We heard there are two excellent places to watch Sandhill Cranes winter by the thousands in southeast Arizona, at Willcox Playa and Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. Both areas are owned and managed by Arizona Game and Fish Department. Larry and Nancy, whom we met initially at Cave Creek last December and saw again at Patagonia, urged us to view the Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw. They were just there and advised us to arrive by 11am. Since we were closer to Whitewater Draw and I recently got hooked on birds, I drove the 39 miles from Tombstone Territories RV Park to witness this amazing nature event. Steve stayed home and cooked chicken for dinner!
The last mile leading to the Whitewater Draw is an arid grassland of the Chihuahuan Desert which makes it seem you’re in a wasteland, but upon arriving there were open-water areas, marshlands and mudflats which attract birds throughout the winter months.
The migration of Sandhill Cranes is not the only attraction or winter birds here – a variety of waterbirds, nearshore birds and birds of prey were seen hanging out as well as other critters. While waiting for the cranes to fly in, I walked around the 1500-acre wildlife area and looked for other birds. A flock of Snow Geese made several passes overhead and settled down by the wetland.
And then more people arrived…
By noontime we started hearing a gurgling sound from afar and knew they were coming. From the north we could see black specks in groups as they arrived in flocks of thousands, and I really mean thousands! They came in wave after wave and were just amazing to watch and listen to.
The sights and sounds were pretty awesome. They flew overhead, straight or circling around in a dance, swirling in random ways side to side, until they slowly landed when they found a spot. Then a flock would rise up and fly around for a bit before resettling somewhere else.
Flock after noisy flock of Sandhill Cranes kept arriving…
And what do they do here? They will spend the night standing in shallow waters to roost and avoid predators. Then they’ll leave the Whitewater Draw in the morning to spend part of their day feeding in the surrounding grasslands and agricultural fields before returning to the wetlands later.
These Sandhill Cranes usually leave for their northern breeding grounds by the end of March, but a few of them sometimes remain longer.
Finally, another one of those fiery sunsets in Arizona.