Each winter, an estimated 20,000 redheaded, long-legged sandhill cranes descend upon the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, Tenn., as part of a migration pattern that originates in Indiana.

If you go

What: Sandhill Crane Festival

When: Jan. 18-19, 7 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where: 5623 Tennessee 60, Birchwood, TN 37308(35 miles from Chattanooga)

How much: Free admission and shuttle service to three festival sites

Where to stay: Holiday Inn Express in Dayton and hotels off exit 25 (from I-75) in Cleveland

For more information: Click here

For 23 years, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts from across the country have gathered to celebrate this winter spectacle at the Sandhill Crane Festival, which will take place Jan. 18-19 from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The annualfestival offers visitors the opportunity to view the cranes and learn about the rich historical and cultural heritage of Southeast Tennessee. For two days, the rural community of Birchwood transforms intoa premier ecotourism destination, offering free shuttle service between three festival sites: the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers; Birchwood Community Center, 3 miles from the wildlife viewing site; and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, located at historic Blythe Ferry along the Tennessee River.

Sandhill crane viewing
The sandhill crane stands more than 4 feet tall with a wingspan stretching more than 6 feet, making it one of the largest birds found in Tennessee. Of all 15 crane species in the world, sandhill cranes are the most numerous and wide-ranging, although that was not always the case. In the 1800s, the sandhill crane was nearly decimated in the eastern U.S. by overhunting and habitat loss.

Today, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge has one of the largest wintering flocks of sandhill cranes in the southeastern United States-more than 20,000 cranes winter there from November through February. The 6,000-acre refuge offers ideal conditions for the cranes: 450 acres of corn, millet and milo, along withshallow water and mudflats. The area is also home to other waterfowl, bald eagles and the occasional federally endangered whooping crane.

In an effort to help visitors get an up-close look at the cranes and other wildlife, guides from the Tennessee Ornithological Society and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will be on hand with viewing scopes at the refuge. Crane viewing is best in the morning; the birds tend to fly in the afternoon and return to the refuge near 3 p.m.

“So far this year, we have seen typical movement of the cranes,” said TWRA public information officer and event organizer Dan Hicks. “Last year, there were fewer cranes in the area because the water was so high. This year, however, we have already seen several thousand cranes at the refuge.”

Earlier this year, the Tennessee Fish and Wildlife Commissionapproved a sandhill crane hunting season from Nov. 28 to Jan. 1 in Southeast Tennessee. Hunting grounds include areas south of Interstate 40 and east of Highway 56 but excludethe Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and other wildlife refuges, as well asareas where hunting is prohibited.

Birchwood festivities
Along with the opportunity to view thecranes during the festival, a full schedule of programs and activities will take place at Birchwood Community Center (formerly Birchwood Elementary School). Visitors can enjoy nature and history-themed programs, regional music, food, vendors and children’s activities on both days.

On Saturday at 1 p.m., TWRA state ornithologist Scott Somershoe will discuss Tennessee’s golden eagle population; and on Sunday at 1 p.m., TWRA Region III biodiversity coordinator Chris Simpson will provide a research update about bats in Tennessee.

The American Eagle Foundation from Pigeon Forge, Tenn.,will present their renowned raptor show at 2 p.m. on both days. Blue Moon Cruises will offer eco-cruises on the Hiwassee River during the festival (reservations required).

Breakfast and lunch will be available at the community center on Saturday and Sunday.

Cherokee history
The Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, an official Trail of Tears site located within the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, will highlight the history of the Cherokee people in Meigs County during the festival. The 29-acre park overlooks Blythe Ferry, where approximately 9,000 Cherokees, 500 Creeks and 127 slaves crossed the river during the Cherokee Removal in 1838.

This year, the park will showcase its Cherokee Removal Memorial Wall, unveiled in 2013 in memory ofthe Cherokee people who were forcibly removed from their native homeland in the Southeast. The memorial features the names of 2,535 heads of households, as well as the number of persons in each household, based on the 1835 Henderson Roll, a census of Cherokee people east of the Mississippi River.

The park also features a visitors center and short trail to an overlook ofBlythe Ferry.

Visit the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival website for more information.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal is a Chattanooga-basedwriter and naturalist who enjoys promoting the region’s historical, cultural and natural assets through her work with the Southeast Tennessee Tourism Association. Visit her blog atwww.YourOutdoorFamily.com.