published Thursday, January 16th, 2014

Sandhill Crane festival this weekend - Jan. 18-19

Sandhill cranes lift off from a cornfield near Graysville, Tenn., as they continue to the Hiwassee Refuge at Birchwood, about 8 miles as the crane flies.
Sandhill cranes lift off from a cornfield near Graysville, Tenn., as they continue to the Hiwassee Refuge at Birchwood, about 8 miles as the crane flies.
Photo by Staff File Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

IF YOU GO

* What: Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival.

* When: 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 18-19.

* Where: Hiwassee Refuge, Birchwood. Parking and additional programs at Birchwood Community Center (formerly Birchwood Elementary), 5623 Highway 60.

* Admission: Free.

* Phone: 931-484-9571.

* Website: tncranefestival.org.

The 23rd annual Sandhill Crane Festival will be held this weekend at the Hiwassee Rufuge in Birchwood. The event celebrates the migration of thousands of sandhill cranes and other waterfowl and shorebirds that migrate through the area or spend the winter here.

Dan Hicks, with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in Crossville, Tenn., one of the hosts of the event, says viewers can see the sandhill cranes as well as endangered whooping cranes, bald and golden eagles and other native wildlife species in the area. According to TWRA estimates, as many as 12,000 birds spend the entire winter at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers.

The recent cold weather, however, could have an effect on migration patterns, Hicks says.

"Weather affects the movement of sandhill cranes," Hicks explains. "During the recent deep-freeze, the birds could not roost at their historic roosting area at the Hiwassee Refuge because the water there was frozen over. But [late last week], the manager there reported that several thousand had returned to feed on the corn planted for migrating waterfowl and cranes."

It's the cold weather in the Great Lakes area that triggers the birds to initially migrate south, he says.

Because it's hard to second-guess Mother Nature, nobody can accurately predict beforehand whether or not the thousands of birds will, in fact, make an appearance. However, up until last year, viewers weren't disappointed.

"Last year, for the first time, there was the least amount of cranes during the event," Hicks says. "This was the result of heavy rain for several weeks prior to the event. Again, their roosting areas in the mud flats around the area were covered with water. The birds had to fly on south and on private land to find a suitable place to spend the night. They sleep standing in the shallow water and on the mud flats."

Human attendance at the festival has ranged in past years from 3,000 to 6,000, Hicks says, but crowds are growing as word spreads.

"When people find out there is a National Geographic moment right in their backyard, they want to come and see it for themselves," he says. "Thousands of the photogenic sandhill cranes, golden and bald eagles and a number of native species are in the area for viewing."

New this year to the event will be the American Eagle Foundation's raptor show on both days of the event. Saturday's topic will be golden eagles. Sunday will focus on bats.

Because parking is limited at the refuge and adjacent Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, visitors should plan on parking at Birchwood Community Center (formerly Birchwood Elementary) and riding the free shuttle bus to those venues, Hicks says.

Educational programs, musical performances and food will be available both days.

Musical performances will include Nashville recording artist Don King and Friends. Area traditional music authority Tom Morgan will perform traditional folk and bluegrass songs. Among those scheduled to join him are Lynne Hass, Ray Branham, Dalton Roberts (Sunday only), Redbird Clingan and Jerry Triplett. The Cherokee Removal Memorial will host American Indian performances and demonstrations both days. A schedule of events is available at www.tncranefestival.org.

Contact Karen Nazor Hill at khill@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

about Karen Nazor Hill...

Feature writer Karen Nazor Hill covers fashion, design, home and gardening, pets, entertainment, human interest features and more. She also is an occasional news reporter and the Town Talk columnist. She previously worked for the Catholic newspaper Tennessee Register and was a reporter at the Chattanooga Free Press from 1985 to 1999, when the newspaper merged with the Chattanooga Times. She won a Society of Professional Journalists Golden Press third-place award in feature writing for ...

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