The Great 2016 Sandhill Crane Expedition

Way back in mid January, Melissa and I drove to the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Tennessee to see the Sandhill Cranes that winter there. The weather was cold but clear and the trees and fields sparkled with frost on our drive over. We drove I-40 to I-840 and around to Murfreesboro. From there we took back roads (which were really pretty good) to McMinville and crossed the southern Cumberland Plateau.  We found heavier snow and frost on the plateau but the roads were still clear.

Cumberland Plateau, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

After about a five-and-a-half hour drive we arrived at the Hiwassee NWR overlook near where the Hiwassee and the Tennessee Rivers converge. There were Sandhill Cranes at the water’s edge to our North, in the corn fields to our West and flying overhead. Their “rattle-calls” were almost ceaseless . As I set up the spotting scope we made a conservative estimate of 1000.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

In addition to the cranes, we could see a couple of hundred Mallards, a dozen or so Hooded Mergansers and Canvasbacks, about 30 Canada Geese, and maybe 20 Great Blue Herons.

Melissa watching Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Me watching Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

While we were observing we met a nice fellow birder named Charles Murray who lived locally and was therefore familiar with the area. After we had been there a couple of hours, he suggested an alternate viewing location nearby at the Trail-of-Tears Park overlook so we followed him there. The view was not as open there due to the surrounding trees but you could see more of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers and the island where they joined. There we saw perhaps another 1000 Sandhills, mostly at a considerable distance flying in flocks toward the Hiwassee NWR to spend the evening. There were also quite a few on the sandbars in the river. Our friend Charles supplied a running commentary on the cranes and also pointed out a lone adult Bald Eagle in the distance perched in a tree along the river.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Before too much longer, it was getting too dark to see well so we decided to go to our Motel and have dinner. The following morning we arrived at the platform and set up. Again, about 1000 Cranes were visible, many flying overhead in groups. A large number were in a field on the other side of the bay.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Charles Murray showed up again and he helped Melissa and me to spot and identify Pintail, Redhead, and Canvasback ducks. The Mallards, Ring-Billed Gulls, Hooded Mergansers, and Canada Geese were still there but we did not see the Great Blue Herons.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

Sandhill Cranes, Hiwassee NWR, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

By 10 o’clock there were a handful of people at the platform and we decided that we had seen all that we had come to see so we packed up our equipment and headed back toward home.

Cumberland Plateau, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

On the way back, Melissa and I decided to take a short side trip to Mousetail Landing State Park on the Tennessee River near Parsons, TN. There really wasn’t much of interest there but as we drove through the park we got a chuckle out of a sign we saw warning us of the steep road ahead.

Very steep hill–Mousetail Landing State Park, TN–Copyright (c) 2016 Robert D. Vickers, Jr.

No, it wasn’t really that bad!

Category(s): Other Nature Studies

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