Whether you live on a farm in the Sequatchie Valley, or a subdivision in the heart of Chattanooga, there is a good chance you have heard the haunting call of sandhill cranes migrating overhead. The impressive birds migrate into the area in the winter by the thousands. In fact, there is a special event in Meigs County every January to celebrate the sandhills.
The calls of these huge, gangly birds ring out across the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge every day. But last weekend, the birds were joined by thousands of onlookers taking part in the 24th annual Sandhill Crane Festival sponsored by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.
Don Watters and his family live a short drive away in Etowah. This was their first visit however to see the sandhills.
"I read a little story about the cranes last night and said, 'we're going.' First impression... breathtaking! It's awesome," exclaimed Watters.
Such a gathering wouldn't have been possible 30 years ago when sandhill cranes were virtually non-existent. Bernie Swiney, TWRA Wildlife Manager said, "In the early 1980's if anyone witnessed a flyover [of a sandhill crane] it was a red letter day."
Most observers agree the haunting calls of the huge birds with a four-foot wingspan, are mesmerizing.
Elizabeth Coburn, a Knoxville Educator who was making a repeat visit to the festival said, "They get the imagination going... like when you were a little kid and there is a bird that's bigger than you are. You just look at it and go, 'Oh my gosh, that's a big bird."
Swiney said sandhills are native to our area, and have migrated through for thousands of years.
"Most of the Indian fire rings that have been excavated archeologically around here all have sandhill crane bones in them," said Swiney. "By our hand they almost went away... but also by our hand and through cooperation with the states, they're back, as witnessed by the 32,000 that are on this lake at present."
Not all, but many of those 32,000 sandhills use Hiwassee Refuge as a permanent wintertime home base. Except for the observation area, the refuge is completely closed to human access from Nov. 1st through February 28th.
"No people, no dogs, no cats... it's a haven," said Swiney. "They'll branch out from here to feed. They'll go to Sequatchie Valley, to Kingston, you know a 20-30 mile radius is no problem for them to go feed."
However there was a change in Tennessee two years ago that some people were afraid might bring the festival to an end. That's when TWRA decided to allow a hunting season for sandhill cranes on a limited basis. For the past two years, under strict regulation, hunters have killed just over 300 sandhills each year. The most reason hunting season closed January 1st. While they know that hunters consider sandhills outstanding table fare, many who were adamantly opposed to the hunting season feared it might ruin the opportunity to observe the birds, and celebrate the Sandhill Crane festival.
Swiney said, "It wasn't the all-out blood-letting that some people thought it may have been. As far as impact on the population goes... numbers wise, I can't tell the difference."
Hunting is not allowed on the refuge, only on public and private land surrounding the refuge. Most observers agree that it's obvious that for now, a hunting season and the sandhill crane festival can apparently co-exist. That doesn't mean everyone still supports hunting the big birds.
Coburn said, "I don't think we have a food shortage. If people were hunting purely because they need the food, that's one thing. But to hunt them for sport, I don't see that."
"Hunting I guess can be good for some populations. I wouldn't care to hunt them myself," said Watters.
Swiney however says there are benefits to the hunting season. While the refuge serves as home base to about 12,000 cranes each winter, he says it appears the sandhills might have become more widely dispersed as a result of hunting. And he says that is a good thing.
"You've heard the saying having all your eggs in one basket... if we had all 30,000 birds right here, and say one bird flew in that had avian cholera then you're hurt... you're going to lose a vast majority of your birds," said Swiney.
He says it is also important for people know they don't have to wait for the festival to go observe the sandhills. The observation area at Hiwassee Refuge is open 365 days a year. The sandhills usually begin to migrate back North in February, but you still have plenty of time to go watch the magnificent birds in person.
For directions to the Hiwassee Refuge: www.tnwatchablewildlife.org/watchareadetails.cfm
Story and Photos by Richard Simms