They first appear as dark specks against the blue sky. Approaching in long ragged lines, the gangly cranes begin to take shape, and then you hear the trilling cries. As they prepare to land near the marshes, the cranes transform from the classic wingspread profile to a more vertical expression of the bird, featuring a long neck and dangling feet. The landings themselves are graceful and assured.
In this wetland setting, we are able to move beyond the mere identification stage of bird-watching to the more interesting observation of the activities of the animals. The sandhill crane exemplifies animated grace. He stabs energetically at a great variety of food items, from grains found in fallow fields to insects, reptiles and plants. During mating ceremonies and sometimes just in random bursts of energy, a sandhill crane performs a funky dance involving leaps, twirls and exaggerated dips and lifts of the head. Other cranes nearby watch this performance in a bored manner. The distinctive red cap of the sandhill is not scarlet feathering but an area of red wrinkly skin. The crane announces excitement or alarm by flashing this red patch, which then stretches back from the forehead to cover the entire head of the bird.
Sandhill cranes are thought to mate for life and to travel in family groups. Indeed, you will see them as they prepare to settle at Whitewater Draw, breaking off in twos to seek a space among the others. These cranes generally live to be about 20 years old, choosing a mate when they are between the ages of two and seven. The nest is a large mound of sticks that may float in the shallows or be anchored bankside.
The population of sandhill cranes is healthy for now. People report sightings, take photographs and videos and come out to observe and enjoy the spectacle of the migration from a broad band of the southwest in the winter to the northern reaches of the Rocky Mountains, the Midwest, Canada, Alaska and even Siberia in the summer months. You can see them from the comfort of your own home of course, so dial up YouTube and check out the dance of the sandhill crane.