Sandhill Crane Viewing Festival
Later this month, bird watchers and members of the interested public will gather at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to view the wintering flock of Sandhill Cranes. The 20,000 or so may be joined by rare Whooping Cranes recently reintroduced to the eastern flyway. Here are some notes from a past Sandhill Crane Viewing Festival.
I saw them circling and heard their raucous calls as I approached the refuge. They were returning from an early morning of foraging in area fields. This was my first impression of the 14th annual Cherokee Indian Heritage and Sandhill Crane Viewing Festival at Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge and Birchwood School.
The cranes circled and a few settled in at their accustomed resting spot on the shores of the Tennessee River at the refuge. Magnificent with their gray plumage and red foreheads, the cranes continued to call from the ground. Some were stained brown from preening with mud and aquatic vegetation. This would serve them well as camouflage when they reached their nesting grounds in Canada and the lake states.
Two white birds walked among the flock. They were taller than the Sandhill Cranes. They joined they sandhills as the flock lifted off and took flight. Each stroke of the wings revealed black wing tips. They were highly endangered Whooping Cranes, hatched in captivity, reared by humans or captive parents with no exposure to human voices. In the rearing pens, they had been tended by people in white suits with no human features visible. They learned to migrate by following an ultra light airplane from the headquarters of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin to Florida wintering grounds.
The Whooping Cranes I saw that day were two of the fifty or so following the eastern migration path. Altogether, the Whooping Cranes number less than 500 birds divided between three flocks. The eastern migrating flock flies from Wisconsin to Florida each year and a non-migrating flock resides in Florida. A western migrating flock flies from Canada to Texas each year.
White with black wing tips
Rulers trumpet over marsh
Cranes fade into mist.
The whooping cranes are a recovering endangered species that once numbered fewer than twenty individuals. Excessive hunting contributed to their decline, as did habitat loss due to development and draining wetlands. Thanks to protection and captive rearing, the cranes began to make a comeback along their western route. The western population is fragile due to fluctuation of food sources on the wintering grounds and possibilities of storms and pollution in the Gulf. That fragility was the factor that motivated conservation biologists to establish additional populations.
The eastern population of greater Sandhill Cranes was also heavily reduced before conservation measures brought them back. Today the three migratory subspecies are doing well, as is one of the non-migratory subspecies, the Florida Sandhill Crane. The Mississippi Sandhill Crane, another subspecies, includes only a very few individuals.
Again the cranes call
Bugle over marsh and bay
Return to our skies.
After viewing the cranes at the refuge, I returned to Birchwood school where historical societies, conservation organizations, and artists had educational exhibits and sales. Lunch was available in the cafeteria, with proceeds benefiting the Birchwood School. Several presenters gave talks in the auditorium throughout the day.
Today, the Cranes are gathering at the refuge after a long flight from the Canada and the Lake States. Birders and the curious public will flock to the Refuge for Crane Viewing and this year’s iteration of the Sandhill Crane Festival.