On Saturday the 12th, I went with friends to see the Sandhill Cranes at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge near Birchwood. One of the friends led the trip for Tennessee Wildlife, an organization dedicated to protection of wild places in our state. I didn’t get the exact number of people attending, but it looked to be around 50.
The cranes far outnumbered the people, but by how many I cannot say. I have heard number as high as 20,000 attributed to the migrating flock which stops here, using the refuge as a staging area. To see birds, nearly as tall as myself in such numbers is a rare treat indeed.
I have seen these birds before, dozens of times in fact, but I have never lost my excitement or enthusiasm for them. The noise of their rattling coo is ever present as we approach the refuge and watch from the viewing platform. They line the shore of the mainland and Hiwassee Island in the distance.
A number fed in the cornfield near the platform and afforded us a closer view, binoculars and the ever present spotting scopes barely necessary to resolve the red patch of bare skin on the heads. More and more birds joined this feeding flock, which moved closer as their numbers grew. Then something spooked them and the air was filled with their wings, six foot wing spans on each bird.
Eyes of glass watch cranes
Flock grows with each landing bird
Wings erupt in flight
A lone Whooping Crane wandered among its Sandhill kin and the corn stalks of Hiwassee Island. The return of this species represents a triumph and a calamity followed by continued effort and renewal. The pilots of Operation Migration began several years ago, leading flocks of young Whooping Cranes from Baraboo, Wisconsin to wintering grounds in Florida. With their uultralight planes, they helped these cranes, raised in captivity at the International Crane Foundation, return to the Eastern Migration Route. No Whooping Cranes had flown this route in decades. They flew back to Wisconsin in winter, and continued their pattern of seasonal migration. Today the flock continues to grow migrate.