Sandhill Cranes have returned to southeastern Arizona for the winter, and I’ll be visiting the flock at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area almost every weekend between now and the end of February. When you have the privilege of spending a lot of time with cranes, you get to see lots of interesting behavior and interactions. Some are hard to miss, but the subtle ones can be the most educational.
One Sunday last February, I was leading a crane watch activity for the public on one of the viewing platforms at the wildlife area. Uncommonly cold temperatures that day kept most visitors away, but a handful of hardy souls joined me to watch the midday crane fly-in. The viewing platform has no roof or walls to block the wind, but spectacular unobstructed views of thousands of cranes made the eye-watering cold worth braving.
Drought had shrunk the playa lake to its lowest level in many years, and the scarcity of open water encouraged the cranes to land even closer to the viewing area than usual. They dropped in a few dozen yards in front of the platform, often skating across patches of ice (and sometimes falling down). The nearest birds cautiously picked their way across the frozen mud to a narrow band of open water a few yards from the platform and bent their long, graceful necks to drink. Camera shutters clicked madly, recording the spectacle.
The idyllic mood was broken by a sudden commotion east of the platform: a group of cranes scuttling warily away from a popular viewing spot on the trail, their necks extended and red crowns expanded in alarm. Peering through the leafless willows to see what had frightened the cranes, we saw four men dressed in varying degrees of hunting camouflage. All wore shirts and billed caps in camo patterns, and at least one wore coordinating pants. They weren’t accompanied by a dog (whose mere presence, even leashed, is known to have negative effects on birds and other wildlife), and none were carrying rifles or shotguns.
A dozen or so people in street clothes of various colors and at least three leashed dogs had already walked past that same spot without discouraging the cranes from approaching the trail. Maybe one of the men pantomimed shooting at the cranes, but it seems more likely that the older, more experienced members of the flock had learned to associate camo-clad humans with danger and reacted to the clothing alone.
Though I’m a strong proponent of dressing inconspicuously for birding, this experience has caused me to have second thoughts about whether hunting-style camo is a good choice for field wear, at least for watching cranes and other hunted birds.