Every year thousands of SANDHILL CRANES migrate to the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge to spend the winter eating in the crop fields of the region. This is the largest wintering crane flock in the Southeast outside of Florida. The Hiwassee River winds through the area meeting Chickamauga lake creating several islands for the Cranes to roost. We spent a nice weekend exploring the refuge and surrounding area to see what unique wintering species the area had to offer. This area is also great for wintering waterfowl. There are ample lakes and farm fields for the waterfowl to take advantage of for the winter.
We started our tour off on Friday afternoon at the Hiwassee Crane Viewing area. We were immediately greeted with a large raft of CANVASBACK in the pond below. GREEN-WINGED TEAL, GADWALL, and WOOD DUCKS were also present in the slough. We kept hearing SANDHILL CRANES flying over and had a few views of them in the air, but unfortunately none landed nearby. Five SAVANNAH SPARROWS landed in a tree in the field and allowed scope views. We next travelled to another part of the refuge called the Cherokee Removal Park. This area overlooks Chickamauga Lake and the Hiwassee River. It gives great Bluff views of a wide area. We had many more SANDHILL CRANES in the area flying around, but again not the views were hoping for. Our first of many BALD EAGLES soared over the water searching for one of their favorite food items the AMERICAN COOT, of which there were plenty. We ended the day trying to get better views of the slough, but to no avail.
Saturday morning, we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel and headed down to the Chattanooga area to see what we could find. We started the morning at a stakeout location for two GREATER WHITE-FRONTED GEESE. These geese were a life bird for three people! A nice way to start the morning. The next stop was the Harrison Bay roadside parking area where we saw quite a few BONAPARTE’S GULLS, PIED-BILLED GREBE, and an early migrating TREE SWALLOWS. No trip to Chattanooga would be complete without a stop at Standifer Gap Marsh. We had fantastic views of SWAMP SPARROW, RUBY-CROWNED KINGLET, PINE WARBLER, and ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER. A successful stop no doubt!
Chester Frost Park is another hotspot in the area that we like to visit, so we drove up the lakeshore to see what was there. We right away got killer views of a perched BALD EAGLE. We drove out to one of the peninsulas and found our targets for the park. Several BROWN-HEADED NUTHATCHES, and a single RED-HEADED WOODPECKER were foraging in the pines. The woodpecker gave us great views and was a hit with everyone in the tour. On the way out of the park we spied several COMMON LOONS on the lake, a life bird for one participant! After all this excitement it was time for lunch and a visit to the aquarium in downtown Chattanooga. The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is a spectacular complex. You wind your way through two large exhibit halls dedicated to all things underwater and some above.
Having enjoyed lunch and the Tennessee Aquarium we decided to try to get a better look at the main target for the trip the cranes. We drove back up to the refuge. This time we tried another area and were very successful. We found two dozen or so SANDHILL CRANES on the ground very close by. The cranes were joined by NORTHERN PINTAIL, AMERICAN WIDGEON, GREEN-WINGED TEAL, and AMERICAN COOTS in the farm field. We counted at least fifteen hundred cranes flying overhead. They were flying low and high but making a ton of noise, and it made for a great encounter to end the day. Finally getting our fix of cranes we headed back and out to dinner in the nice downtown area of Cleveland.
The final morning of our weekend trip was spent back at the Hiwassee Refuge crane viewing area. We did have one lone SANDHILL CRANE foraging in the area. Recent rains had water levels too high for the cranes in the normal spots. A nice flock of AMERICAN PIPITS were feeding in the fields. Multiple FIELD SPARROWS fed along the fence edges and perched for some good views. After a little while at the crane viewing area, we decided to bird our way back home. A stop at the Watts Barr dam revealed an early OSPREY, BLACK-CROWNED NIGHT-HERONS, and around one thousand RING-BILLED GULLS. Winding around the back roads of Eastern Tennessee our final stop was an incidental sighting of LOGGERHEAD SHRIKE! A great way to end the trip. This was a fun trip that is worth experiencing. We made it back to Asheville with great memories of cranes, waterfowl, and a few life birds for most everyone on the trip.