Wintering Cranes

Sandhill cranes breed across the Arctic tundra of North America and in scattered regions from the Upper Midwest to the Intermountain West; a separate population inhabits the dry prairie region of south-central Florida. Come fall, most of the northern flocks migrate to wetlands from the Texas Gulf Coast to Southern California and southward into Mexico.

A large percentage of these wintering cranes congregate at a chain of National Wildlife Refuges across West Texas and southern New Mexico; these include Muleshoe NWR, northwest of Lubbock, Bitter Lake NWR, northeast of Roswell and Bosque del Apache NWR, south of Socorro, New Mexico. Feeding in crop fields and boggy grasslands throughout the day, the cranes return to these refuges at sunset, roosting in broad, shallow lakes that offer protection from nocturnal hunters.

It is the opportunity to observe these large flocks of sandhills as they arrive at sunset or depart at sunrise that draws birders and naturalists to the Southern High Plains in the middle of winter. Of course, other wildlife can also be seen at these refuges, including snow geese, bald and golden eagles, prairie falcons, a large variety of waterfowl, roadrunners, longspurs and wintering bluebirds; mammals include coyotes, mule deer, pronghorns and, at Bosque del Apache, porcupines.