- West Side Story: Spring 2005
Sandhill cranes find Tennessee Valley hospitable
"It’s pre-dawn. A light fog hugs the uneven ground like cottony muslin lying over an unmade bed. As light seeps into every nook and cranny, the broad, rolling expanse begins to take on definition. Details unnoticed just moments before come into focus. To the east the sky glows; pinks dissolve to orange. This same rosy palette is reflected off the still water; a quiet cove, the outstretched finger of a nearby lake. Small waterfowl can be seen drifting over the mirrored surface and the unmistakable bugling chorus of cranes is heard in the background. The leggy birds are awakening, calling out to their flockmates for assurance that all is well; the night has passed and it’s a bright new day.
The early morning scene could be coastal; perhaps South Carolina or Georgia. But in this case, it’s not, for cradled between the aged Appalachians and raised Cumberland Plateau in the broad Tennessee Valley is a sanctuary as homey as any marshy estuary far to our south. Over the course of the past 20 years, Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, roughly eighty miles southeast of Farragut, has become the wintertime home for a growing population of ducks, grebes, cormorants, mergansers and tall, statuesque cranes.
There are two species of cranes found in North America. The rarest is the endangered white whooping crane, this country’s tallest bird. Its close relative, the sandhill crane, is powdery gray and can reach a height of about four feet with a wingspan of up to 77 inches. Their name comes from “Sandhill Country;” their western migratory stopover point in the Great Plains, especially in Nebraska along the Platte River. But there has always been an “eastern” flock of the ashen gray birds that migrate from their northern nesting sites to isolated locations on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Historically, sandhill cranes have been found in the Tennessee Valley for thousands of years; their bones unearthed by scientists in archeological digs at Native American sites like Hiwassee Island. But if you ask anyone that grew up near there in the past 40 or 50 years they’ll tell you they never saw one. Due to habitat loss and over-hunting, it’s believed that the eastern flock of sandhills probably dropped to as few as 800 birds. Occasionally, one or more would land in the valley on their way south for winter but those sightings became fewer and farther between...
For the remainder of my article about sandhill cranes in the Tennessee Valley, look for the spring issue of the West Side Story.
- Special thanks to editor Dan Barile