Nature Notes | At Muleshoe Refuge, Sandhill Cranes Are the Sound of a Prairie Sanctuary

Photograph by Wyman Meinzer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sandhill cranes at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge.
Photograph by Wyman Meinzer, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Sandhill cranes at Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge.

At Muleshoe Refuge, Sandhill Cranes Are the Sound of a Prairie Sanctuary

By Andrew Stuart

Their cries are one of North America’s most stirring sounds – a potent reminder of enduring wildness. A half million sandhill cranes migrate via West Texas each year, some from as far as Siberia. They’re lesser sandhill cranes, but “lesser” is relative: they’re 4-feet-high at the shoulder, with wingspans of up to 8 feet.

Fifteen percent winter at one place – near the geographic center of the Llano Estacado. Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge is Texas’ oldest wildlife refuge. Created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1935, it remains a vital sanctuary not only for cranes and other waterfowl – but for the full spectrum of prairie life.

Jamie Allen is assistant manager of the Muleshoe complex. In addition the central site, 20 miles south of the town of Muleshoe, the complex includes Grulla Refuge, in New Mexico, and Buffalo Lake, near Amarillo.

“The fun part is that you can hear them half the time and never seen them,” Allen said of the cranes, “because they’ll be so far up in the air.”

Jamie Allen, assistant manager of Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, takes in the view of White Lake, which has been a sanctuary for a migrating and wintering waterfowl for millenia.
Jamie Allen, assistant manager of Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge, takes in the view of White Lake, which has been a sanctuary for a migrating and wintering waterfowl for millenia.

At dawn on a November morning, she was touring Muleshoe’s three lakes: White Lake, Goose Lake and Paul’s Lake. These shallow, saline lakes – which, when full, span 600 acres – have drawn migrating and wintering waterfowl for millennia.

Playa lakes dot the Texas plains – circular depressions, they mostly rely on rainfall. Historically, Muleshoe’s lakes were set apart – by being spring-fed. Groundwater pumping ended most of that flow, but a small spring continues to charge Paul’s Lake.

The largest number of cranes recorded here was 250,000 – in 1981. In mid-November, there are about 10,000. But at the peak time – December and January – there are typically 50 to 70,000 cranes here.

They roost on the water for safety at night – and in the day, forage for insects and other small invertebrates, as well as wheat, corn and milo in surrounding farmland.

Preserving this land was an act of notable foresight. Even by the early 30s, most of the West Texas prairie had been ranched or farmed. Works Progress Administration crews dug a canal and built modest structures here, but the land was never tilled. Intensifying development since has only made this relatively untouched swath of prairie more critical for wildlife.

“The grassland prairie habitat in general is decreasing with urbanization and ranching,” Allen said. “They decided in the 1930s to preserve this – this hasn’t been farmed, I haven’t run a tractor over it, it’s never changed, it’s been the way it was hundreds of years ago. That’s hard to find.”

The refuge is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Visitors are welcome – primitive camping is available. But unlike sites like Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, visitors can only get so close to the lakes. The peace and safety of wildlife is the priority, Allen said.

In addition to cranes, ducks – buffleheads, mallards, teals – winter at Muleshoe. Tens of thousands of northern pintail ducks once wintered here – though, for uncertain reasons, their number have declined in recent years.

Allen and her coworkers survey crane and duck populations every two weeks. And in recent years, they’ve begun to monitor less striking avian visitors.

“Grassland specialists” have declined by as much as 70 percent in the last 50 years – largely as a result of pesticide use and habitat destruction. Cassin’s sparrows and grasshopper sparrows are birds of particular interest at Muleshoe.

During a month each spring, Allen and her colleagues, with help from volunteers, do “point counts” at 200 locations on the refuge. In early mornings, they stand at designated spots – and listen. By recording the birds they hear, they get a snapshot of grassland bird populations. It requires knowing your birdsong.

“You’ll be amazed at how often you’ll stand at that one spot,” Allen said, “and there will be that one song you can’t pinpoint. You’ll go back to the office and play all birdsongs on the computer just to find it. That song stays with you – it’s like that one radio song that you get stuck your head. It’s something that takes practice.”

The 6,500-acre refuge protects other forms of prairie life – prairie dogs and burrowing owls, ferruginous hawks and golden eagles, badgers and mule deer.

But it’s the cranes that strike the signature note.

To hear the cranes’ wild clamor in this isolated place is to experience the Texas High Plains at their most vital.

Nature Notes is supported by the Shield-Ayres Foundation and produced by Marfa Public Radio with the Sibley Nature Center. The program can be heard each Tuesday and Thursday, at 7:45 a.m. and 4:45 p.m., Central time, on KRTS Marfa, 93.5 FM, and KXWT Odessa/Midland, 91.3 FM. This episode was written by Andrew Stuart.