Birding at Whitewater Draw in Arizona

Where is the water? If there’s going to be Sandhill Cranes there has to be water. Let’s be honest, Arizona is pretty dry. So when I heard some birders talking to Steve the day before about the thousands of Sandhill Cranes at Whitewater Draw I was not expecting a drive out into what I thought was the middle of nowhere. And I was expecting to see water at any time, but I had to wait.

Wait and be patient. (The latter not being one of my many talents.)

I look really patient in this photo, right?

I look really patient in this photo, right?

After our morning birding at Patagonia Lake State Park, we drove through the town of Tombstone via Highway 89 and turned east on Davis Road then to Coffman Road in search of the Sandhill Cranes.  I realized that once I started to see agricultural fields I knew water had to be around somewhere. There had to be a way to irrigate.  We were only about 100 miles from Tucson and then we found it: Whitewater Draw. This area in Southeast Arizona is very unassuming, and if you weren’t looking specifically for it you’d easily miss it. The 1400-acre site has a pond that varies with the runoff and it’s almost shocking to see a pond clear in the middle of this dry Arizona.


Whitewater Draw in Southeast Arizona

A love for water birds

I think I’ve decided that I love water birds: shore birds, rails, waders, ducks. I loved Bosque del Apache in New Mexico, I love Antelope Island, of course, and Bear River NWR, both in Utah, and I adored Crooked Tree in Belize. Perhaps it’s because I can see a variety of species in one place. Or maybe it’s because they sit still and don’t really hide much (unlike warblers, sparrows, or other song birds). But I actually think it’s more than that. Generally these places are a refuge—a resting place. There’s something very cathartic about it, watching birds feed and get ready to journey on to their next destination. Water is always relaxing, there’s generally great landscape around, and with a lot of birds there’s always drama going on. You don’t have to look very far to find it.

I could spend hours here watching all the waterfowl

I could spend hours here watching all the waterfowl

Sandhill Cranes

The big news story this day at Whitewater Draw were the thousands and thousands of Sandhill Cranes. Never in my life had I seen so many Sandhill Cranes. They preened, they called to one another with their deep rolling trumpet and rattling, they walked around. They were totally at peace and so was I.


Oodles of Sandhill Cranes


Sandhill Cranes as far as the eye can see

I took gobs of photos of the Sandhill Cranes, but I was struggling with my new lens and teleconverter. I simply could not get a sharp photo. Bad photography notwithstanding, I could sit there all day on one of the benches and just look out at the multitude of Sandhill Cranes with their calling and trumpeting.

We stood out on platform over the pond for quite some time. A group of 50-something-year-old Harley Davidson riders leaned over the railing of the platform, looking at the Sandhill cranes and variety of ducks, commenting on each of the species. Why, they’re birders! I realized.

Two new lifers here

As we wandered toward the willow thicket toward the southeast corner of the ponds I found two lifers I wasn’t expecting: The Sora, a rail that’s likely migrating through, and the Long-eared Owl.


Not a great photo of the Sora, but a photo nonetheless.


Long-eared Owl (click photo to get a good look)

A great show as we were leaving

Just as we were driving away, back on Coffman Road we noticed several hundred Sandhill cranes roosting. I hollered for Steve to pull over and I got this video of the cranes. Not the greatest shot (of course) and pardon my gasp in the video, but it was indeed breathtaking. (It’s only 20 seconds.)

Lots of bird activity today

There weren’t just the Sandhill Cranes or the Long-eared Owl or even just the Sora. There were loads of ducks too, especially the  Northern Shoveler with its cartoon-like wide beak, the dapper Northern Pintails and the colorful Green-winged Teal that reminded me of Olympic synchronized swimmers as they tipped themselves upside down to feed while displaying their butts up in the air. There were even Snow Geese roosting among the Sandhill Cranes, which was a real treat. Check out the gallery to get a good look at the other cast of characters at Whitewater Draw. (Click on any photo below and it will launch the photo so you can see better.)