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Lower Colorado River Delta

Mexico, Arizona and California


It is part of wisdom never to revisit a wilderness, for the more golden the lily, the more certain that someone has gilded it. To return not only spoils a trip, but tarnishes a memory. It is only in the mind that shining adventure remains forever bright.  For this reason, I have never gone back to the Delta of the Colorado since my brother and I explored it, by canoe, in 1922 - Aldo Leopold, The Green Lagoons, A Sand County Almanac.

Friday, April 09, 2004 

From March 31 to April 5 of 2004 I participated in the tour “Retracing Aldo Leopold's Voyage of Discovery" sponsored by the Aldo Leopold Foundation.  The tour was conducted by La Ruta de Sonora.  We were accompanied by Buddy Huffaker, Jr., the Executive Director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation, and Steve Cornelius, Director Sonoran Desert Program at the Sonoran Institute, who hosted for La Ruta and Michael Giscombe, our birding guide.

We visited Yuma, Lake Mendoza, San Luis Rio Colorado, Golfo de Santa Clara, the Delta del Rio Colorado Biosphere Reserve and extensively toured the Delta.  We intended to visit La Ciénega de Santa Clara wetland but were prevented from doing so because of torrential rainstorms.  The dirt road to La Ciénega turned to impassable mud.  From a lecture on the wetland I see great similarities with the Zapata wetland in Cuba.

 The Lower Delta of the Colorado River is an amazing area.  On our trip we counted 110 bird species, many of them firsts for experienced life listers on our tour. We did not see sandhill cranes. Aldo Leopold wrote about circling cranes in his 1922 canoe trip in the same area we visited. The last reported crane sighting in Baja California Norte was 1953.

The Delta having no place names, we had to devise our own as went.  One lagoon we called the Rillito, and it is here that we saw pearls in the sky.  We were lying flat on our backs, soaking up November sun, staring idly at a soaring buzzard overhead.  Far behind him, the sky suddenly exhibited a rotating circle of white spots, alternately visible and invisible. A faint bugle note soon told us they were cranes, inspecting their Delta and finding it good.  At the time I my ornithology was homemade, and I was pleased to think them whooping cranes, because they were so white.  Doubtless they were sandhill cranes, but it doesn't matter.  What matters is that we were sharing our wilderness with the wildest of living foul.  We and they had found a common home in the remote vastness of space and time; we were both back in the Pleistocene.  Had we been able to, we would have bugled back their greeting.  Now, from the far reaches of the years, I see them wheeling still. - Aldo Leopold, The Green Lagoons, A Sand County Almanac.

Below San Luis and near the town of Rillito is an abandoned village named La Grulla. The link is a scan of a 1936 map of the area. La Grulla is near the lower edge of the map.

Why aren't the cranes there today? 

 The green lagoons described by Aldo Leopold had disappeared by 1975 due to upstream damning which decreased the water flow and increased the levels of salinity making the Delta all but disappear.  In 1981, 1983-1988, 1993, and 1997-1999 there has been sufficient water released upstream to have pulse flooding through the Delta to the sea. Since 1997, the wetland marsh has made a revival due to mildly saline groundwater from the Welton - Mohawk irrigation district being pumped into a concrete canal where it flows 80 kilometers from near Gila Arizona to Mexico where it flows into La Ciénega de Santa Clara.  La Ciénega now covers 12,500 hectors and is home of the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail. See:  The surprise return of the Lower Colorado River Delta.

 Can they be reintroduced?

 I propose that the West Coast Crane Working Group sponsor an investigation of the possibility of reintroducing sandhill cranes to La Ciénega de Santa Clara.  My discussions with the managers of the La Ciénega indicate there is suitable fresh water roosting habitat for sandhill cranes.  There is nearby agricultural land which could be converted to grain, such as corn, as feeding areas for wintering cranes.  The land is owned by small family farmers or collectives and is not overly profitable.  A local farmer may earn $1500-$2000 per year from their crops.  Thus, local farmers may be amenable to being paid to plant lure crops.

 Where are they nearest wintering cranes?

 The greater sandhill crane population which winters along the Lower Colorado River Valley has not received significant modern study.  The management plan for these cranes was created by the Pacific Flyway Council of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March 1983 and last revised in March 1995.  The birds in this population breed in northern Nevada.  In 1988 it was estimated that the total population was 1800 to 2000 cranes.

 Greater sandhill cranes are listed as a threatened species under the California Endangered Species Act.  A recovery plan has been under study in California since the year 2000.  The management plan includes the Lower Colorado River Valley population.

 Cibola National Wildlife Refuge is located on the Arizona side of the Colorado River north of Yuma.  It is one of the major crane population areas. Their web site indicates that as of November 24, 2003 there were1172 sandhill cranes at the reserve.  The literature indicates sandhill cranes arrive in the region in October and depart in early February.  Cibola is approximately 90 miles north of La Ciénega.

 How do we introduce wintering sandhill cranes at Cibola to La Ciénega? 

Discussions with local authorities indicate there is already cross border collaboration between Mexico and United States regarding migrating endangered species.  There has been success in reintroducing the California condor to Baja California in Mexico.  There is a strong possibility authorization and cooperation could be achieved regarding greater sandhill cranes. 

New techniques for re-creating migration routes for cranes have been developed in recent years.  Chicks have been introduced two new migration routes through the use of light aircraft and hang gliders.  A less expensive method has also been used in the Rocky Mountain Flyway.  Cranes chicks are placed in containers in the rear of a pickup truck and driven the southern migration route.  Once having been introduced to the migration route the cranes appear to naturally migrate north to the breeding areas.  I do not know if there is any possibility of relocating yearling or adult cranes from wintering habitat to a new habitat at a distance of 90 miles. 


Yuma Arizona hosts a Birding and Nature Festival each April.  Cranes will have left the Lower Colorado River Delta well before the bird festival.  However, the existence of the festival indicates substantial winter birding interest in the area.  Having tours from October through February to see the threatened greater sandhill cranes and the endangered Yuma Clapper Rail would provide added echo-tourism economic stimulation to a poor area of Mexico.

Can the cranes help save La Ciénega? 

The lower Colorado Delta and La Ciénega wetlands continue to be under threat of less and less water. There is a possibility the Central Arizona Project will close the Welton - Mohawk irrigation canal robbing the wetland of the water it needs.  

 “The general manager of Arizona's largest water provider accused Gov. Janet Napolitano on Thursday of ignoring critical Western water issues, including one that could help the state recover billions of gallons of water now going to Mexico.”  

The existence of the Yuma Clapper Rail in La Ciénega is one of the obstacles to these plans. Could the cranes help? 


As our group stood on the banks of the Colorado River where Aldo Leopold canoed in 1922 during his voyage of discovery and jointly read aloud the Green Lagoons essay from his Sand County Almanac, the possibility of re-creating a portion of the wildlife he experienced was inspiring.  

Providing a freshwater wetland habitat suitable for roosting cranes containing such natural crane foods as crayfish and nearby lure crops hopefully will make the area a heaven to wintering cranes. This is too good an opportunity to pass by without further consideration.

Link to Comments Page



PTT Study Lower Colorado Queen Charlottes Conboy Lake NWR Central Valley Subspecies Whooping Cranes


The West Coast Crane Working Group is a regional technical workgroup of the North American Crane Working Group (NACWG). The NACWG is a member of the Crane Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of The World Conservation Union (IUCN) based in Gland, Switzerland. 


The WCCWG receives support from The Paul L King Charitable Foundation, The Foley/Frischkorn Wildlife and Conservation Fund, and Chevron Research and Technology Company and other appreciated supporters.



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