Wintering in Southern Arizona has certainly served up some unexpected photography opportunities.  One of the best being bird photography at Whitewater Draw Refuge.  Here I was able to see 20,000 plus sandhill cranes and other birds. For those who do not know me, I am a complete nut for sandhill cranes. In fact, having over 20,000 thousand sandhill cranes to photograph was almost more than my heart could stand.  The sandhill cranes of Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area did not care about my heart; they just kept flying in and out of view constantly taunting my camera.

Where is Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge?

map of Whitewater Draw Wildlife Refuge

The refuge is located in a remote area of Southern Arizona by McNeal with two small parking lots and a 3/4 mile trail around ponds.  The first parking lot even allows dry camping!

To reach the refuge, there is a short drive on a dirt road that is well maintained and normally accessible to all vehicles. But after a heavy rain, I would recommend caution for anyone not in a 4 wheel drive vehicle . 

Although the refuge itself is only about 1600 acres, many nearby fields provide excellent feeding grounds that draw cranes and other wintering birds here.  

Best Times to Visit Whitewater Draw:


The sandhill cranes begin arriving at the refuge in October and will stay till mid March. However, it is during the peak winter months when sandhill crane numbers can reach upwards of 20,000 cranes. In fact the cranes are so popular that the refuge has a live crane cam during peak season. Live Crane Cam.  

Although Whitewater Draw is known as a major roost site for sandhill cranes, it is also a migratory location for waterfowl and a nesting site for Great Horn Owls. In fact, a pair of owls nest in a nearby barn which may be partially roped off when young are in the nest.

Time of Day:

Mornings– Before sunrise and in the morning hours the cranes will take flight in mass quantities as they head into nearby fields to feed, making this a perfect time to capture sandhill cranes in flight.

They typically feed in the farmlands of Cochise County’s Sulphur Springs Valley.  If the cranes have left the refuge, a drive to the nearby farm lands can also yield some wonderful sandhill crane sightings.

Evenings: Around sunset, the cranes start returning to the refuge and once again, the sky fills with cranes in flight. Although it is an amazing sight to see the thousands of cranes return at the same time, it is usually dark making photography difficult.  However, early evening provides good light and opportunities to capture sandhill crane families returning to the safety of the refuge.

Early afternoons: However you don’t have to wait for late afternoon or sunset as cranes begin returning to the refuge as early as about 11 A.M.  That being said, I advise waiting till about 2 P.M for a visit as the midday light can be very harsh and hazy.  After capturing flight shots, the afternoon provides opportunites to capture large groups of cranes gathering around the main pond.

Also the mid afternoon hours can produce the best light for flight shots.

Flocks of Sandhill Cranes arrive back at the waters of Whitewater Draw after a day feeding in the nearby farm fields around Southeastern Arizona.

I should note that the cranes, when on the ground, are usually east of the refuge walkways. Therefore, in the morning hours with the exception of flight shots, photographers face the task of photographing cranes directly into the sun. So again, here is another reason to visit in the afternoon hours.  In fact, I found 2 to 3:30 p.m. to be a great time to capture the cranes.

Lastly, although there are several viewing areas around the pond, the sandhill cranes consistently gathered in this one easterly location. On all my 5 visits, I found this to be true. 

Best Camera Equipment for Whitewater Draw:

To have the best chances of creating great images at the refuge I recommend bringing two cameras with the following two lens; a 100-400mm and a 500mm or 600mm.  Also bring at least one 1.4 extender or better yet the 2x extender. 

Here are just a few reasons why:

Reasons for a 500mm with extender:

    • The sandhill cranes gather around the eastern edges of the pond that separates the cranes from the refuge walkways with no ability to get closer. Well there is but not without disturbing them.

Reasons for a 100-400mm: 

    • When massive numbers of cranes take flight together, a 100-400mm lens makes a great flight lens as well as having a greater ability to include larger number of cranes in the image.
    • Also, a 100-400mm lens has a greater depth of field than a 500mm lens which allows a greater number of cranes to be in sharp focus.

Sandhill Cranes Up Close:

After three trips, I was only able to find one group of cranes close enough to photograph by themselves.  

Other Bird at Whitewater Draw:

While I was there I saw small groups of ducks in various areas of the pond and killdeers roaming around.   Also large flocks of yellowheaded blackbirds appeared each evening.  



Northern Pintail Duck

Yellow Headed Blackbirds

Great Horned Owl

A pair of great horned owls had built a nest in the rafters of a shelter and this male was definitely guarding his family!

Closing Thoughts:

I promised when I started Road Trip Fridays to be honest about my experiences at each destination.  At Whitewater Draw, the numbers of sandhill cranes was simply amazing and the experience of just being there was awesome.  However from a photographer’s perspective, the inability to get close to the cranes as well as some unappealing backgrounds was disappointing.  That stunning “wow” image just was difficult to create. Of course maybe I am a bit spoiled after living in Florida where sandhill cranes are backyard pets!

Florida Sandhill Cranes

Having read a few glowing reports about other photographers experiences at this refuge, I struggled with writing the above assessment. I believe, however, the best possible images from any location can only be created with the knowledge of an areas challenges so I felt compelled to address it. Please don’t get me wrong, this refuge has plenty to offer and well worth a visit if you happen to be in the area.  It just was not the place for the beautiful lone sandhill crane closeup.

To check out more photography opportunities from the area be sure to view: Quaint Bisbee Arizona.  

As always, thanks for joining me at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Preserve and I hope to see you next week at another Road Trip Friday destination.

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