The annual migration of hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes from the Upper Midwest to Florida each winter is a sight the Audubon Society describes as “among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent.”
In Tennessee, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is a stopping off point for the largest winter flock of Sandhill Cranes in the Southeast outside of Florida. For birding enthusiasts, it’s hard to beat the views of this magnificent gathering during a cruise around the island aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s River Gorge Explorer.
Beginning Dec. 30 and continuing on weekends through Martin Luther King Day (Jan. 16), the River Gorge Explorer will embark on special eco-cruises to the refuge departing from Sale Creek Marina. Thanks to the proximity of the river channel to Hiwassee Island, these two-hour cruises offer guests one of the region’s best — and closest — views of these cranes.
“It’s a great way to get close to these birds,” said Kevin Calhoon, Tennessee Aquarium’s Assistant Curator of Forests. “You get much better looks from the boat than you do from the observation area. It’s just a whole different way to view them.”
That so many Sandhill Cranes can be seen at once is a sign of their tremendous conservational success story. In the 1930s, the wild population of these elegant birds had dwindled to less than 1,000 individuals, a fact lamented by noted author and naturalist Aldo Leopold in his 1937 essay “Marshland Elegy.”
“When we hear his call we hear no mere bird,” Leopold wrote. “We hear the trumpet in the orchestra of evolution. He is the symbol of our untamable past, of that incredible sweep of millennia which underlies and conditions the daily affairs of birds and men.”
From the River Gorge Explorer’s climate-controlled cabin, however, guests will be able to appreciate the Sandhill Crane’s current robustness via the astounding spectacle of an estimated 5,000 to 8,000 individuals gathered on the 400-acre island.
With a distinctively rattling, cacophonous call, Sandhill Cranes can be heard from miles away. Up close, witnessing as 1,000 or more of the gray-bodied, crimson-crowned beauties taking off in unison is a sight no birder should miss, Calhoon said.
“This is really the only place where you can see them in Tennessee in any numbers, and the only place that you can get that nice of a view,” he said. “That’s what makes it special.”
Although they’re the cruise’s star attraction, it’s not just Sandhill Cranes that entice wildlife lovers aboard the River Gorge Explorer each year. The trip up to and around Hiwassee Island includes sightings of the occasional Peregrine Falcon or Black Vulture, large numbers of Bald Eagles and thousands of ducks and geese of various species.
In recent years, hundreds of White Pelicans, the largest bird in North America, also have begun making regular appearances during the journey. On rare occasions, especially lucky birders may even spot a wayward Whooping Crane, the Sandhill Crane’s larger and endangered near-relative.
For the ornithological set, a Sandhill Crane Cruise can be like an observational smorgasbord, said John Dever, one of the River Gorge Explorer’s two on-board naturalists.
“You see things you don't normally see and in big concentrations, big numbers,” Dever said. “You look over, and in this little inlet, you might see a few thousand ducks of different species. You might see 100 herons. Then, there will be six or seven Kingfishers.
“You're looking through a window into this slough area, and you see this incredible density of bird life.”
In addition to its ecological significance, Hiwassee Island has been occupied for thousands of years by historic and prehistoric peoples. Archaeological surveys of the island have revealed it to be one of the most significant Native American cultural sites in the region.
Guests on the River Gorge Explorer will be able to learn more about the island’s naturalistic and historical heritage by perusing maps and historical texts as well as through presentations by on-board naturalists using the boat’s advanced A/V system.
Sandhill Crane Cruises depart from Sale Creek Marina (3900 Lee Pike, Soddy-Daisy, Tenn.) at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. on:
• Dec. 30-31
• Jan. 1
• Jan. 6-8
• Jan. 13-16
Cruise registration is $35 for Aquarium members and $45 for non-members. Tickets must be purchased in advance and are available online.