Melinda Welton has attended the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival at Birchwood "several times," but the professional ornithologist from Franklin is in a new role this year as co-chair of the event.
It's actually a three-site event, headquartered at Birchwood School with numerous activities there both Saturday and Sunday and with shuttles running to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge and nearby Cherokee Removal Memorial Park throughout each day.
The thousands of migrating sandhill cranes haven't come in just for this weekend -- bird-watchers from near and far already have been visiting the refuge to see them and some whooping cranes as well, plus an amazing Asian Hooded Crane usually found only in China, Japan and Southeast Asia -- but the accompanying activities make this weekend special, Welton said.
Specializing in research on bird migrations, she has taken bird-watching trips "all over the state, all over the country, all over the world," she noted.
"I think what makes this really extraordinary is that it is such a large event with so many activities that are free and open to the public," Welton said. "There will be so much going on. There are some really great kids' activities, for example, Saturday at the school."
One exciting addition to the schedule will be the presence of storyteller Brian Ellis, who is "very entertaining as well as very informative," she said, in depicting the famed naturalist and artist John James Audubun. Ellis will be featured at a dinner that does cost Saturday night at the Rhea County Welcome Center in Dayton, but he also is on the daytime programs.
Welton represents the Tennessee Ornithological Society, which is sponsoring the festival along with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and the Barbara J. Mapp Foundation with help from area groups including the Meigs and Rhea county tourism organizations.
The Asian Hooded Crane has attracted more than 2,500 visitors from 41 states, the District of Columbia and seven countries already to the Hiwassee refuge, according to Welton, who said Wednesday that the rare bird had been spotted again that day.
As usual, the American Eagle Foundation will present a live raptor show among the many activities. Additionally, representatives of the C.E. Blevins Avian Learning Center in Cohutta, Ga., will lead a program each day -- four hours Saturday, two Sunday -- in which children can see and hold clay replica eggs of the cranes, eagles, hawks and other species, make clay eggs of their own and color papier-mache versions.
The Cherokee Removal Memorial will include American Indian exhibits as well as arrowhead-making and fingerweaving demonstrations.
For more information on the dinner, call 615-831-9311, ext. 115.