Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southern Arizona’s Sulphur Springs Valley is a must-visit for nature appreciators and bird nerds.
Near the community of McNeal, Arizona, and off a wide dirt road that’ll knock your teeth out, this 1,500-acre area was created in 1997 to preserve natural habitat and provide a refuge for migrating birds.
What you’ll experience at the end of the primitive road is worth the beating you take to get there. Whitewater Draw is the winter home of 30,000–40,000 sandhill cranes from October through March.
If you’ve never seen a sandhill crane, you’ll be stunned by their size, surprised by how graceful they are in flight, and delighted by their silliness.
Sandhill cranes are large birds with long legs and an impressive wingspan. They have a red cap of feathers on their head, white cheeks, and dusty gray-colored plumage.
They make a lot of noise, fight with each other, and drink water by tilting their heads back and letting it run down their long necks. Their loud, bugle-like calls are hard to describe. And hearing 30,000 cranes call at once is really something.
The cranes live in freshwater wetlands, and subpopulations are all over North America. While a few subpopulations of these cranes are non-migratory, most spend their winter in the southern and southwestern United States and in Mexico. They are opportunistic feeders with a varied diet and can live for up to 20 years.
Besides the cranes, there are a variety of songbirds, hawks, ducks, and other waterfowl to enjoy. And if you get there early or stay late enough, there’s deer, javelina, and various other animals to see. You might even cross paths with some reptiles on warm days with plentiful sunshine.
In 2016, the Arizona Game and Fish Department installed a webcam at Whitewater Draw that allows you to view the cranes from anywhere in the world.
Whitewater Draw is a fun and free way to experience southern Arizona’s unique wildlife and interesting scenery. The habitat is a mosaic of grasslands and agriculture and is home to a diverse range of plants and animals.
As a photographer, I find Whitewater Draw offers endless opportunities for interesting shots. The best times for photos are the golden hours of early morning and late afternoon when the light casts a warm glow over the landscape.
Seeing cranes appear from the sky and land in front of me in the thousands was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen. It’s an experience that has stayed with me long after I left.
The challenges of climate change and habitat loss weigh heavily on my mind, but I find the ongoing conservation efforts by Arizona Game and Fish inspiring. Visiting places like Whitewater Draw reminds me of our responsibility to protect the treasures of our natural world.
No explanation I write here will ever do it justice. You have to experience it for yourself, and I hope this article inspires you to do just that.
Getting to Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area
The Quickest Way
To reach the wildlife area from Tucson, take I-10 east. Merge onto AZ-80 east towards Tombstone and head left to Davis Road. Turn right at Coffman Road and after about 2.5 miles, the entrance will be on your right.
The Scenic Way
Take I-10 east from Tucson and merge onto the AZ-83 exit. In Sonoita, turn left onto AZ-82 east until it meets AZ-80. Turn toward Tombstone and head left on Davis Road. Turn right on Coffman Road and the entrance to Whitewater Draw will be on the right after 2.5 miles on the dirt road.
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