As sunlight breaks, sandhill cranes soar from the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area near McNeal. More than 15,000 cranes are estimated to be in the area this year.

As many as 25,000 sandhill cranes have swooped into the Sulphur Springs Valley south of Willcox since autumn, providing an aerial spectacle that will continue until mid-February or March, state wildlife officials report.

The stately birds, some with wingspans of 6 feet, migrate from mountain states and other points north. They typically begin arriving in the valley in mid-September to early October.

The largest concentration of cranes this year is an estimated 15,343 at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife area near McNeal, said Mark Hart, spokesman for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.

The Willcox Playa area has 8,291 cranes, the Safford Valley/Duncan area has 846, Bonita has 775, and there are fewer than 100 at Crane Lake and elsewhere in the area, according to the department.

The agency conducted its annual crane count in the valley earlier this month. Observers visit sites around the valley and make estimates based on the number of cranes they see.

The largest number of cranes observed in the valley was an estimated 40,000 birds in 2010.

WINGED WONDERS

Sandhill cranes, with a history dating to the Pleistocene nearly 2 million years ago, often take off from their roosts as a group around sunrise in search of food — making a call sometimes described as a loud, trumpeting sound.

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After feeding, often on grain from farm fields, they usually return to roost in the afternoon.

The Whitewater Draw area — managed by the Game and Fish Department and open to the public with no admission fee — is a popular spot for observing cranes until their return migration begins around mid-February.

To get there, 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.

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