Oh my, the Cranes! – Whitewater Draw

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.

Whitewater Draw
Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

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.

Snow Geese, White Water Draw
-Snow Geese on approach.

And then more people arrived…

Whitewater Draw

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.

Whitewater Draw

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.

Whitewater Draw


Flock after noisy flock of Sandhill Cranes kept arriving…

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

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.

Whitewater Draw
~The gray specs you see are the thousands of Sandhill Cranes roosting for the night.

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.

Fiery Sunset Arizona



  1. What an awesome site! I love the two cranes you captured in flight. Beautiful photography job! How nice of that one crane to stop eating and look at the camera! Looks like a lot people got the word about the cranes arrival.

    Our first sandhill crane experience was in Bushnell, FL. We were staying in the Escapees Park while we went south to look for places to stay our first winter of fulltiming. I looked out the window and there were these three huge brownish birds walking around. Of course, being the novice bird person I was taking tons of pictures. Strange site for someone from the northeast.

    • Indeed! Since this is my first experience I did take tons of pictures that for the first time I ran out of memory space. I played it back and deleted the blurred ones so i can take more. I also did a video so Steve can see what he missed.
      The crane in flight is my favorite. Thank you.

  2. ML – you guys get around! What an incredible experience to have. That photo of the two cranes in flight is like poetry in motion. It’s beautiful.

  3. What an amazing sight to witness. When we spent some time in Yellowstone we loved searching out the sandhill cranes. I did not know of this area so we may just have to check it out when we are down in southern AZ. Thanks!

  4. URGH! Once again, LiZa and Steve made me feel reluctant in sharing my pictures. I have pictures from a wildlife preserve area and they are nothing like your amazing, impressive pics. Seriously, I’m not just being humble. Those are awesome shots, way better compared to mine. I have to say, I’ve only been to one wildlife refuge, and it’s a nice location to spend your time for nature gander.

  5. We’re heading there on Saturday with Nina and Paul (Wheeling it). I know its late in the season so I hope at least some of the beautiful cranes will still be there! I just discovered your blog and love it, thanks for sharing with us all

  6. Glad you are going there and hope too that the cranes will still be there. I went there around 11AM and hanged out and they came around noon time. When I left at 2 there were still more coming in. Enjoy.

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