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Feathered attraction

20,000 sandhill cranes roost for the winter at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area

by Virginia Rasch
1000's of sandhill cranes at the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area.
The Whitewater Draw Wildife Area is a major roost site for sandhill cranes in the winter months. — Virginia Rasch photo

A little-known area with a big surprise is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southeastern Arizona, managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. Just 48 kilometres (30 miles) from the famous tourist stop of Tombstone, this spot is a major roost site for sandhill cranes in the winter months.

The sights and sounds of over 20,000 sandhill cranes taking off or landing are unforgettably elegant. These large grey birds with their distinctive crimson caps spend the night standing in the shallow waters of Whitewater Draw to evade predators. Each morning at daybreak, they fly out to feed in the surrounding area.

I was told to be there before 11 a.m., as that is the time that the birds start returning from their morning feed. The short, level path from the parking area is walkable by everyone, and a few benches are available to sit and watch the show unfold.

Far off in the distance you see these small specks. As they come closer, you realize they are small flocks of cranes. Then you realize that there are flock after flock of these birds. It takes over an hour for all of them to fly in.

The cranes circle high over the draw and slowly descend until they put their landing gear (a.k.a. long legs) down and flap their large wings for a graceful touch down. Their loud, trumpeting calls are hauntingly beautiful, especially in such large numbers.

A bonus of this wildlife area is that overnight camping is allowed but for no more than three days within a seven-day period. Camping is free, but there are no utilities. There is a vault toilet on-site. Camping is allowed in designated areas only, and sites are few, so arrive early in the day if you hope to stay overnight, and don’t forget to bring your camera.

For more information and directions, go to www.azgfd.gov and click on Wildlife Areas.

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