Migrating sandhill cranes make stop in Obion, Weakley counties

Migrating sandhill cranes make stop in Obion, Weakley counties

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011 9:05 pm
By: Sandy Koch, Special to The Messenger

By SANDY KOCH
Special to The Messenger
It’s a cold rainy January morning and it sounds like a wild party, with cackling sounds drifting across the wetlands. A flock of a couple thousand sandhill cranes is roosting in the waters of a protected rice field near the border of Obion and Weakley counties.
Through binoculars in the early morning light, an observer can see that the meeting of the tall tan-grayish colored birds is beginning to break up. Several in the flock hop around and spread their wings in the densely-packed group as if to stretch after a long night of standing in the shallow, almost frozen waters.
“It’s a distinctive sound,” says Larry Armstrong, a wildlife manager with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency who manages this refuge and three others on the Obion River. “It’s almost like someone playing an instrument. … When it reaches a peak, that’s when they go.”
At first light, the sandhill cranes are off from the refuge to nearby fields to scrape up what leftovers they can find in the wheat and corn fields. Armstrong says they even feed on nuisance plants that farmers would like to get rid of — wild onions and yellow nut sedge — rooting around in the soil with their long beaks for the tasty tubers.
In other parts of the country, farmers complain that some flocks nibble on new shoots of spring crops, but Armstrong maintains he doesn’t receive complaints from farmers in this area.
The cranes are such a spectacular sight in East Tennessee that TWRA and other organizations have set up a special Crane Viewing Day in mid-January on the Hiwassee Refuge near Chattanooga, attracting hundred of visitors. But they are more numerous there. The birds have “high wildlife viewing value,” according to the TWRA.
Many cranes have been spotted snacking and roosting off Old Troy Road. “There are sometimes a couple hundred here and a couple hundred there,” says Tommy Andrews, pointing to corn fields that surround his house. “And there seem to be more each year.”
It’s Armstrong’s job to count the cranes twice a month on a TWRA refuge known as Hop-In, after the community of the same name on Highway 89 between Sharon and Kenton. They are protected there and provided a managed habitat, along with other waterfowl like ducks and geese and an occasional eagle. The area is off limits to the general public.
At the beginning of January, he counted about 3,200 as they took off from the wetlands in small batches; last year at their peak in mid-February they numbered some 5,500.
The sandhill crane is a conservation success story. After becoming almost extinct through over-hunting in the 1930s, the crane has  made a comeback, so much so that in some western states they can be hunted in limited numbers. They are considered to be game birds.
However, a similar proposal to start the process that would lead to a limited hunt of sandhill cranes in East Tennessee was postponed last week. Tennessee Wildlife Resources Com-missioners ruled that more data needed to be collected on the eastern flock that migrates from Wisconsin and Michigan to Florida and back again through Tennessee. Many winter in Tennessee. They will revisit the idea of a limited hunt of sandhill cranes in two years.
The proposal only had applied to sandhills in East Tennessee, where numbers are greater, not West Tennessee or any TWRA refuge areas.
About 48,000 sandhill cranes stopped over in Tennessee last year, a “spike” that is not likely to be repeated this year, according to Dick Preston, president of the Tennessee Ornithological Society.
They are “staging” their return to the north sometime in February after dining in Tennessee for a month or two on nutrients.  “We like to send a healthier bird back to the north to reproduce,” Armstrong says.
TWRA figures note that, due to the warmer weather, many cranes elect to stay in Tennessee all winter, instead of going south to Florida. Armstrong says that he sees sandhill cranes from about Oct. 25 to Feb. 25 at Hop-In.
For the TWRA meeting in Nashville last week, the TOS argued that numbers had not reached the levels they needed  in Tennessee to justify hunting the sandhill cranes. Also, “I don’t believe the general public thinks that we should shoot a bird like that right now,” Preston says.
A secondary concern, but one that was brought up at the Nashville meeting, was a worry that the endangered whooping crane, a taller white crane with black tipped wings, might be accidentally killed in a harvest of sandhills, as they sometime migrate with the sandhill flocks.
There are only 500 or so whooping cranes left in the world and only 96 in the Eastern migratory group, according to Operation Crane, a non-profit group that flies ultra-lites, a small plane that guides whooping cranes down the 1,200-plus mile aerial path from Wisconsin to Florida.
Preston feels confident that “if it came to it” the TWRA could “mitigate” those risks by alerting hunters to areas where whooping cranes had been spotted. The agency had planned to issue pictures of the two birds, sandhill and whooping crane, to hunters so they would not confuse the two. There was to be no hunting on the refuges.
Three whooping cranes were shot Dec. 30 last year in Albany, Ga., according to Operation Crane, and so outraged are conservationist groups that they have pulled together a $12,500 reward for information on the shooters.
Armstrong says that two years ago a whooping crane was spotted on the Hop-In refuge. For the past couple of years, a number of whooping cranes have mixed into the sandhill flock on the Hiwassee Refuge.
Many of the whooping cranes are tracked by satellite transmitters monitored by the U.S. Fishing and Wildlife Service. Armstrong says he gets e-mails if one is in his area.
According to TWRA, last year the national and state wildlife services trapped and banded about 30 sandhill cranes and installed six satellite transmitters.  Twnety more transmitters are to be installed this winter, according to a recent TWRA  presentation on the cranes. Armstrong says these will be on Hiwassee birds.
The 680-acre Hop-In refuge has been a protected area since 1992, but it wasn’t until 1995-96 that the first sandhill cranes discovered the habitat, according to Armstrong. The sandhill pioneers were a family group of about five to six cranes. They have multiplied rapidly into thousands since then.
“They are like other waterfowl; they mark spots and come back to the same place if it has what they want,” he says, noting what they want is a place to roost in large numbers so they will feel secure at night, preferably a place where they can roost in water to discourage predators like coyotes and bobcats. He said they like open dry ground when they are feeding so they can see what’s coming.
The cranes do not appear to mind the almost frozen waters, even in temperatures that have dipped well below freezing lately. The weather itself does not discourage a sandhill flock from staying, according to Preston. “It’s when they can’t get to a food source because it’s frozen over; then they may move south,” he says.
 Armstrong recalls that he even had to break up the icy water for some cranes whose feet were frozen into the water. ‘They can be vicious with those long beaks,” he laughs.
On the Hiwassee River, the cranes line the long sandbars in the morning and early evening like sentinels on the alert for intruders.
“There’s no reason why in a few years we wouldn’t get as many sandhill cranes out here as they have in Hiwassee,” Armstrong says.
Sandy Koch is an adjunct instructor of political science at UT Martin. Before that she was a journalist and editor for about 20 years, writing mostly about international topics.

Published in The Messenger 1.27.11

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