The Sandhill Cranes of Whitewater Draw Refuge certainly served up some unexpected bird photography opportunities during my winter stay in Arizona. In addition to roadrunners visiting my campsite, I discovered a place where the sky fills with sandhill cranes every morning and evening.
Every winter Whitewater Draw becomes home to 20,000 plus sandhill cranes as well as a variety of other birds. In fact, the shear number of cranes at Whitewater Draw was so stunning I had to share this refuge with each of you so it can also be on your list of top birding spots.
Keep reading to learn more about the Sandhill Cranes of Whitewater Draw Refuge including tips on the best places and times to view and photograph sandhill cranes. I even include camera gear recommendations in this post. Lastly learn about other birds that you will encounter at Whitewater Draw that you may find of interest.
Where Is Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge?
Whitewater Draw Refuge is located in Southeast Arizona off Interstate 10 at 8469 N. Coffman Rd in a tiny town called McNeal, Arizona.
Directions to Whitewater Draw
From the West on I 10: Exit at Benson, Arizona and take Highway 80 South to W. Davis Rd, turn left on David Rd and drive until you reach a well packed dirt road called Coffman Rd. Once at Coffman Rd, turn right and drive about 2.5 miles until you come to the entrance to Whitewater Draw Refuge on your right. Traveling this route, you will drive through the historic town of Tombstone, Arizona where the historic Gunfight in the OK Corral took place.
From the East on I 10: Exit at Highway 191 towards Cochise and continue south until you reach the tiny town of McNeal. At McNeal, turn right onto Davis Rd and drive a short distance until you come to Coffman Rd. Turn left on Coffman Rd., drive 2.5 miles and you will encounter Whitewater Draw Refuge on your right.
Map to Whitewater Draw Refuge
Visiting Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge?
Hours: The refuge is open 24 hours a day.
Cost: The refuge is free.
Restrooms: On site in the parking lot.
Camping: There is a free small first come camping area at the entrance to the Refuge that allows dry camping for a maximum of 3 days within any 7 day period. The area can accommodate most RV’s although those in smaller rigs will have an easier time finding a space when the refuge is busy. To view the camping area, please see The Dyrt.
Food and Lodging: The closest towns for choices of restaurants, grocery stores and lodging are Bisbee, Tombstone and Douglas.
About Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge
The Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area was once a cattle ranch that was purchased in 1997 to provide wetland habitats for birds. It is part of the Chihuahuan desert grasslands consisting of about 1500 acres with a number of ponds. A small portion of its ponds are accessible via easy walking trails. Along the trails are a few good viewing areas for birds including an observation area that extends a short distances into the ponds.
Sandhill Cranes: The main draw of Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge is the sheer number of cranes that visit each fall and winter. Numbers vary depending on conditions but in many years the crane numbers can range between 20,000 ad 30,000 cranes.
Other Birds: In addition to the above mentioned sandhill cranes, the refuge is home to a wide variety of birds. On each of my four visits to the refuge, I saw great horned owls, an assortment of ducks including cinnamon teals, tons of red winged blackbirds, and harris hawks.
Wildlife: Birds are not the only wildlife at the refuge as it is also home to deer, coyote, bobcats, javelina, snakes and other wildlife. For a complete list of wildlife, be sure to click on the above Whitewater Draw link to their website.
Current News: A pole barn that a pair of great horned owls nested in every year collapsed but will be rebuilt in 2023. For those planning a visit to the barn to photograph the great horned owls, I have not heard of any updated locations for the owls.
Why Do Sandhill Cranes Come To Whitewater Draw Refuge?
Sandhill Cranes find Whitewater Draw Refuge a great place to winter for two reasons. First Whitewater Draw is located adjacent to farmland that is rich with many of the foods cranes eat. Secondly, cranes roost near freshwater bodies that have shallow areas or sandbars which provide protection from predators. If you are a Sandhill Crane, what more can you ask for?
When Do The Sandhill Cranes Come To Whitewater Draw?
