Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge TN | Sandhill Crane Festival

Visiting the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood,TN, where the annual Sandhill Crane Festival is held, is a long day-trip — 125 miles one way — to see birds that are a long way off, even with binoculars. I say this up front because most of you will say “not interested”. But I propose that you look at it a different way and give it a go. Let me explain.

The Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is a celebration of the thousands of sandhill cranes and numerous other waterfowl and shorebirds that migrate through or spend the winter on and around the Hiwassee Refuge and Birchwood.

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge TN

IMG_3869IMG_3899IMG_3870IMG_3872IMG_3873List of Birds Spotted at Hiwassee Wildlife Refugee IMG_3876 IMG_3880 IMG_3887 IMG_3889IMG_3891Being new to TN, most any trip offers up an opportunity to explore a different part of the state that we have never been to.  More often than not, we stumble upon interesting bits of information that lead us to something else to explore down the road. Jim and I try to keep this in mind every time we plan a day-trip to someplace new.

Weeks ahead, these trips are easy to commit to, but when the actual day rolls around, invariably, Jim and I go through the mental exercise of deciding whether there are better alternatives.  Is the distance traveled (i.e. time and gas) worth the potential rewards of a new experience?

Such is the case a few weekends ago in January, when we had planned to go to the Sandhill Crane Festival at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in East Tennessee – a 125 mile one-way trip to see birds.

We got up and it was colder and windier than we would have liked. Plus, we were getting a late start. Lots of excuses to not go.  We checked out the photos of the event online and even called to make sure the shuttle buses to the sanctuary would be running later in the day. All systems were go.  We were off.

Insight  – It’s warmer here in the winter than in Ohio.  Just because it is cold (20’s and 30’s) in the morning, it quickly warms up to the 40’s and 50’s in the afternoon.  So, it turned out to be a beautiful day.

The event was based in the gym of a local elementary school.  We went on a Sunday and events were in full-swing when we arrived after lunch.  The stage hosted nature talks and a handful of quality vendors lined the walls.

They were just finishing up a nature talk on Tennessee bats where I learned that bats live in the space between bark that has pulled away from the trunk on dead trees and that cutting these dead trees destroys bat habitat.  We also stayed to enjoy a live raptor show-and-tell. But the highlight was to see the sandhill cranes, and to do that we pulled ourselves away to board their free shuttle to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge – just a few miles away.  (Note:  the shuttle is only necessary for the weekend of the event to accommodate large groups of visitors and avoid parking issues)

Once there, we did see Sandhill Cranes, but in smaller numbers than if we had been there in earlier or later parts of the day when they leave/return in huge flocks to feed on surrounding fields planted in corn. Had we allowed ourselves more time, we might have seen some of the 20+ birds that others had sighted that day alone and listed on a whiteboard outside of the nature cabin.  (see complete list at bottom)

A little disappointed in the anti-climax, we boarded the bus expecting to immediately return to the school.  But no!  There was a 2nd stop.  The bus took us next to The Cherokee Removal Memorial  (i.e. Trail of Tears (see map – Hiwassee is at a major intersection) located just to the side of the refuge near the Tennessee River.  Not visible from the memorial was a short path to a shelter overlooking the river.

Bingo!  This is what we came for.  There were hundreds, if not thousands, of sandhill cranes along the shore.  What amazed me the most was the din of their calls and how clear they were from across the river.

My point here is not to explain everything about the festival or the sandhill cranes.  It is to tell you that life holds little surprises everywhere you turn.  It is because of the festival that we “discovered” two wonderful places to view birds and the rich history of The Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears remembers and commemorates the survival of the Cherokee people, forcefully removed from their homelands in Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama to live in Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. They traveled by foot, horse, wagon, or steamboat in 1838-1839.

The Sandhill Crane Festival is held in January but you can go to the refugee and memorial any time, but to see the Sandhill Cranes, you need to do it no later than mid-March as they are only wintering over here and will be moving on to their summer homes.

This weekend should pretty nice.  Get in the car and go.  Life is an adventure.

Scroll down to see the list of birds observed on the day that we were there.

Birds Observed at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on January 19, 2014

  • Sandhill Crane
  • Bald Eagle
  • Canvas Back
  • Red Head
  • Ring Necked Duck
  • American Coot
  • Downy Woodpecker
  • Blue Jay
  • Carolina Chickadee
  • American Crow
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Canada Goose
  • Red Tailed Hawk
  • Eastern Towhee
  • American Robin
  • Red-winged Blackbird
  • Carolina Wren
  • N. mickingbird
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker
  • Hairy  Woodpecker
  • Mallard
  • Eastern Bluebird
  • Killdeer
  • Mourning Dove
  • N. Cardinal
  • Brown-headed Cowbird
  • Yellow-Rump Warbler
  • Palm Warbler
  • Ring billed Gull
  • Hooded Morganser (sp?)
  • Wild Turkey
  • Song Sparrow
  • American Kestrel
  • American Pipit
  • Cedar Waxwing
  • Belted Kingfisher
  • Merlin
  • Eastern Phoebe
  • Eastern Meadowlark
  • Double Chested Cormorant
  • Black Vulture
  • Sharp-Shinned Hawk