Even though the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival has come and gone, and the River Gorge Explorer has taken viewers on its final sandhill crane cruise, crane watching enthusiasts can still see cranes and other birds at two local winter birding hot spots.
While January is the peak time for wintering sandhill cranes, some generally remain in the area through February, with others migrating through from locations farther south into March.
Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge
Probably the best-known site in the Chattanooga region for viewing sandhill cranes is the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, located just under an hour’s drive from downtown Chattanooga at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers.
In the early 1990s, sandhills began stopping at the 6,000-acre refuge on their migration to wintering grounds farther south. Now, over 14,000 cranes gather there each winter, making the largest winter flock of sandhill cranes in the Southeast (outside of Florida).
Of course, sandhill cranes are not the only species to be seen at the refuge in winter. The sharp eye can occasionally spot a rare whooping crane. A few weeks ago, visitors saw a pair of greater white-fronted geese, nine species of ducks and at least 100 white pelicans from the overlook at the nearby Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. Bald eagles are fairly common at the refuge, and golden eagles are occasionally seen, as well.
I stopped by the refuge a week after the recent crane festival and found fewer cranes there than I observed a few years ago when I visited in December, but I was told by a fellow birder that there were more than had been present during the festival. There were still enough birds there to make a visit worthwhile.
The refuge is closed to the public through February except for the observation platform, which is accessible year-round. The platform offers a sweeping view of the surrounding fields and the shoreline of a bay, both gathering areas for feeding cranes and other birds.
Many visitors to the refuge include a stop at the nearby Cherokee Removal Memorial, adjacent to the historic Blythe Ferry site, which is the location where many Cherokee embarked on the infamous Trail of Tears journey to Oklahoma.
The park’s observation deck on a high bluff over the river provides an opportunity to view cranes and other birds gathered on the shorelines of Hiwassee Island and the far riverbank.
Learn more about the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and get directions here. You can also search for “Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge observation platform” on Google Maps.
Stevenson City Park/Crow Creek Refuge
A lesser-known location, but in my opinion the overall best site in the region for birding, is Stevenson City Park, surrounded by the Crow Creek Refuge in Jackson County, Alabama, and about a 45-minute drive from downtown Chattanooga.
The park occupies a peninsula in Crow Creek, a shallow backwater of Lake Guntersville. A walk or drive around the perimeter of the park will generally offer multiple opportunities to see bald eagles, egrets, blue herons, a wide variety of waterfowl and other birds.
I first discovered three years ago that sandhill cranes were wintering there in large numbers, though they are usually not as close-up as at Hiwassee. They tend to gather along the opposite shorelines from the park, with large flocks feeding in nearby fields throughout the day. The flocks begin flying in from the surrounding area to roost along the far shorelines just prior to sunset.
On a recent visit, there were perhaps a dozen cranes standing along the shore in the park, allowing a much closer view.
That first winter, I also spotted three whooping cranes hanging out among the sandhills. Last winter, I only saw one. But a few weeks ago, I spotted four, an immature and three adults.
The sandhill crane is one of the largest birds in North America, standing 3 to 4 feet tall with a wingspan of about 6 feet, but the whooping crane is even larger, standing 5 feet tall with a wingspan of 7 to 8 feet. Besides their size, whooping cranes can be easily identified by their whiter color and their black wing tips when in flight.
In winter, I also tend to see bald eagles on most visits to the park. A few weeks ago, I spotted eight immature eagles standing on the ice, with two adults flying overhead. Besides Canada geese, blue herons, egrets and killdeer, I recently saw mallards, green-winged teals, pintails, shovelers and several other duck species.
Waterfowl hunting is not allowed within the 3,346-acre Crow Creek Refuge, but it is in the adjacent 2,069-acre Crow Creek Wildlife Management Area. The railroad forms the boundary between the two.
One way to get a bit closer to the cranes if none are in the park is to drive around to a field on the back side of the refuge (GPS coordinates: 34.856645, -85.854624). After crossing a bridge over Crow Creek, look for a gravel drive on the left (I recommend a pickup or SUV) and drive out to the railroad crossing. Park, walk up onto the crossing and look across the field to your left. There will usually be cranes on the far end of the field. Of course, watch out for trains.
Although the cranes and the large numbers of waterfowl may not be present once winter is gone, summer can also offer good birding at Stevenson City Park, with ospreys, egrets and other birds being present. Red-headed woodpeckers tend to be plentiful year-round.
The GPS coordinates are 34.856471, -85829378, or search for “Stevenson City Park” on Google Maps.
Bob Butters explores nature and the outdoors, primarily in and near the South Cumberland region, and publishes the blog Nickajack-Naturalist.com. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.