Just as it was last year, the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival was met with wet weather Saturday morning to begin its festivities.
But the rain and cold couldn’t keep curious attendees from taking a short ride to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to sneak a peek at the migrating birds. The event was busy by 10 a.m. with visitors trying to beat the rain.
"On average we can expect 2,000 to 3,000 visitors at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge during the event, depending on the weather,” remarked Kirk Miles, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Assistant Chief.
The event is coordinated between three main locations: the Birchwood Community Center, Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park at Historic Blythe Ferry.
After arriving at the Birchwood Community Center —where you can enjoy some breakfast for a fee — attendees are shepherded to a school bus for the ride to the refuge. Squeezing through the aisle and into a seat, attendees take a ride down a couple country roads before reaching their destination: the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
Once at the refuge, festival attendees can use their own binoculars, a viewing scope or their own camera equipment to scan the wetland area below for activity of the Sandhill Crane, as well as other fowl. The list of birds spotted by 11 a.m. on Saturday already included sandhill crane, bald eagle, red tailed hawk, great blue heron and 24 other species of fowl.
According to a TWRA release, the Sandhill Crane Festival "is a celebration of the thousands of sandhill cranes that migrate through or spend the winter on and around the Hiwassee Refuge in Birchwood." Tt is also "an opportunity to focus attention on the rich wildlife heritage of the state and the Native American history of the area."
This time of year, more than 20,000 cranes can be seen in the Hiwassee River and Tennessee River area of southeastern Tennessee, according to TWRA information.
The Sandhill Cranes fly in from the northeast, sometimes in loose "v's" and sometimes just in a pack. Their bugle-like or trumpeting calls, sound like a rolling “r” in the throat and fill the air surrounding the entire refuge. Some cranes can be seen walking across the shallow water in the distance, while others land near the refuge observation platform.
According to tn.gov, the refuge is “6,000 acres (2,500 acres land and 3,500 acres water [Hiwassee River]) located on Chickamauga Lake at the confluence of the Hiwassee River with the Tennessee River.” Visitors can visit the refuge throughout the year to see wildlife and explore several trails.
Miles said, “The refuge is closed in the winter from Nov. 15 to Feb. 28, but you can still visit the Hiwassee Refuge the entire winter to enjoy the observation area or use the trails to get all the way down to the river. It would be a good day visit.”
The next stop on the shuttle route is the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, which houses Native American artifacts and is manned by interpreters and volunteers with all manner of Native American educational materials for visitors to explore. There is also an additional observation point a short walk from the park that offers a great opportunity for birders and photographers.
Back at the school, several activities are on going. There is a children's activity room with face painting, coloring activities as well as educational opportunities. In the gymnasium, there is a large vendor area, and the TWRA is set up with an array of free educational materials.
Tanner Hillis, as well as, Nashville recording artist, 2nd Nature, performed on Saturday. Mary Feely made a presentation titled “Changes in avian diversity and potential invasive seed dispersal post-wildlife in a southeastern deciduous forest,” and the American Eagle Foundation held its always popular Live Raptor Show.
The festival continues on Sunday, from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., with shuttles to the refuge beginning at 8 a.m. and entertainment beginning in the gymnasium at 11 a.m., rain or shine.
The Birchwood Community Center is located at 5623 Tennessee Highway 60, Birchwood, TN 37308.