My Day at Hiwassee Refuge

January 6, 2012

Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge just outside of Dayton, Tennessee (where the Scopes Monkey Trial took place back in 1925) is located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers in east Tennessee.  Every year during the winter, thousands of Sandhill Cranes stop here, congregating in the rich waters of the refuge and feeding in nearby cornfields.  In recent years, a few Whooping Cranes, among the rarest birds in North America (there are only about 500 left in the wild) have joined the Sandhill Cranes, making Hiwassee Refuge a birding hot spot.  And this year, a single Hooded Crane, a species endemic to Asia that has never before been recorded in the U.S., has been seen feeding with the other cranes.

Today I drove out to Hiwassee to see if I could catch a glimpse of this once-in-a-lifetime bird.

Most of the Hiwassee Refuge is closed off to visitors, but the observation deck offers excellent views of the river and the surrounding corn fields. It was a beautiful day.  Clear, warm, breezy.  Sandhill Cranes were everywhere, their guttural trumpeting calls filling the air.  Hooded Mergansers, Gadwalls, Ring-Necked Ducks, and even a few Snow Geese floated on the smooth waters.  Half a dozen Bald Eagles — two adults and several juveniles — patrolled the skies, and at one point one of the adult birds caught a fish that would have made any angler proud.  It was huge; five eagles fed on it.

A single Whooping Crane — a young bird — made an appearance, and strutted in and out of view throughout the day.

But all the birders there today were hoping to see the Hooded Crane.  There were dozens of us on the viewing platform — there have been dozens there every day since the Hooded Crane first appeared.  Usually, even with its deserved reputation as a great birding spot, the refuge attracts a fraction of that number.  Birders are friendly people, and this crowd was no different.  We waited for hours for the bird to show up, and even as our impatience grew, the mood on the platform remained friendly and fun.  I met a couple who had come to Tennessee all the way from Chicago (people have come from all over the U.S. to see this bird; some people have visited from Europe).  I never learned their names, but they were great to hang out with all day.

I would love to say that the day ended magically, that the Hooded Crane swooped down into the river late in the afternoon and gave us all great views of a true rarity.  But the bird didn’t show up.  I suppose that in a way that makes the day a disappointment.  But that’s not how it felt.  I saw Sandhill Cranes and Bald Eagles, ducks and geese, Red-tailed, Red-shouldered, and Sharp-shinned Hawks.  A kingfisher, resplendent in blue and white and rust, entertained us with acrobatics over the water.  Bonaparte’s Gulls, their wings flashing white and gray, wheeled and glided above the cranes.  Great Blue Herons waded solemnly in the shallows.  Sometimes the rare birds show up; sometimes they don’t.  But at Hiwassee, there is always something to see.

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