Flock to Tennessee for the 24th Annual Sandhill Crane Festival
*This information is updated to reflect 2016 dates and information*
Whether you’re a devoted backyard birder or have no idea who’s making the chirps and tweets that are such a sweet part of Tennessee’s background music, I’m betting you’ll enjoy seeing sandhill cranes at the annual Sandhill Crane Festival to be held January 16-17, 2016 at the Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood.
If you’re not a birder, much less a “craniac,” you may well ask “what exactly is the point of holding a premier festival like this during the cold, dark days of January?”
For one thing, these big birds arrive in large numbers at this time of year so the long-legged, long-necked cranes are fairly easy to spot. The population of eastern sandhill cranes has grown from an estimated 50 birds during the mid-1920s to a current population of more than 87,000. Unlike whooping cranes, they are not presently considered endangered. In fact, there was a limited hunting season this year for the rebounding sandhills.
And they have come a long way to visit Tennessee. Experts say sandhill cranes found their way to the Hiwassee Refuge at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers during the 1990s as they traveled south from central Ontario, Michigan and Wisconsin to their traditional wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida. With a perfect combination of shallow water and plentiful food sources, thousands of sandhills now overwinter on the Hiwassee Refuge.
As is usually the case, the free Sandhill Crane Festival is headquartered at the Birchwood Community Center where the doors will open at 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET every day. Free shuttle transportation is available from the Birchwood Community Center to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial Park each day.
An official welcome begins at 11 a.m. A music program featuring Southern Wind takes place Saturday and traditional heritage music will be played each day.The American Eagle Foundation has its always-popular live raptor show at 1 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. “Birding makes cents (and dollars): the economic impact of birding and bird festivals” is presented by David Aborn 1 p.m. Saturday.
Shuttle buses will run continuously throughout the day to both the refuge and neighboring Cherokee Removal Memorial at Blythe Ferry, one of the debarkation points for the Cherokee Forced Removal (Trail of Tears), which will host Native American performances and demonstrations.
If you can’t attend the festival, go on your own to the wildlife observation gazebo at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge or the observation deck at the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. The refuge is closed from Nov. 15 to the last day in February, but the observation platform is open year-round.
Sightings of 3,000 sandhill cranes were recently reported on the refuge during a single late December day, but their numbers typically peak during January. So if you want to see them, better go sooner rather than later!