Arizona’s Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Crane landing at Whitewater Draw, Arizona (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

As a family, cranes are one of the world’s most fascinating.  Cranes are large, graceful and elegant wading birds with six-foot plus wingspans, long legs and necks. Their courtship dance displays have inspired choreographers as well as artists, and their massive migratory gatherings attract birders from everywhere.  Worldwide, there are 15 species found on every continent except South America and Antarctica.  In the United States we have two species, the Whooping Crane and the Sandhill Crane.  The Whooping Crane is highly endangered with less than 100 birds alive in the U.S., and less than 20 of those are wild-hatched birds. These birds are currently found only in three populations, a residential one in Kissimmee Prairie, Florida, a small migratory population in Aransas National Wildlife Refuge, Texas and a captive breeding program population in Wisconsin.  By contrast, there are thousands of Sandhill Cranes found across the United States, a status that reflects a strong and continuing recovery from a once serious depletion.

Some of the 25,000 Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater, February 2021 (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

Six subspecies of Sandhill Cranes, some residential and some migratory, are found from northeastern Mexico, Cuba and Florida north across Canada and Alaska into northeastern Siberia.  Their common name comes from Nebraska’s Platte River habitat on the edge of that state’s sandhills.  Cranes from northern areas participate in massive migrations consisting of thousands of miles per year.  These monogamous birds will feed and socialize for weeks in staging areas before migrating, and during migration they typically fly as high as 2,500 feet, although some have been recorded at 12,000 feet, and they will fly as far as 500 miles in a ten-hour day.

Five Sandhills parachuting in for a landing at Whitewater (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

In Arizona we can view wintering migratory Sandhill Cranes in the Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County.  The cranes begin arriving in November and leave again on their northbound migration about the first of March.  You can sometimes find them at Cochise Lake near the golf course south of Willcox, but the most reliable and easiest location in Arizona is Whitewater Draw.  Whitewater Draw is a 1,500-acre former cattle ranch that was purchased by Arizona Game and Fish Department in 1997 and converted to a wetland habitat.  Surrounded by agricultural fields, Whitewater Draw provides ideal habitat for Sandhill Cranes, which now arrive annually in populations of 25,000 or more.  The birds feed on residual grain in the nearby agricultural fields and return to Whitewater to rest and feed on aquatic invertebrates and small vertebrates in the shallows of Whitewater.  Arizona’s Game and Fish Department has done a wonderful job of making Whitewater easily accessible to the public, with flat levee trails, benches, trees and observation decks extending out into the water. 

Sandhill Cranes flying over Whitewater Draw (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

On a recent trip, we were able to get within a hundred feet or less to thousands of cranes as well as other water birds attracted to the preserve.  Observation decks have stools and telescopes as well, and there are porta potty toilets on site.  Whitewater Draw is open 24 hours per day, 7 days per week.  From SaddleBrooke it is 125 miles or about a 2.5-hour drive each way.  Rather than making it a long day trip, consider staying in Bisbee (30 minutes from Whitewater) or Hereford (45 minutes from Whitewater), and give yourself time for more than one visit to the cranes as well as the opportunity to take in other attractions in that lovely part of the state.  Don’t forget your camera, extra camera cards and a battery charger.  We took more than a thousand photos and videos on our first day.

Crane looking for a snack at Whitewater (Photo Bob and Prudy Bowers)

This article was originally posted in Arizona Daily Star’s Saddlebag Notes newspaper on April 1, 2021

About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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