The annual Sandhill Crane migration has been called one of the greatest spectacles of nature in the Southeast. Each winter, between 15,000 and 20,000 of these graceful birds converge upon the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge on their journey from the upper Midwest to Florida. “The cranes begin arriving in late November, but their numbers peak in early January,” said Kevin Calhoon, the Tennessee Aquarium’s assistant curator of forests.
Located just north of Chattanooga, at the convergence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, the refuge contains 6,000 acres of habitat. Nearly 2,500 acres is a wooded landscape interspersed with food plots. The remaining 3,500 acres is water.
Calhoon and other Aquarium experts will lead Sandhill Crane viewing cruises aboard the River Gorge Explorer during the peak of their migration the first three weekends in January.
During each two-hour excursion, passengers will be able to view the refuge from inside the boat’s climate-controlled cabin as well as outside on the stern viewing deck or topside observation platform. “The Hiwassee Refuge is special in the winter because of the sheer number of cranes people can easily see from the river,” said Calhoon.
Calhoon says this critical stopover point for Sandhill Cranes is also a perfect habitat for resident and transient Bald Eagles, and numerous waterfowl species, including Snow and White-fronted Geese. Birders have also recorded occasional sightings of Ross’s Geese, White Pelicans, and even a few Whooping Cranes. “We will also see wintering Dunlin, Least Sandpipers, and Wilson’s Snipe,” said Calhoon.
Two experienced Aquarium naturalists will help passengers spot wildlife and bring the area’s history to life. Archaeologists recognize the island as one of the most significant Native American cultural sites in the region. “I enjoy using our video system to illustrate what life was like along this stretch of river during the past,” said Aquarium naturalist John Dever. “We pack a lot into each cruise to help everyone appreciate the communities that once existed here and the historic significance of Hiwassee Island.”
Cruises will depart from the Sale Creek Marina, located at 3900 Lee Pike near Soddy-Daisy, Tenn., at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Jan. 1-3, 8-10, and 15-18. Tickets must be purchased in advance at www.tnaqua.org/sandhill-crane-cruises.
Source: Tennessee Aquarium