Sandhill Cranes, Whitewater Draw, AZ

In its copper mining heyday, Bisbee was the biggest centre between St. Louis and San Francisco. It’s on the National Historic Register, but is now more commonly visited, I expect, for its restaurants and for its twinkly lights. But there are a few who go to Bisbee for its proximity to Whitewater Draw, where ten- to thirty-thousand sandhill cranes winter. You might have skimmed over that, so let me say it again, slowly: Ten. To. Thirty. Thousand.

On our first visit, in January of 2017, I was disappointed to discover that neither my camera nor my skills were up to the challenge of getting National-Geographic-quality photos of these magnificent birds. I ended up taking some fun street photos (here and here) at an adjacent town, Lowell.

On this week’s visit, my expectations were better aligned with reality, which is always helpful for happier outcomes. So what did I see and photograph this week?

The sandhill cranes fly in over hill and over dale.

Sandhill cranes in flightSometimes they arrive in tidy formations.

Sandhill cranes in linear flying formationsSometimes they arrive in seemingly undisciplined gaggles that somehow never collide. I guess that third degree of spatial freedom really does make a difference.

Sandhill cranes, preparing to landThey arrive singly, in pairs, and in small groups.

4-photo collage of sandhill cranes in flightThey arrive in great bunches.

2-photo collage of flocks of sandhill cranes in flightThey look charming on the ground, when considered one at a time.

2-photo collage of sandhill cranes in a marshThey look amazing on the ground and in the air, when considered en masse.

Sandhill cranes massed on the ground, with others wheeling overhead.Ten- to thirty-thousand: Let that sink in for a while.

Take your time. I’ve seen it twice and I’m still amazed.

2-photo collage of sandhill cranes flying at sunrise

4-photo collage of sandhill cranes in flight at sunrise

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12 Responses to Sandhill Cranes, Whitewater Draw, AZ

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Okay, sandhill cranes are wonderful. So are great blue herons, great horned owls, eagles, and even quail. But what caught me was the different flavours of light in your pix. Temperatures, maybe. From icy to cuddly warm. And how that affects the distant (and recurring) hills… Oh! I forgot to say that the photos are simply gorgeous.
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, the photos were taken in late afternoon (up to 2 hours before sunset) and just after sunrise, so the quality of the light varies a lot. A professional photographer in Scotland whom I happen to know was advising me on standardizing the angle of the sun for a series I want to do on changing foliage. Not this year. 🙂

  2. Ralph Gibson says:

    Very cool. Nice photos of an impressive phenomenon, Isabel. Do you know if these are natural wetlands, and if this is a natural wintering site for the species? One of my Intro Bio lectures includes brief mention of the recovery efforts for whooping cranes, efforts which include what I think is a “synthetic” or “revisited” overwintering site for the species somewhere near here. You didn’t see any tall what birds did you …. 😉

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ralph – First, no whooping cranes seen by me or listed on their site as to what to expect to see. It seems to be a natural wetlands: “This Important Bird Area, is dominated by a ephemeral lake, patchy marshlands, and semi-arid grasslands. Approximately 600 acres (1448 hectares) are the wetland. There are two small patches of riparian habitat.” It’s been modified with some berms (providing a looped path through the area) and viewing areas, but there’s no indication that they mess with the water supply/flow. I see “built wetland habitat” in metro Phoenix, but this area isn’t like that: it’s scrubby desert.

  3. Tom Watson says:

    Beautiful photos, Isabel.

  4. Jim Robertson says:

    Nice pics!

    While the Lowell pics “here and here” were neat (I come home with lots of shots like that) but I prefer the sandhill crane photos, especially the golden hour ones.

    Guess you couldn’t back up enough to get a wide angle shot with all 10-30,000 in one shot?

    Wish we had sandhill flocks even a quarter that size around here we’ll have to settle for the snow geese that come through in vast numbers in the spring

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – No, I think you’d need a 270-degree angle to get ’em all. They do like to spread out. Of course, part of the difficulty is that a normal photo doesn’t capture the in-person effect – including their vocalizations, which are almost deafening as the sun rises.

  5. John Whitman says:

    Isabel – your awesome pictures are a constant reminder of the flaws in my “take the shot and hope for the best” approach to photography.
    However, I am lazy and don’t plan on trying for your level of patience and skill.

    Great pics!!!

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Thanks kindly. There’s about 17 levels of skilled and patient amateurs and professionals beyond me, but I’m happy (mostly) with what I can do.

  6. Your photos are spectaular — a real tribute to this great BIG, beautiful bird!

    They are also good eating I’m told by Nebraskan hunters: taste like beef.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Barbara – Thank you. Not sure I’d want to eat sandhill crane, any more than puffin (which was on the menu in Iceland). Call me Squeamish (not Ishmael).

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