A Saturday with Sandhill Cranes

12 of us met at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge ramp at 10 am on January 9th for our annual Sandhill Crane viewing paddle.

We put on and headed up the Hiwassee River with lots of noisy Sandhills on both sides of us. The Aquarium Explorer boat was running tours also and passed us by.

When we got to the turnoff to go around the island and back on the Tennessee River or return on the Hiwassee, we split into two groups, with about half wanting a leisurely paddle back on the Hiwassee, and the the rest of us opting for a faster pace around the island to try to get back to the ramp at the same time.

It wasn’t long until our extra effort was rewarded with a fly over of three American White Pelicans. It was hard to photograph them (they are white against white clouds), but they were impressive. They spend the summers up around Wisconsin and migrate to Florida and the Gulf for the winter, just like the Sandhill and Whooping Cranes.

We didn’t see any Whooping Cranes this trip though, as they are very rare with less than 100 in the whole world.

As we reached the tip of the island to cross over to the Hiwassee again we came across two immature Bald Eagles eating a Sandhill Crane in shallow water. It was a real treat to see them so close up. We also had other possible Eagle sightings but they were too far away to confirm. I had to check with the TWRA as immature Bald and Golden Eagles look very similar.

The water looked calm, but when passing the channel markers you could see just how strong the current was. They are still releasing 97,000 cubic ft/sec at the Chickamauga Dam, compared with a normal of around 20,000. It was even higher last week and the Explorer boat had to cancel all their Sandhill Crane trips, and all barge traffic is still grounded.

The weather forecasters called for rain starting around 6 am when everyone signed up, which I thought was pretty impressive. Luckily they kept pushing it back, and as it turned out it didn’t start raining until 2 pm, and we were halfway through a late lunch at the Jacob Meyers restaurant at that point.

All the wildlife and great paddling companions made it a fun day out.