Flock to Tennessee for the 24th 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 17-18, 2015 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 7-8 a.m. EST for breakfast. 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 Erick Baker, host of the television program “Tennessee Uncharted” begins at noon. Lunch is available from 11:30 a.m. until 3 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 3-4 p.m.
A new presentation, “Archeology in the 21st Century: A New Look at Hiwassee Island” will be held 1 p.m. Jan. 17.
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!