Bird Whirled: Sandhill Cranes, An Experience of Wonder

Author: , December 26th, 2010

by Fred Miller, Copper City Inn

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Bisbee Sandhill Cranes

When  looking at birds the tendency is to focus on the individual bird. That’s mostly what we see around us. That is if we look.  For birds often are taken for granted,  part of our visual and auditory environment that’s always there but little noticed.

However if you visit Bisbee during the Fall and Winter you can immerse yourself in the bird world in a big way, one of the many magnificent sites of the natural world in Southeastern Arizona and it is absolutely free.

Bisbee Sandhill CranesThis primal experience can be yours by driving 30 minutes east of Bisbee to Whitewater Draw wetlands to view the Sandhill Cranes. They arrive from the Northern US and Canada in October and leave in February. (The better known and more numerous, humanus arveeus,  know by their common name, Snowbird, has a similar migration pattern although their nests are widely dispersed throughout Arizona.)

A person, you perhaps, might be inclined to think, so what? What’s the big deal over a bunch of birds?

The deal is, they are huge, they are loud, there are thousands and thousands  of them, and you can view them up close. It is an experience of Wonder.

Sandhill Cranes  have  a wingspan of six to seven feet. As many as 21,000 birds have shown up at the wetlands although the number varies from year to year. They are grey in color with black feet, legs, and bill. A patch of reddish skin marks their forehead. The last few  years there has been a magnificent albino crane amongst them. You can see it and many more photos here,

Bisbee Sandhill CranesThe optimum time to go to Whitewater Draw is at sunrise or sunset although there are birds hanging out throughout the day.  At sunrise large numbers of  birds leave to feed in the harvested grains fields around Wilcox, Kansas Settlement, and Elfrida. The air is filled with their loud calls and  there is a momentary illusion of low grey clouds rippling and rising in the morning light.

At sunset, long, thin, irregular shaped lines begin emerging from the north and east appearing black across the orange-red tinted sky. A faint sound accompanies these many wavering lines stacked and staggered above the horizon. The sound separates into hundreds of calls vying for ear space, then louder and louder and finally a cacophony of sound surrounds Whitewater as hundreds of  birds alight simultaneously.

Bisbee Sandhill CranesAnd then they are in the water, around the water, over the water, standing,  grooming, walking, squawking, wading,  flying, lying;  thousands of birds filling your senses with their presence.

Other bird species can be seen at Whitewater. Most notably are Vermillion flycatchers that flit among the reeds looking like, ummm , little red birds? In the rear of the pole barn you may see a barn owl.

Adjacent to and south of the water in a stand of trees is a  quartet of Great Horned Owls. Walk over and look up as those unblinking yellow eyes fasten on you; whooooo is watching whom?  Most likely you won’t be this close to an owl unless you’re a mouse. Greater Roadrunners dart around frequently, as do blackbirds, and several kinds of hawks. Other birds to be seen are Snow Geese, Blue Heron, American Pipet, Say’s Phoebe and an occasional Golden Eagle.

The sunsets frequently have dreamy  cotton puff white clouds with a brilliant orange/black outline moving slowly in a tangerine tinged sky. The intensity fades to pink, then lavender, then dark blue hues as the sun slips over the mountain bringing that peculiar time known as  dusk where it’s not light and not dark and the chill sets in while the brush rustles with nocturnal creatures and the cacophony of cranes quiets.

Whitewater Draw is part of a 600 acre wildlife area that is owned and managed by the Arizona Game and Fish Department. It is semi-developed with two viewing platforms with fixed binoculars, a perimeter trail, picnic tables and restroom and ample parking.

Note: If you bring a dog, please keep them on a leash so they do not disturb and/or threaten the wildlife as well as other visitors.

Directions to Whitewater Draw: Take Hwy 80 East from Bisbee towards Douglas, as you descend from the mountains  (about 7 miles) a left turn lane will appear with a turn to Double Adobe Road. Take it. Go 8 miles to Central Highway (Double Adobe dead ends into Central Highway) Go left, north, about 3 miles to Bagby Road, (start looking a mile after you pass the Fiesta Canning plant for  a small Whitewater Draw sign on the right.) turn left, go ¼ mile and you’re there.

What to Bring: A warm jacket, binoculars, camera, comfortable walking shoes, and water. Pick up a picnic lunch or  some goodies from High Desert Market (two blocks up the canyon from Copper City Inn) and  treat yourself to a nice repast on one of the several picnic tables on site.

Tours and more photos:

The Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (SABO), a non-profit organization,  has  tours of wetlands and wonderful Hawk Stalks. Sherri Williamson and Tom Wood are the knowledgeable people doing the tours. Their website is replete with detailed pics of birds you are apt to see at Whitewater Draw.  <>

Resource websites : (this site is about the Platte river in Nebraska, a stopover for the Sandhill Crane Spring migration.) (books on SE AZ birds)

Copper City Inn, Bisbee, AZStaying at our Inn is a perfect place to stay when checking out cranes and other birds. Copper City Inn is in the historic copper mining town of Bisbee, Arizona. Quiet, sensuous rooms with thoughtful amenities characterize the five room Inn. Each room has a balcony with views looking down on Main Street and across to the Mule Mountains. Nestled into the side of Tombstone Canyon, on the quiet side of the historic business district, the Inn is just steps away from shopping, restaurants,  and museums.

All of our guests receive a complimentary bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine, Evian bottled water, locally roasted organic coffees, teas, and a voucher for a continental breakfast at a nearby gourmet market. Rates are $110-$135.