If you water it, they will come.
Such a saying has been the rule at the Apache Station Wildlife Area. Each year, Sandhill Cranes and other waterfowl make their annual appearance as they migrate through the region, and the wetlands near Apache have become a regular stop. Because of this significance, Arizona’s Generation and Transmission Cooperatives (AzGT) make sure to water the area between October and February. Efforts to establish the wetlands for this viewing season are currently underway.
“It’s great,” said AzGT senior environmental specialist Kevin Barnes. “We get a lot of birders, it’s utilized by the public extensively, and it really puts Arizona’s G and T on the map.”
Barnes points out more than 200 people from 21 states and five countries have logged into the wildlife area so far in 2015. The National Audubon Society classifies the Willcox Playa, which includes the Apache Station Wildlife Area, as an important bird area with global priority. The Audubon website says that Apache is one place where the cranes are most concentrated and visible.
“They winter over. The habitat we’re producing is loafing habitat. Shallow water. It helps them evade predators. So they will leave our facility, go feed, and come back and loaf, and basically roost here at night,” Barnes explained.
Apache has been a destination for migrating birds for decades; however, in 1997 AzGT partnered with the Arizona Game and Fish Department and split the cost to formally construct the wildlife area. In exchange for that partnership, AzGT will ensure the wetlands are saturated in fall and winter.
“There are only a few standing water sources for the Sandhill Crane while they migrate through, and Game and Fish identified this as one of those important stops, so we agreed to keep flooding it every year,” Barnes said.
While wildlife is an important resource, water must be conserved as well. AzGT has employed new conservation measures that have cut water use for the wetlands by almost half while also ensuring the area is still a viable destination. In fact, efforts to reduce water use have concentrated where the birds will gather.
“It’s important to have the water there, but it’s also important to deliver it efficiently,” Barnes said. “So last year, we changed our delivery point to get the water where we wanted it, so, the viewing was better and we were making better use of the water.”
While the wildlife area awaits its first large flock of cranes, other birds are already visible over the soaking wetlands. Their role in the Willcox Playa is obvious as Barnes surveys this area expected to attract hundreds of cranes as well as those who appreciate them in the weeks and months to come.
“It’s important to wildlife.”