Each winter, an estimated 20,000 red-headed, long-legged sandhill cranes descend upon the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Birchwood, as part of a migration pattern that originates in Indiana.
For 23 years, bird watchers and wildlife enthusiasts from across the country have gathered to celebrate this winter spectacle at the Sandhill Crane Festival, which will take place on Jan. 18 and 19, from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The annual festival offers visitors the opportunity to view the cranes and learn about the rich historical and cultural heritage of Southeast Tennessee.
For two days, the rural community of Birchwood transforms into a premier eco-tourism destination, offering free shuttle service between three festival sites: the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, located at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers; Birchwood Community Center, three miles from the wildlife-viewing site; and the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, located at historic Blythe Ferry along the Tennessee River.
The Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge has one of the largest wintering flocks of sandhill cranes in the southeastern United States. More than 20,000 cranes winter there from November through February.
The 6,000-acre refuge offers ideal conditions for the cranes: 450 acres of corn, millet and milo, along with shallow water and mud flats. The area is also home to other waterfowl, bald eagles, and the occasional federally-endangered whooping crane.
In an effort to help visitors get an up-close look at the cranes and other wildlife, guides from the Tennessee Ornithological Society and Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency will be on-hand with viewing scopes at the refuge.
Crane viewing is best in the morning. The birds tend to fly in the afternoon and return to the refuge around 3 p.m.
Along with the opportunity to view the cranes during the festival, nature and history-themed programs, regional music, food, vendors and children’s activities are scheduled for Saturday and Sunday at the Birchwood Community Center (formerly Birchwood Elementary School).
On Saturday at 1 p.m., TWRA state ornithologist Scott Somershoe will discuss Tennessee’s Golden Eagle population, and on Sunday at 1 p.m. TWRA Region III Biodiversity Coordinator Chris Simpson will provide a research update about bats in Tennessee.
The American Eagle Foundation from Pigeon Forge, will present its renowned raptor show at 2 p.m. on both days.
Blue Moon Cruises will offer eco-cruises on the Hiwassee River during the festival (reservations required).
The Cherokee Removal Memorial Park, an official Trail of Tears site located within the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, will highlight the history of the Cherokee people in Meigs County, during the festival.
The 29-acre park overlooks Blythe Ferry, where approximately 9,000 Cherokees, 500 Creeks and 127 slaves crossed the river during the Cherokee Removal in 1838. The park features a visitor center and short trail to an overlook of Blythe Ferry.
This year, the park will showcase its Cherokee Removal Memorial Wall, unveiled in 2013 in memory of the Cherokee people who were forcibly removed from their native homeland in the Southeast.
The memorial features the names of 2,535 heads of households, as well as the number of persons in each household, based on the 1835 Henderson Roll, a census of Cherokee people east of the Mississippi River.