Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge

The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency manages the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in east Tennessee.  During the winter months Sandhill Cranes migrate south from the Great Lakes region to Florida, and many of them spend the winter at the Hiwassee Refuge as opposed to flying the remainder of the trip.  The 2010 statistics reported that there were approximately 50,000 Sandhill Cranes on the refuge that winter!

I had never seen a Sandhill Crane until I visited the refuge in February, 2013 and it was an amazing sight.  I met a friend from a photography forum there and we spent several hours shooting photographs of the birds and just enjoying the sight.  These are large birds and to see several hundred of them flocking and flying is an unforgetable sight.  One man I spoke with said that frequently by this weekend they are already headed back north so I suspect that the number I saw was already beginning to dwindle.  Regardless, it was truly an amazing sight and sound treat to see that many large birds in the same place at the same time.

 December 16, 2013

We returned to the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge today to see how many Sandhill Cranes were present, and I was somewhat disappointed to find that there were far fewer than there were earlier this year when I was there in February.  Nonetheless there were enough flying around to keep us entertained for a few hours ;)

As with our trip in February we were limited to the observation platform which was in excess of 125 meters from the edge of the water, but the birds frequently flew overhead a bit closer than that so we managed to get some decent shots.

 February 9, 2013

Photographs from today’s visit are below, however as usual they do not do justice to what it really looks like.  It is important to understand that the refuge is closed to visitors from November 15 to March 1.  The only place that visitors is allowed is the observation area, and that put us in excess of 125 meters from the birds.  I got a couple of shots of one flying over at about 112 meters but that was the closest that I got to one.
I have many more photographs (I shot about 550 frames) but they are just repetitions of these so I’ll stop here.

Something else I noticed about these birds is the way in which they land.  The friend I met pointed it out and then I started paying closer attention to them.  They land more like Canada Geese than most other waterbirds.  A Great Blue Heron, for example, will fly low over the surface of the water and then pull up into a stall right where it wants to land.  Ducks are the same way, but more energetic, in that they will fly in relatively close to the water and the stall their wings and slide along the surface of the water.  These birds pick their landing spot from up high and make a perfect, controled glide in to where they want to touch down.

Take a look at This Photo.  The bird in the back is just starting to pull up into a gliding position while the bird in front already has.  Once they assume that gliding attitude they never change it, just minor twitches of their wing tips and feet to control attitude.  They would then allow their wings to stall right at touchdown, and I could see the air spilling out from the feathers ruffling in the wind.  Their touchdown is not a planted touchdown like a Heron or a Sparrow landing on a branch, but a running “Rollout” along the surface of the water or mud much like an airplane.  I watched them do that many times today and the approach and landing never varied.  I’m sure it does based on how much room they have and weather conditions, but it was really amazing to watch them assume that graceful landing attitude and never vary it all the way to touchdown.  As a pilot really made me jealous of their abilities.

I also saw a couple of other birds, one I really, really, REALLY wish I could have gotten some better shots of.  This is only the second time in my life I’ve seen a Bald Eagle in the wild.  I just got a couple of shots before it went into the trees, but it was certainly better than nothing!