Sandhill cranes are swooping into the Sulphur Springs Valley south of Willcox by the thousands in their annual migration from northern states and Canada.

The big birds — with a history dating to the Pleistocene nearly 2 million years ago — provide an aerial spectacle that typically continues until March or early April.

“We are estimating there are 7,000 cranes at Whitewater Draw,” a popular crane viewing area near McNeal east of Tombstone, said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

Randy Babb, watchable wildlife program manager for the department, said that “while there are only a few thousand in the area now, their numbers will grow to more than 30,000 before they migrate (back to the north) in the spring.”

The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, which is managed by the Game and Fish Department and open to the public with no admission fee, serves as a roosting place for cranes and offers viewing decks and trails.

Fields surrounding the Willcox Playa south of Willcox usually also are good spots for seeing the imposing cranes — some with wingspans of 6 feet.

The birds, with a call sometimes described as a loud, trumpeting sound, often take off from their roosts as a group around sunrise in search of food. After feeding, frequently on grain from farm fields, they usually return to roost later in the morning or afternoon.

SEE THE CRANES

To reach the Whitewater Draw area, travel southeast from Tucson to Tombstone and then drive south about 5 miles on Arizona 80 to Davis Road. Turn east onto Davis Road, drive about 21 miles and watch for a sign for the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Turn south and go about 2 miles to the wildlife viewing area.

Those who don’t visit Whitewater Draw can get a look at cranes online through a “crane cam” providing a live-stream view at tucne.ws/cranecam

Contact reporter Doug Kreutz at dkreutz@tucson.com or at 573-4192. On Twitter: @DouglasKreutz