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Watching the sandhills in New Mexico and Arizona.

Six-foot wingspan, slate gray plumage, and distinguished red crown make the sandhill crane an aristocrat among birds. And, like most aristocrats, these wary birds savor privacy and are easily upset by intrusions.

But for the next several months, birdwatchers in the Southwest have an excellent chance to observe the cranes without disturbing them. Two spots one in New Mexico, the other in Arizona-are particularly good for watching.

For best views of the birds, bring binoculars or a spotting scope. Dress warmly.

In New Mexico. At Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, sandhills have staged a dramatic comeback. In the 1930s, several hundred birds struggled to survive here; now, some 12,000 migrate every fall from eastern Idaho to the refuge's nurturing wetlands. One reason for the turnaround is an innovative government program that allows farmers to work refuge land, provided they leave a third of their crops to feed wildlife.

Late November through mid-February is the best time to see sandhills here. During these months, you can also see great concentrations of snow geese and a broad variety of ducks, including gadwalls, mallards, pintails, and shovelers.

With luck, you might also catch a glimpse of the sandhill's rare, larger cousin, the whooping crane. These birds, nearly extinct in the early 1940s, are now growing in number, thanks to a program that pairs surrogate sandhill parents with whooping crane chicks.

The refuge's visitor center has information on various activities, including a 15mile self-guided loop drive among a series of elevated observation towers. The drive is open from an hour before sunrise to an hour after sunset; cost is $2 per vehicle. From Albuquerque, take 1-25 south 88 miles. Turn east on State Highway 380. In 1/2 mile, turn south on State I and go 8 miles to the visitor center. It's open from 7:30 to 4 weekdays year-round, and from 8 to 5 weekends from October through March; telephone is (505) 835-1828.

In Arizona. During the winter rainy season, Willcox Playa, an ancient lake bed 80 miles east of Tucson, partially fills with rain, attracting sandhills as well as mallards, pintails, and other birds. Some 8,000 sandhills live here until mid-March, when they return to nest in Colorado, Idaho, Utah, and Wyoming.

Park by the playa in early morning or late afternoon for dazzling aerial displays, as thousands of sandhills fly overhead in enormous, wedge-shaped waves. A series of hiking trails leading onto the playa allows closer views; you'll need boots to walk in the marshy terrain. Don't get too close to the skittish birds.

To reach the playa from Tucson, take I10 east 81 miles to Willcox. At the town's only traffic light, turn southwest onto State Highway 186. Go about 6 miles to a fork in the road; take the right fork onto Kansas Settlement Road and drive about 3 miles to a Department of Fish and Game parking lot on your right. For details, call the Willcox Chamber of Commerce at (602) 384-2272.
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Date:Jan 1, 1989
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