Venture to Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge

February 11 – 13, 2022

Narrative and photos by Kevin Burke

We had a fabulous time on our Venture to Northern Alabama and Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.  This tour was originally scheduled for the middle of January, but a large snowstorm over most of the Southeast required us to reschedule.  We are glad we did, because the weather couldn’t have been better for our new dates.  Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge is home to thousands of overwintering Sandhill Cranes, massive numbers of waterfowl, and a few Whooping Cranes.  The Tennessee River winds through the area creating countless sloughs, tributaries and all-around perfect habitat for these wintering birds.  It is a sight to behold. 

We started the weekend by meeting at the Wheeler headquarters on Friday afternoon, with a little ‘get-to-know-each-other’ walk.  Immediately as we drove the entrance road, we saw several hundred Sandhill Cranes in the Slough.  The main headquarters looks out over the water and their feeding station.  We observed the common feeder birds such as White-breasted Nuthatch, Pine Warbler, and Northern Cardinal.  Ducks in the water included Green-winged Teal, Ring-necked Duck, and Gadwall.  We walked down to the main observation building to get closer to the cranes.  This two-story interpretive building has huge windows that look over one of the main feeding areas of the cranes.  We stayed here for quite some time watching all the activity.  A large flock of Greater White-fronted Geese were mixed in with the cranes. 

We were able to quickly locate a single Whooping Crane in with the Sandhill Cranes.  After a lengthy stay in the observation building behind us, we made our way to the hotel and dinner for a little more conversation and relaxation.

The next morning, we rose early and made our way back to the Refuge Headquarters.  We arrived just before the entrance gate was open, but the cranes were very close in the corn field, so we decided to bird a bit right here.  There were hundreds Sandhill Cranes at a very close distances giving great views. 

A Peregrine Falcon perched on a power pole close by, hunting the nearby flocks of blackbirds. As the the minutes passed, more and more cranes flew into the field to feed.  It was an awesome sight to see.  We spent more time around the Refuge Headquarters picking up some nice winter birds such as Brown Creeper, White-throated Sparrow, and both Kinglets. 

Mid-morning, we headed to a more secluded part of the Refuge to see what we could find.  The Beaverdam Peninsula is a large piece of land sticking out into the Tennessee River.  We drove the Refuge loop road stopping to look out over the water and got our first distant glimpses of Ross’s Goose and American White Pelican. 

Our stomachs were starting to rumble so we made our way to Decatur to the famous Bob Gibson’s BBQ restaurant for lunch.  I will just say that the food on this trip was almost worth going all by itself. 

We spent the afternoon at White Springs Dike, a very birdy spot.  We found a great selection of dabbling and diving ducks here.  Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser, American Wigeon, and Common Goldeneye all gave us great looks.  It was a great way to spend the afternoon.  After a long hike we made our way back to the hotel for dinner.

For our final day we explored areas around Northern Alabama.  We first drove west to the town of Muscle Shoals, where we visited a very productive church pond that held Redhead, Canvasback, Snow Goose, and Lesser Scaup.  A quick bathroom stop at McFarland Park turned into an hour long birding extravaganza with Brown-headed Nuthatch, Blue-headed Vireo, at least ten Pine Warblers, and Bald Eagle.  We made a couple other stops before lunch that yielded good looks at American Pipit, Northern Shoveler, Rusty Blackbird, and Wilson’s Snipe. 

Our lunch stop was a lucky one.  We ate at Fuqua’s Southern Soul Food in Rogersville.  The food was so good here that we couldn’t stop talking about it the rest of the day.  If you are ever near Rogersville, Alabama it is a must stop!  With a huge, delicious lunch behind us we made our way to Wheeler Dam on the Tennessee River. 

This huge TVA dam was built in the thirties to create hydroelectric power for the area.  We had awesome close views of American White Pelican, Common Loon, and Bonaparte’s Gull.  There was also a huge Great Blue Heron rookery on an island in the middle of the river.  We stayed here for quite a while watching the show and visiting with some very friendly local families. 

The final stop of the day was back to the Wheeler observation building to watch the Sandhill Cranes gather for the night.  We had what was equivalent to a firework finale with all the Sandhill Cranes swirling overhead.  Thousands of cranes would fly right over our heads and land nearby.  It was an awesome way to end up the fun weekend!

This tour is short, but very sweet.  The huge numbers of cranes and waterfowl coupled with great Southern food makes this a must do.  Please think about joining us on our next Wheeler adventure.

Good Birding,

Kevin

Total Species: 94

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