Thousands of Sandhill Cranes from the Great Lakes migrate south to Georgia and Florida, stopping at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County each winter.
They were almost extinct in the 1800s due to breeding habitat loss and over-hunting. In the 1930s, only 25 breeding pairs of the Eastern population of greater Sandhill Cranes were recorded in Wisconsin.
Today, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge has the largest winter flock of Sandhill Cranes in the southeast United States outside of Florida. The refuge, 6,000 acres on Chickamauga Lake, attracts more than 14,000 birds each winter and even a few endangered Whooping Cranes.
The best time to see the birds is from mid to late November through mid February during the first few hours after dawn and an hour before sunset, according to Melinda Welton, Tennessee Sandhill Crane festival co-chair.
"Our objective is to share the spectacle of these majestic birds and provide a potentially life-changing wildlife experience for visitors," she says.
Sandhill Cranes and a variety of other waterfowl are at their peak during the first half of January at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Ala. Canada and the greater white-fronted geese are common, along with many species of ducks. Waterfowl begin moving north by the end of the month.
There is only one species of osprey in the entire world and the refuge has one of the largest nesting populations in the area.
A large, stately, slender white heron that is more than 3 feet tall and has a wingspan of almost 5 feet. In the early part of the 20th century they were almost hunted to extinction for their feathers to adorn ladies hats.
In the 1950s there were only 20 known to survive in the United States. Now the population has grown to more than 300 birds thanks to conservation and the Endangered Species Act. It's North America's tallest bird standing close to 5 feet tall and has a wingspan of more than 7 feet. It is pure white with black wing tips and a red forehead and cheeks.
Blue Moon Cruises run tours out of Sale Creek around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge to view migrating Sandhill Cranes while they are on their flight to Florida. Typically between 90 to 100 different species of birds can be seen. For more information, visit www.bluemooncruises.org
Visitors may access the refuge via a wildlife-viewing platform or by water. Between the months of November and March all boaters are restricted to the main channels of both the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers in the refuge. Failure to do so will result in stiff fines.