space!

Acorn Woodpeckers also eat insects and tree sap.  They absolutely love acorns, though!

I was so excited to catch a glimpse of this exotic looking bird - mostly for it's incredible little clown-face, if the truth be told! 

My son captured this acorn-filled tree a bit ago.  Now that is something I would have loved to have seen myself!

This little fellow should look sort of familiar to new England birders; but it's not a bird ever seen in New England!  This is a Bridled Titmouse!  Very similar to the Tufted Titmouse we know and love, but with an adorable bridled face!

Both of these beauties were just some of the life-lifters we saw in the breathtaking landscapes of Madera Canyon! And there is still more to come from this spectacular location!