January 18, 2008
Loggerhead Shrike with cricket
Loggerhead Shrike with cricket
If you missed the sandhill crane spectacle at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico this fall, it's not too late.  A "poor man's Bosque," minus the snow geese but with a nationally renowned aggregation of wintertime birds of prey, exists right here in Arizona.  Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area, run by Arizona Game & Fish, is four hours closer to Phoenix, overnight camping is allowed, and peak raptor season is right now.

Whitewater Draw lies at the southern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley between Willcox and Bisbee.  Its 3000 acres of intermittently flooded wetlands surrounded by crops and grassland is winter home to over 20,000 sandhills, but the cranes are upstaged here by the seasonal influx of hawks.  In a day of exploring Whitewater and driving the valley roads, it is not uncommon to see over a hundred individual daytime raptors representing up to fifteen species, not including the possibility of four kinds of owls.

Here's how a typical day last November started out:  the cranes took off at first light in a cacophony of calls; at sunup several northern harriers began coursing the fields and three red-tailed hawks dotted the utility poles overlooking the hay barn where a pair of great horned owls were on their day roost in the rafters; at mid-morning an immature Cooper's hawk hung around the trailhead for an hour making unsuccessful stoops into the tall grass for rodents, and both prairie and peregrine falcons flew by; driving out for lunch produced a dozen American kestrels on the wires, a family of Harris's hawks, and ferruginous hawk sitting in an alfalfa field.  That's nine raptor species before lunch, and a confiding loggerhead shrike, a stunning male vermilion flycatcher, and a partial albino Say's phoebe with white wing bars were hawking insects around the barn.

Red-tails are by far the most common hawk, but this "generic" buteo comes in four subspecies and three color phases, and all may be encountered in the area.  Sorting these out and separating them from the other hawks is a great field identification test for beginners as well as advanced birders, and for help with this the Southeastern Arizona Bird Observatory (www.sabo.org) runs "hawk stalks" on Saturdays and general birding tours on Sundays through February.

You'll want more than one day at Whitewater.  If you're not into winter camping, there are several bed and breakfasts in nearby Tombstone and Bisbee, but our favorite is the Cochise Stronghold Bed & Breakfast (www.cochisestrongholdbb.com) in the Dragoon Mountains.  Though a little farther away, it sits in a spectacular canyon steeped in western history, and the drive south to Whitewater through the agricultural fields will jumpstart your daylist.  Hosts Nancy and John Yates will fix your breakfast to go.  Whitewater in winter, surrounded by golden fields, blue skies, and rugged mountains, is a special Arizona destination even non-birders will appreciate.  Go now.

In Elfrida, south of Willcox on state route 191, take Central Highway south to Davis Road, then west on Davis Road to Coffman Road, then south 2.5 miles to the entrance.

Restrooms, picnic tables, interpretive trails, and two viewing platforms.  Overnight camping is allowed, but there is no water.

Spotting scopes helpful but not essential.  Dress in layers.  Early mornings can be well below freezing.


Coffman Road and other non-paved roads in the area can be slick and impassable after a hard rain or snow.