January 11, 2008

I took the day off from writing today and drove out to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge near Dayton, Tennessee (Dayton was home to the Scopes Monkey Trial, for those of you wondering why the name sounds familiar).  The Hiwassee refuge is located along the Tennessee River in a farming area, and each winter it is home to literally tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes.  The Sandhill Crane Festival, a big event in these parts, is scheduled for next week, but I try to go each year before the festival so that I can enjoy a quiet day of birding.

The cranes generally gather near the water in corn fields, where they graze in enormous flocks.  The corn fields were somewhat depleted this year, as a result of a summer of drought and exceedingly warm weather in the late fall, when the birds first arrived.  As a result, I saw thousands of birds today instead of tens of thousands.  Still, it was very cool.

Sandhill Cranes are big birds — they stand nearly four feet tall and their wingspan exceeds six feet.  They’re gray with a bright red cap.  But perhaps the most distinctive thing about them is their call — a rolling, guttural, bugling that is distinctive when one bird does it.  When thousands do it at the same time it is indescribable:  a cacaphony of sound that is at once amusing and impressive.  Most of the birds I saw were on the ground, though small groups — five, ten, fifteen birds — were continually flying in to join them.  Occasionally, something would spook them, and hundreds would take off at once, their wings drumming the air in unison.

It was an amazing day.  I’ve seen the cranes many times before, but I never tire of it, and I’ll certainly go back again next year.  I had my camera with me, and if any of the pictures I took came out well, I’ll post them over the weekend.

Today’s music:  Crane song


3 Responses to “Cranes!”

  1. justkim said

    I live in Orlando and am fortunate enough to have Florida sandhill cranes living in my general area. It isn’t uncommon for a group of three or more cranes to walk through the streets of my sub-development in the spring and summer. They are beautiful birds. I can’t imagine seeing so many in one spot though. Lucky you.

  2. davidbcoe said

    It was pretty cool. On the other hand, it would also be pretty cool to see them often and so close up. Thanks for the comment.

  3. pawsinsd said

    We just moved to Utah late March where we have the rust-colored Greater Sandhill Crane. We abut a 110 acre preserve where we’ve never seen more than six out at a time, and not together. These migrate to NW Canada. Until a few days ago we were watching a couple with a colt. They may be in the tall grasses or may have left, but I didn’t know if the little one was old enough to fly yet.

    I’d be pleased to send you a few photos of cranes in Utah,

    I’ve only heard sounds online of groups of thousands of cranes. Here, they land early morning and call to each other and it’s really an eocene era, prehistoric call that I’d love to record but one never knows when they’ll be here and I don’t have the right equipment.

    Cheers from newbie birder Dee

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