Flock to Tennessee for the 23rd Annual Sandhill Crane Festival
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 18-19, 2014 at the Hiwassee Refuge in the community of 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 7 a.m. EST for breakfast on January 18 and 19. Shuttle transportation is the only way to get to the refuge during the festival and the first shuttles start running at 8 a.m.
On both days an official welcome and music program gets underway at 11 a.m., lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. until 12:30 p.m. The American Eagle Foundation, based in Pigeon Forge, presents a live raptor show at 2 p.m. with birds of prey that have undergone rehabilitation, but cannot be released back to the wild. Heritage music takes the stage from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday.
On Saturday at 1 p.m., state ornithologist Scott Somershoe with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will present an update on the status and research concerning Tennessee’s golden eagle population. On Sunday at 1 p.m. Region III Biodiversity Coordinator Chris Simpson (also with TWRA) presents an update on bats in Tennessee.
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 on both Saturday and Sunday.
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 November 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!