Experience the Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes wintering at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

Southeast Arizona is in the path of several bird migrations, including hummingbirds, turkey vultures, and sandhill cranes. This area offers some of the best nature spots for bird watchers to view and photograph. One in particular is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, where over 20,000 cranes make their home yearly from October to March. Watching and listening to these graceful birds land in mass is an experience not to miss. Here is everything you need to know to see and capture photographs of these amazing sandhill cranes.

Thousands of Sandhill Cranes wintering at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
A Sandhill Crane landing at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
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Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area Map

The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area (WDWA) is 1,528 acres of preserved land in the middle of nowhere in Southeast Arizona. The map above shows a large area of water with a note to usually dry late May to July, although depending on how wet the monsoon season is or isn’t will be how much water is in McNeal Playa. The area was once a cattle ranch but now provides a natural habitat for the sandhill cranes to make their primary home during the winter and many other waterfowl throughout the year. The two viewing platforms along the dirt trail allow you to get closer to the birds.

Two Sandhill Cranes flying

Some other birds you might see at Whitewater Draw are the Mountain Plover, Long-billed Curlew, Mallard ducks, Northern Shoveler, Blue-winged and Green-winged Teal, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Northern Pintail, Mexican Duck, Canada Goose, Lesser Scaup, and the Cinnamon Teal. You might even see some predatory birds, like the Bald Eagle, Ferruginous Hawk, Golden Eagle, Prairie Falcon, Peregrine, and Merlin. What makes this area so special that all of these birds migrate here? It could be that the nearby farms in Sulpher Springs Valley offer them abundant access to food, or it could be the wide-open space that makes it perfect for roosting. Whatever the reason these birds choose to come here year after year, it is wonderful to see them.

Sandhill Crane flying over water

How to get to White Water Draw Wildlife Area? Whitewater Draw is at 4423 W. Bagby Road in McNeal. From US-191 at McNeal, drive west on Davis Road for 3 miles to Coffman Road. Turn south on Coffman Road and follow the signs for 2 miles; turn west into the parking area and trailhead. Be cautious during wet weather, as the dirt roads can become slick with mud.

Sandhill Cranes gathering at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

You can see the sandhill cranes all day long from October to mid-March. Some people will say that right before sunrise is a great time to see the birds leaving for the morning to find food. However, some of the best times to view the sandhill cranes are between 10 am and noon. This is when you see huge groups of birds returning after foraging for food. I showed up around 11:30, and most were already settling for their afternoon nap, but I still could see large cranes returning and landing. The best way to see the sandhill cranes is to return multiple days at different times if possible. Plus, as you wait longer in the winter season to see them, there tends to be more there.

By April, all the sandhill cranes have migrated north. So, try not to miss them when they are at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.

A Sandhill Crane wading in water

As the sandhill cranes chattered away, I hoped to catch some excitement among the birds, and they didn’t disappoint. With so many birds in one place, some don’t like others to get too close and will exert their dominance. What a treat to be able to capture those moments.

Two Sandhill Cranes and their reflections in water

For those wanting to capture photographs of the sandhill cranes, here are some tips to get the most out of your camera and your time viewing the birds. Photographing birds is tricky, especially when some are resting and others are in motion. But, following these simple tricks and practicing a lot, you should be able to capture clear, focused photos of these graceful birds. Plus, the more times you visit Whitewater Draw, you’ll learn the sandhill crane patterns and be ready with your camera when they come in for a landing.

Sandhill Crane coming in for a landing
  • Use a DSLR camera with a fixed focal length lens (300mm, 500mm, or 600mm lens)
  • Mount the long lens and camera on a tripod with a gimbal head, or keep your feet planted as you pan your camera lens along with the bird and slowly turn your upper body without moving your feet to avoid camera shake. You’ll need to move your lens along with the bird’s movement to help capture the bird in sharp focus. Another way to shoot is to stabilize yourself against a railing or a wall. Hold the camera and lens and tuck your elbows firmly to rest against the side of your chest.
  • Use Auto ISO settings.
  • Birds against the sky usually come out underexposed, so to combat this, dial up your exposure compensation to perhaps +2/3 as a starting point.
  • Set your aperture to f/7.1 or f/8 to ensure you get the wingtips and face in focus.
Sandhill Crane flying over the cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • The shutter speed should be as much as the lens’s focal length. If you shoot with a 600mm lens, it should be at 1/600sec or higher. The key to a good bird-in-flight shot is a fast shutter speed. Set your camera in Shutter Priority mode (for Canon, S mode for other brands) and dial in 1/2000th sec. Most of my sandhill crane photos were taken at 1/2500 sec.
  • Shoot in AI Servo mode on Canon (similar to AF-C or continuous mode on Nikon). When set to this mode, the camera keeps track and focuses on a moving subject as long as you keep the shutter button pressed halfway down.
  • For static or slow-moving cranes walking in front of the viewing areas, use the single-point AF. But, for birds in flight, tracking the bird as it flies is the trickiest part of capturing their photographs.
  • You’ll need to use the center focus points to get the best photos while tracking birds flying and shooting sharp images. For Nikon cameras, it is the Dynamic AF mode. For the Canon camera, it is the Expanded 9 point. For Sony users, it is the Expanded Flexible Point. The idea behind these AF area modes is to manually select the center point in the pattern, which your camera attempts to focus with. However, if you lose focus, the surrounding AF sensors in the pattern suddenly activate and help you reacquire focus. This allows you the precision of a single point for focusing on the head/neck of the bird but with a surrounding safety net in case you lose focus while the bird is in motion.
Three Sandhill Cranes flying

If you do get the chance to visit Whitewater Draw multiple times, you can get to know the flight behavior of the sandhill cranes. Then, you can be ready to predict their next move and wait for the right moment to get that money shot. To help you even more, follow these tips:

  • Odd numbers of birds are more visually appealing than even ones.
  • Follow the Rule of Thirds guidelines, giving space for the sandhill cranes to fly in its direction.
A Sandhill Crane gliding over Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
  • Try to focus on a spot through which the bird will fly through. Then, when the bird is about to reach that spot, start shooting in AI Servo or continuous mode until the bird is past the focus point.
  • A neat trick to try to show a sense of motion, shoot in manual mode and choose a slower shutter speed, and pan along as the bird goes by. Start by setting the ISO to a lower number and set the aperture to 1/30sec.
  • Look for opportunities where the bird makes eye contact with the camera. This makes the image visually more engaging.
  • Aim to photograph birds in flight with their habitat included in the background. This gives some indication of their surroundings and habitat. Moreover, such a background makes the overall image much more visually appealing.
Three Sandhill Cranes standing still

Bisbee, Tombstone, Douglas, and Sierra Vista are all great places to stay if you plan to visit the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. I’ve added a search box below to help you decide where to stay when coming to Southeast Arizona.

Sandhill Cranes in the grass and water at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

I had so much fun watching these birds fly in, circle, and land that I could’ve spent hours watching these graceful sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area. When you visit Southeast Arizona, visit all the cool towns down here; there are many surprising, fun things to discover. And when you do make it to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, take tons of photos, and let me know how it goes. You can see all the rest of my photos here. Let me know in the comments what you think of them or if you have any tips you want to share.

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Further Reading

If you are exploring Arizona, check out these posts for extra travel inspiration:

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