Lake Cochise

February 19, 2022 – Willcox, Arizona

In arid areas like southeastern Arizona, water is especially important. Not least of all is its ability to support wildlife, and a wide range of it. Lake Cochise, just east of the town of Willcox, is one of the biggest bodies of water in the region. Located in the Sulphur Springs Valley, an 80-mile-long region stretching from north of Willcox to the Arizona-Mexico border, the lake supports a number of different species of birds and other animals throughout the year. Nancy and Gunther and I visited Lake Cochise in mid-February.

It’s difficult to say how many sandhill cranes we saw at Lake Cochise, but I’m comfortable (and not exaggerating) with the number of 10,000. They circled overhead in groups by the many hundreds before landing on the shores of the lake.
Sandhill cranes are generally gray in color, with black legs and bill. Adults have red foreheads, and may stand up to five feet tall and weigh between 10 and 14 pounds when mature.

The town of Willcox hosts an annual event each January, Wings Over Willcox, that attracts bird enthusiasts from around the world. In one year, attendees saw 146 different species of birds, ranging from great horned owls to chipping sparrows.

However, Lake Cochise is best known as a primary winter stop for migratory sandhill cranes. Many thousands of cranes spend the winter each year around the lake, with the highest populations present between the months of November and February. In 2008, the Arizona Game & Fish Department counted more than 36,000 sandhill cranes in the area – the highest number ever recorded.

Adult sandhill cranes have a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. This group is flying in front of the Dos Cabezas (Spanish for “two heads”) rock formation.

Two groups of cranes spend the winter in the Sulphur Springs Valley: the Rocky Mountain and Mid-Continent populations. The Rocky Mountain group has about 20,000 birds and nests in Wyoming, Montana, Utah, and Alberta, Canada. This is the population that has a major migration stopover in Colorado’s San Luis Valley; the town of Monte Vista has its own crane festival each year to commemorate the event.

Sandhill cranes are very vocal birds – their distinctive call can be heard more than a mile away. During our stay in Willcox, we’d hear them calling while flying overhead most of the day.
Here’s an audio file, courtesy of the National Park Service, that gives an idea of what sandhill cranes sound like.
The cranes approached the lake in groups as small as three, and in flocks numbering in the hundreds. There are a number of recognized names for a group of cranes, including “a construction of cranes,” along with “dance,” “sedge,” “siege,” and “swoop.”

The Mid-Continent population of sandhill cranes has about half a million birds and nests in northern Canada and Siberia. This population has a major migration stopover in the Platte River Valley near Kearney, Nebraska. That town, too, has a festival each year – Nancy and I enjoyed a visit there some years ago where we were first introduced to sandhill cranes from an Audubon Society blind next to the river. We also saw and heard sandhill cranes during our stays last year in Albuquerque through Las Cruces, New Mexico.

The town has placed blinds around Lake Cochise so that enthusiastic birders like the one shown, with her ill-behaved dog, can enjoy the wildlife without disturbing the birds.
While many other people brought their dogs as well, this woman brought a couple of goats to spend a pleasant morning at the lake.
There were So. Many. Cranes. They usually spend the night at the lake, then fly off to spend the middle of the day foraging in fields in the area, and then return to the lake in the evening.
Not counting the sandhill cranes, a species we’d seen earlier in the year, we saw five new bird species that morning we hadn’t seen yet in 2022. The lake attracts many other waterfowl as well. Here’s a magnificent northern shoveler drake. He spent most of his time on the water with his head submerged, shoveling about, so I was fortunate to get this photo.
Here’s a pretty American wigeon hen. We also saw buffleheads and coots, but I didn’t get any decent photos of them.
I hadn’t seen a savannah sparrow before. I couldn’t get this one to look my way, but it’s still a very pretty little bird.
Again. So. Many. Cranes.

We had a great time at Lake Cochise, and we encourage everyone to attend a sandhill crane festival if one’s about — the cranes are a lot of fun to watch, and there are always other species to enjoy if cranes aren’t your thing.

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