Observing Crane Behavior at Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area

Photo by Linda Heinze

“Cranes can live up to 35 years in the wild,” Donna explained to the Whitfield Wildlife Conservation Area’s volunteer educators and a handful of Central New Mexico Thursday Birders. Donna, who volunteers each spring at Rowe Sanctuary where Sandhill Cranes congregate to feed before flying on to their summer breeding grounds, regaled the group with many interesting facts about crane behavior, including demonstrating their “unison call,” which they use during mating season. “New Mexico’s wintering cranes primarily are Greater Sandhills,” she clarified, “much larger than the Lessers we get in Nebraska.

Following the presentation, Linda Heinze, Whitfield board member and Thursday Birder, led the combined group on a walk around the periphery of the conservation area.

From the parking area, we could see 24 Sandhill Cranes feeding in small groups – family groups, Donna had explained earlier. A female Northern Harrier swooped low over the field in a surveillance flight.

Immediately after leaving the parking area, someone noticed a small brown bird sitting among the dried reeds. It had its back to us, making identification difficult. It turned slightly and we could see that it was a Song Sparrow.

As we began our trek down the path, we heard the melodic song of a Western Meadowlark, the first of eight we would hear. A small flock of American Robins rushed by overhead and I could see the flashes of red as a Northern Flicker headed in the opposite direction.

studying bird behavior - photo by Linda Heinze

Back along the fence line, the group watched a Dark-eyed Junco and Spotted Towhee do their final foraging before dark.

We could see the large footprints that cranes had made when they walked along the back path when it was muddy. The dirt was dug up, as if someone had tried to hoe it. “Cranes do that when they look for food,” Donna reported. An article appearing in the Albuquerque Journal the following day, talked about the cranes’ varied diets. Journal staff writer, Toby Smith, had interviewed Diana Iriarte, a biologist technician at the Bosque del Apache. She explained that cranes “will pretty much eat anything: earthworms, beetles, grubs.” That helped to explain the dug up dirt we had observed.

cranes in unison - photo by Linda Henize

As we headed back along the north side of the reserve, we noticed close to 100 cranes in the neighboring fields. All of a sudden, as if on cue, they raised their heads and pointed them west. We expected them to rise up en-masse; however, only a few began their nightly trek to the river, while the rest returned to their eating for a few more minutes.

The freshly tilled field in the reserve was alive with about 40 Horned Larks. “There’s an American Pipit,” Rebecca said pointing to a bird that called jeejeet as it bobbed in flight over our heads.

A Great Blue Heron glided in and landed at the edge of one of the ponds, and a large flock of blackbirds swirled up and down before they landed in the wetlands for the night.

As the sun faded and the sky turned golden, a group of cranes flew silhouetted on their way to the river.

It was a breath-taking way to end the day.

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