Sandhill cranes at Whitewater Draw

January 6, 2024.

Photo album

Our friends in the Tucson area recommended visiting Whitewater Draw to see the sandhill cranes during their migration. It looked like an easy place to add to our route, plus there is free camping at the trailhead.

We pulled into Whitewater Draw well after dark and grabbed the last open campsite (there are only 5). As we were getting ready for bed, I noticed a strange sound. I cracked open the window and the van was overtaken by the sound of thousands of sandhill cranes calling at once.

I set an alarm for a pre-dawn wake up time. In the morning, we bundled up in several warm layers and I filled two mugs with hot coffee. As soon as we stepped out of the van, I noticed swirls of cranes flying overhead. Several other bird-watchers were already out on the trail, cameras and binoculars in hand. We slowly meandered out to the edge of a pond, amazed at the sheer quantity of avian life. Sandhill cranes are gigantic birds, so it’s exciting to only see a few of them. My brain did not know what to do with the large volume of birds in front of me.

I tugged my hat down over my ears. It was bitterly cold outside. But the pink sunrise, silhouettes of birds in flight, swaths of cartoonish birds in the lake and a warm beverage in my hand was just what I needed this morning.

As sunrise led into proper morning, more and more birds abandoned the icy ponds in search of a meal. The ducks swimming about the water’s edge seemed to relax a bit as their monstrous cousins gave them more space to spread out.

Before we set out on this trip, Aaron frequently commented on how he was excited to travel long-term so that we’d have more opportunities to see fleeting natural phenomena. This experience was what we were hoping for as we planned our travels. Taking suggestions from locals, checking newspapers and flyers in coffee shops, scanning social media coming out of the places we visit…these are all ways to get keyed in to unique experiences that you can’t just do anywhere at anytime.

Crane facts

And now, some interesting information about sandhill cranes!

  • The oldest known sandhill crane skeleton dates back to 2.5 million years!
  • Sandhill cranes can get up to 4 feet tall and weigh 12 pounds.
  • Sandhill cranes are known for their courtship dances and will mate for life.
  • They eat anything from seeds and roots to frogs, snails and small birds. They will also feast on crops like corn when available.
  • Some other places to catch sandhill cranes on their migration route are along the Platte River (Nebraska), Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge (New Mexico) and Goose Pond FWA (Indiana).

It’s one thing to read about these facts in a book or on the internet, and it’s another to see cranes with your own eyes. If you get a chance to visit sandhill cranes while they’re on their journey, you’ll fall in love with these incredible creatures.

Leave a Reply