Depending on conditions, the Sandhill Cranes begin arriving at Whitewater Draw around the first of October and can stay through mid March or as last as early April. To view the largest number of cranes, however, I recommend visiting the wildlife area in late December through February.
Best Times Of Day To See Sandhill Cranes In Flight
Mornings for Sandhill Cranes Lifting Off
Plan to be at the refuge at least a hour before sunrise if you wish to witness thousands of cranes as they take flight and head off to feed for the day. This will give you time to park and make the short walk to where most of the cranes roost at night. When the cranes take flight, the sky literally fills with birds accompanied by an almost defending sound of wings flapping!
Below are two different images of the cranes leaving the refuge in the morning.
In the first image the cranes are heading west over the refuge to feed. For photography cranes heading west create a much more appealing images.
In the second image, the cranes fly east over buildings and also into the morning sun, which creates a less desirable image.
My best advice is to photograph cranes heading west in the early mornings if at all possible! For those who are just at the refuge to witness all the cranes and do not care about photography, you may have a closer experience to the cranes if you stand a bit east of the main refuge paths.
Late Afternoon to Sunset for Cranes Returning to Ponds
Plan to be at the refuge at least two hours before sunset if you wish to photograph the cranes when they fly back into the refuge. Also, late afternoons to evenings are a great time to capture landing shots as well as cranes flying overhead.
Even though a large number of sandhill cranes will begin to arrive in the afternoon, be on the lookout for a massive number cranes returning to the refuge at sunset. Despite the fact I always found the light at sunset to be bad for photography, it was exhilarating to experience that many cranes flying at once.
My best flight shots of cranes returning to the refuge were usually created about an hour and half before sunset.
Best Time To View Cranes Around Whitewater Draw Ponds?
Cranes in the Afternoons
The cranes gather in one large group on the east side of Cattails pond as they begin to fly in and out of the refuge from mid morning on through sunset. Here the cranes are easily viewed from walkways at any time but are best photographed in the mid to later afternoon light. For a good view of the area, please check out Southeast Arizona Bird Map.
In the morning hours, based on the location of the cranes and the walkways, one would have to photograph into the sun.
As you can see from the above photos, the area around the ponds is not particularly photogenic but the sheer number of cranes makes up for the poor backgrounds.
Where Do The Whitewater Cranes Go During The Day?
Nearby Farmlands to Feed
The sandhill cranes are drawn to Whitewater Draw Refuge each winter due the the abundance of food found in the nearby farmlands of Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County. During the day they leave the refuge and feed in nearby farmlands. In fact, I recommend taking a drive through the farmlands after sunrise at Whitewater to photograph cranes and other birds such as hawks.
What do Sandhill Cranes Eat?
Sandhill Cranes are omnivorous and eat insects, snakes, grub, berries, small animals and other similar foods. These foods are typically found around open fields and farmlands which is why you tend to see cranes on farms during the day.
Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area Crane Cam
Whitewater Draw has a live crane cam that can be viewed at: Sandhill Crane Cam of Whitewater Draw.
Tips for Photographing Whitewater Draw Cranes
Whitewater Draw Sandhill Cranes up Close
Other Birds at Whitewater Draw Refuge
Great Horned Owls
A pair of great horned owls nested in the rafters of a barn by the parking lot for years. However, the barn collapsed and I no longer have known of where the owls could be located.
Final Thoughts on Whitewater Draw Sandhill Cranes
This is a small refuge that offers a wonderful opportunity to experience thousands of sandhill cranes in one place. There are also a large number of yellow headed blackbirds at the refuge in addition to smaller numbers of ducks and other wildlife.
For photographers who come to photograph the cranes, it can be a bit challenging to create that perfect bird photo. However Whitewater Draw offers an amazing ability to photograph both large and small numbers of cranes in flight and should therefore be on everyone’s birding list. Just arrive with an understanding that you may have to work for some shots.
I highly recommend this location not only because of the numbers of cranes but also for it’s proximity to Bisbee and Tombstone, Arizona. Speaking of Bisbee, please check out my post about visiting Bisbee and it’s staircases.
Thanks for joining me on another Photo Road Trip Adventure.