Winter Afternoons at Whitewater Draw

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Buzzing the Tower. A lone sandhill crane flies low over some of Whitewater Draw’s 30,000 sandhill cranes in southeastern Arizona.

About 100 miles east of my former home in Tucson, Arizona, and well south of Interstate 10 is the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, winter home to roughly 30,000 sandhill cranes. Interestingly, the number of sandhill cranes at the much more famous Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is only about 10,000, although the latter compensates with about 30,000 snow geese. I have never been to Bosque del Apache—so I cannot personally compare the two locations—but I have never seen more than a couple other photographers at Whitewater Draw, which is very different than the sideline chaos at Bosque del Apache. Since Bosque del Apache is 95 miles south of Albuquerque, it isn’t really any more convenient to get to (although it is much closer to White Sands National Park, which is a nice added draw). I believe the source of the fundamental disparity in popularity is the snow geese, which tend to group tightly together overnight and suddenly take off en masse in the morning in an impressive spectacle, whereas the sandhill cranes take off in smaller groups. I will have to go sometime and try my luck elbowing other photographers out of the way, but feel that Whitewater Draw is a worthwhile alternative in its own right.

This post is about my first two visits—in early 2021—to Whitewater Draw. Both visits were in late afternoon, which makes for a lot more comfortable departure time than trying to drive 100 miles east and still beat the sunrise. It is also much warmer. As should already be clear from the image at the top of this post, there were a lot of sandhill cranes:

Neighborhood. A group of sandhill cranes cluster together in shallow water in the Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southeastern Arizona.

There are so many cranes flying around that it is a good place to practice photographing birds in flight and, being large birds, they are not particularly maneuverable which makes them relatively easy as birds-in-flight go. The real challenge is finding an isolated grouping that does not overlap, and good light is a plus:

Home Before Dark. A trio of sandhill cranes arrive in the late afternoon at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southeastern Arizona.

But as hard as it is to isolate one or a few cranes in the air, it is so much harder when they are wading because you really don’t want them to overlap other birds or their reflections:

Time Alone. Personal space is hard to come by for a sandhill crane at Whitewater Draw in southeastern Arizona.

I think the key to a lot of these photographs is the different colors in the sky that reflect in bands off the very shallow water. In this image, the warm yellow band across the foreground helps the silhouettes stand out and the bluer reflections across the background help subdue the mass of out-of-focus cranes across the top of the image:

Sedge Silhouettes. Sandhill cranes are silhouetted against the reflection of the sunset in Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in southeastern Arizona.

The 500mm lens I was using here definitely helps pick smaller compositions out of the expanse of possibilities, but there are two big challenges in addition to the birds’ sheer numbers. First, they are all in constant motion, so gaps are fleeting and there is a bit of luck involved for the viewfinder to be in the right place and to be able to reframe and refocus fast enough. Second, the available vantage points are not that high off the water which makes the overlapping foreground and background birds that much more of a problem. You really have to keep at it and take a lot of exposures because most won’t be very good. I should also point out that this is one of those situations where a faster lens is helpful to better blur the background; my AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR is compact and sharp but not really very fast. Something like a NIKKOR Z 400mm f/2.8 TC VR S would be just the ticket, but it does, of course, cost $11,000 more than my 500mm.

As sunset advances, some of the latecomers appear in large groups to reach their nighttime lodging. Most of the birds are flying loosely in the same direction, but there are plenty that have their own ideas and are flying in seemingly random directions. With so many birds in the frame, it is hard for there to be any focus. In this image, I think it is the bird on the left that is beginning its landing approach:

Sunset Scramble. Masses of sandhill cranes arrive at Whitewater Draw at the tail end of sunset in southeastern Arizona.

Comparing this final image with the previous one (taken 15 minutes earlier) gives a good idea of just how varied the colors in the sky can be as the sunset finally fades into twilight; I particularly like the way that most of the sky has turned a steel gray:

Late Arrivals. Straggler groups of sandhill cranes return to roost in Whitewater Draw as twilight falls in southeastern Arizona.

A sunset session at Whitewater Draw in the winter does not disappoint. It is also peaceful since there will only be one or two dozen other people wandering around the area, most of whom are not photographers. That said, these birds make a lot of noise, so it is really only visually peaceful.

Technical notes. The photographs in this post were taken with a Nikon Z7. The first six photographs were all taken with the remarkable AF-S Nikkor 500mm f/5.6E PF ED VR; the last was taken with the Nikkor Z 85mm f/1.8 S. All were processed from RAW in Adobe Lightroom Classic.

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