Our Christmas Bird Count…and a Thousand Cranes!

by Emily Hulbert, Clarkrange, TN | Mar 29, 2021 | 0 comments

My fingers tingled in the ten-degree wind as I pointed and counted rapidly. “Sixty-nine, seventy, seventy-one!” I calculated quickly and whispered in amazement, “That makes six hundred one in less than two hours!”

Above me a beautiful chorus of musical voices floated on the frosty air. With their long necks outstretched, another flock of Sandhill Cranes passed over our house. “That’s seventy-one more Sandhill Cranes,” I called to my siblings. Together we watched the birds glide away over the trees.
“It’s too bad I finished our Christmas bird count list for Nature Friend yesterday,” I said “I wish I would have had six hundred one cranes to put on it.”

“Oh, but you haven’t sent it yet,” my brother replied. “Make today your count day. Then you can put six hundred cranes down for December 25.”

Sandhill Cranes
Photo © Chris Lorenz/Dreamstime.com

I smiled. Yes, it would be special to put that many cranes on our list.

My family and I live about 60 miles (100 km) northwest of the largest eastern migratory destination of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the United States (other than Florida)—the Hiwassee Island area in eastern Tennessee. Every autumn thousands of cranes leave their homes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and southern Ontario and head south, seeking a warmer climate for the winter. After gathering in large numbers in Indiana, they continue their long journey.

For years, many of the cranes stopped again briefly at Hiwassee Island before the final stretch of their trip to Florida, but in the 1960s that began to change. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency noticed the wonderful wildlife habitat that existed where the Tennessee River and Hiwassee River meet. The Agency decided to make it the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. There they planted corn and other crops to attract ducks, geese, swans, herons, gulls, and bald eagles. Soon, however, the cranes also discovered the food. Now between 12,000 and 20,000 Sandhill Cranes make Hiwassee Island their home for the entire winter.

Every year our family eagerly waits to see the migrating Sandhill Cranes. Looking, however, is not the first thing we do. Sandhill Cranes are often heard before they are seen. When we hear the faint calls of the approaching birds, we scan the skies, looking for them. Even when they are flying at great heights, the sound of their voices can be very loud as they pass overhead in their frequently changing V-formations and long lines.

Excited to see so many cranes at one time, we agreed to re-do our Christmas bird list and count birds for the next twenty-four hours. And my parents decided to take our family to the Hiwassee Refuge the next day!

After packing our lunch, binoculars, camera, and coats, and carefully counting all the local birds at our feeders, we set off. Only thirty minutes down the road, someone shouted, “What kind of birds are those?”

We looked. “They’re cranes!” Mom said.

I was counting again. It was a small flock, only nineteen.

“Follow us!” someone called to the cranes.

Then we laughed, and Dad said, “We ought to follow them. They know where they’re going!”
Yes, Dad was right. The birds did know where they were going, but how? Most migratory birds know where to go by the instinct God has given them, but cranes are different. They learn from the older generations of birds. So the flock continued on, the younger ones following the older ones, I suppose, and we kept driving.

Sandhill Cranes
Sandhill Cranes at Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge. Photo © Lynn Bystrom/Dreamstime.com

Only twenty minutes later, a group of eighty-eight passed over us. Before long we spotted another flock of cranes. But those were not flying smoothly onward as the others had been. Instead, they were circling around and around in the air. To make flying easier, Sandhill Cranes use wind currents to carry them along, often spiraling up and down to get into the current. All the way to the Refuge, we saw groups of Sandhill Cranes. By the time we arrived, our count had reached seven hundred fifty-seven.

We entered the refuge and drove down the narrow, tree-canopied road. I suddenly saw what I had been so eagerly waiting to see—Sandhill Cranes—a whole group of them “grazing” in a cornfield!

Soon we came to the observation deck. Though the actual Hiwassee Island is closed for part of the winter, this viewing spot is said to give you an unobstructed, 360-degree view of the surrounding farmland and marshland.

As we opened the van doors, we heard the bugling calls of thousands of cranes. From the observation deck, we could see the cranes contentedly eating in the fields, standing by the water, or flying in the sky.

Sandhill Cranes are very large birds, standing 36-48 inches (1 m) tall. Their wingspan is up to 7 feet (2 m). They have beautiful gray plumage and scarlet red “caps” on their heads.

At the Hiwassee Refuge, the Sandhill Cranes follow a distinct daily routine. They eat early in the morning and then loaf along the edges of the water the rest of the day. We must have been there at “loafing” time, for the majority of the birds we saw stood along the shores of the river. The number of Sandhill Cranes at the refuge reaches its peak in early January. By the end of March, most of the cranes will have left, returning north to raise families during the summer.

As we stood watching the birds, we were awed by how many we saw. “Are we going to count them for the Christmas bird count?” we wondered. No, we decided, we could not count them all. We might have been there all day!

But maybe I wouldn’t have minded. I think I could have stayed there all day watching the birds eat, walk, and fly, and hearing their calls. Thank You, God, for Your wonderful creation, I thought. Thank You for Sandhill Cranes.

Already I’m looking forward to watching for the cranes as they return north at the end of winter, and to next year’s southward migration. And I hope we can go again to the Hiwassee Refuge to see them at their winter home. Maybe you can too.

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