Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Posted by Keith Peters on Mar 4th 2024

Sandhill Cranes are large, elegant birds found in various parts of North America, including Canada, the United States, and as far north as Siberia. The Sandhill Crane migrations are among the longest of any bird species, covering thousands of miles between their breeding grounds in the northern regions and their wintering areas such as Whitewater Draw.

Whitewater Draw

Whitewater Draw is located in southeastern Arizona within the Chihuahuan desert 17 miles northeast of the charming mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Whitewater Draw was created in 1997 by the Arizona Fish & Game Department when they purchased a cattle ranch and made substantial improvements. These improvements include managing the available water and creating marshland, mudflats, and ponds surrounded by native vegetation. These improvements created the ideal roosting conditions for the cranes. During the winter months (November through March), up to 30,000 Sandhill Cranes overwinter here. To accommodate the growing population of birds, the Arizona Fish & Game Department compensates local farmers for cultivating feed crops. This initiative ensures a consistent and dependable bird food supply, fostering their annual return to the area.

The Arizona Fish & Game Department not only improved the area for the birds but also enhanced the birdwatching experience and the enjoyment of wildlife by strategically positioning observation platforms around the ponds. These platforms allow visitors to closely observe the varied bird species and immerse themselves in the natural beauty of the surroundings.

A Day in the Life of the Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater

Like us, when spending extended periods in a particular place, the Sandhill Cranes establish a daily rhythm after settling in from their lengthy journey.

First Light

Optimal moments for a visit occur just before sunrise when the surroundings are cloaked in darkness yet teeming with the stirring activity of birds. From the parking lot, the air resonates with distinct, deep, trumpeting calls.

With the first light, the cranes gracefully emerge from the water, congregating in cohesive groups. Some imperceptible signal prompts all the birds in these clusters to take flight simultaneously. As they ascend, they seamlessly organize into a V-shaped formation, soaring toward the fields for foraging.


Following a morning of feasting in the fields, expansive flocks of birds make their way back to the pond shoreline for rest. Should you choose to visit during this timeframe, a spectacle unfolds — thousands of birds standing on a single leg, heads nestled under their wings, peacefully napping in the gentle warmth of the afternoon sun.

Group of Sandhill Cranes

Group of Sandhill Cranes - Whitewater Draw - Arizona

Post their afternoon siesta, flocks of birds embark on another journey around 4 pm, venturing out for an evening feeding excursion.

Flight of Sandhill Cranes

Flight of Sandhill Cranes - Whitewater Draw - Arizona

A Cloud of Blackbirds

Whitewater Draw becomes a haven for a diverse array of avian species besides the cranes, each drawn to the area for its unique offerings and hospitable conditions; these include Snow Geese, Northern Pintails, Great Egrets, and many more.

As Whitewater Draw is effectively a marsh, it supports areas of tall grasses, which are the perfect habitat for blackbirds.

A grouping of Blackbirds is called a cloud. This title is on full display. As the cranes head out for dinner late in the afternoon, a new bird show begins.

Hundreds of blackbirds come together to form a cloud and start their aerial ballet. Their fluid movements create intricate patterns that unfold like a living kaleidoscope. The cloud undulates, expands, and contracts, a dynamic entity that seems to breathe with a rhythm known only to its avian inhabitants.

The cloud moves from one section of the marsh to the other, sometimes flying directly overhead. Standing under a cloud, you are struck by the sound of hundreds of wings betting against the air and the amazing transformation of the blue sky into a living, ever-changing artwork.

After Sunset

A mesmerizing scene unfolds as the sun descends, painting the Arizona sky in deep red and orange hues. Gazing into the distance, one can observe the multiple unmistakable V-shaped formations of birds against the horizon.

From various directions, the cranes elegantly converge upon Whitewater Draw. The sky becomes a bustling canvas as hundreds of birds align themselves, preparing to land simultaneously. Witnessing their synchronized descent is a remarkable spectacle, marveling at their ability to avoid mid-air collisions. Upon reaching the ground, they gracefully transition into the water, where they will spend the night.

Encountering thousands of birds gathered in a single location is undeniably awe-inspiring. Visiting Whitewater Draw while the cranes are present is unquestionably worth the journey.