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Sandhill crane numbers in Tennessee’s Hiwassee Refuge have reached 20,000.
In the early 1990s – a full century after eastern sandhill cranes were all but wiped out by over-hunting and habitat loss – something miraculous happened: The regal birds showed up again, with many of them stopping at Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood, Tennessee, on their way to their wintering grounds in Georgia and Florida.
“At that time we had about 1,000 birds,” says Kirk Miles, Region 3 wildlife manager at the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “Then by 2000, we had 10,000. And now we’re looking at 20,000.”
The refuge has become a hot spot for bird watchers who flock there for the annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, which celebrates its 24th anniversary in 2015. At a prime viewing area where the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers meet, throngs of the long-necked birds rest and wade in the shallow, marshy waters.
“It’s a true wildlife spectacle,” says Miles, who coordinates the festival. “All of those [20,000] birds are not necessarily on the refuge at all times. They’re actually spread up and down the Tennessee River. But a whole lot of them use the refuge.”
The phenomenon actually happened by accident. When wildlife experts at the refuge started creating a welcoming habitat for waterfowl years ago, says Miles, “The cranes found it, liked it and stayed there and really outcompeted the ducks.”
The refuge lies on the natural crane flyway from the breeding grounds in Wisconsin to their snowbird homes in Florida. Optimal food sources, relatively undisturbed stretches of riverbank, and mild winters appealed to the cranes, which began cutting their migrations short and staying in Birchwood the entire season to recharge. (As many as 70,000 to 80,000 birds now travel through Tennessee.) The population of cranes that overwinter at Hiwassee Refuge arrives around mid-November, peaks in December, and remains until heading north in February.
According to Miles, the festival is the largest of its kind in the Southeast. In addition to sandhill cranes, visitors are apt to spot endangered whooping cranes, bald and golden eagles, and other native showstoppers during a celebration that includes music, arts and crafts, and other activities at the Birchwood Community Center.
Of course, there are no guarantees that guests will see thousands of cranes that weekend. In one recent year, torrential rains prompted the cranes to spread out, diluting the number that usually congregates at the viewing area.
“Wildlife is so unpredictable,” Miles says. “You might see a whole bunch of cranes. You might see a few cranes. It’s variable.”
Regardless, the sight of a sandhill crane – standing four feet tall, with a wingspan of more than six feet and a bright red spot on its forehead; it’s one of the largest birds in the Blue Ridge – is enough to inspire awe among nature lovers. And, as Miles points out, the refuge and viewing platforms are open to the public all winter, not just two days a year.
“A lot of people might find it just as enjoyable to come on a weekday or a weekend where there aren’t as many people and kind of have more one-on-one time with the cranes,” he says. “Rather than being part of a big festival, you can come and be a little more private.”