Staff photo by Jake Daniels/Chattanooga Times Free Press Bird watchers gather at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to participate in the Sandhill Crane Viewing Festival.
As a flock of sandhill cranes glided through the sky at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, the warble of the birds was drowned out only by the clicking shutters of cameras.
The Sandhill Crane Viewing Festival this weekend in Birchwood drew flocks of bird lovers, cameras in hand.
Richard Audet and a friend drove 125 miles from Nashville to see the throngs of 4-foot-tall birds in the marshy refuge off state Highway 60.
"This is a great way to spend a winter day," Audet said. "Anything that heightens our awareness of nature is a good thing."
The sound of hundreds of cranes flying over thrilled Pat Goldsmith, of Chattanooga.
"It's great to know they have a place to go," Goldsmith said. "It's really special to have these birds in Tennessee this time of year."
Members of the Tennessee Ornithology Society set up monocular lenses so visitors could get a closer look.
"This is wonderful," said Shih-Lung Shaw, a professor of geography at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, looking through a lens. "I need to be closer to the birds, though. I forgot my binoculars."
Shaw was with several visiting professors from Taiwan and China, who brought along 6-year-old Sunny Tang.
IF YOU GO
What: Sandhill Crane viewing at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge
Where: Just outside Birchwood, Tenn., off state Highway 60
Parking: Free and Birchwood school with free shuttle to site, 8 a.m. to dusk
She said it was a little cold but she enjoyed seeing the birds.
"I never saw a red-headed bird before," Sunny said about the cranes.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesman Dan Hicks said the cranes come from Wisconsin in late October and stay in Tennessee through late February or early March depending on the weather.
"The cranes have been putting on a show," Hicks said.
The TWRA worked with the Tennessee Ornithological Society, the Tennessee Wildlife Federation and the Cherokee to have the viewing festival, which included events related to Indian culture.
"Many in Chattanooga don't know about the cranes," Hicks said. "We have National Geographic in our own backyard."