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Cranes make annual migration to Weakley, Obion counties

Cranes make annual migration to Weakley, Obion counties
Cranes make annual migration to Weakley, Obion counties | Sandhill Crane migration in Weakley and Obion counties

MIGRATION – Nearly 5,000 sandhill cranes make their way into Weakley and Obion counties each winter as part of their annual migration. They can be spotted by the masses throughout the day rooting in hibernating farm fields seeking wild onions and yellow n

MIGRATION – Nearly 5,000 sandhill cranes make their way into Weakley and Obion counties each winter as part of their annual migration. They can be spotted by the masses throughout the day rooting in hibernating farm fields seeking wild onions and yellow nut sedge. At night, they bed down at the Hop-In TWRA Refuge in shallow water safe from predators. Their distinctive cackles let neighbors know when a flock has come to rest nearby.

Photo by TWRA Officer Larry Armstrong

It’s a cold rainy January morning and it sounds like a wild  party with cackling sounds drifting across the wetland. A flock of a couple thousand sandhill cranes are 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 (TWRA) 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 the 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 that he does not receive complaints from farmers in his area.

The cranes are such a spectacular site 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,” says the TWRA.

Many cranes have been spotted snacking and roosting off of 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 water fowl 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 5500.

The sandhill crane is a conservation success story. After nearly going 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 a game birds.

However, a similar proposal to start the process that would lead to a limited hunt of  sandhill cranes in eastern Tennessee was postponed last week. 

Tennessee Wildlife Resources Commissioners 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 Eastern 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, says 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, “ says Armstrong. 

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 October 25 to February 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,” says Preston. 

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 ulta-lites, a small plane that guides whooping cranes down the 1200 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 on 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 US 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.  Twenty 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 1995-1996 that the first sandhill cranes discovered the habitat, explains Armstrong. The sandhill pioneers were a family group of about five to six cranes. They have multiplied rapidly into the thousands since then. 

“They are like other waterfowl; they mark spots and come back to the same place if it has what they want, says Armstrong.

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. They like open dry ground when they are feeding so they can see who’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, says Preston of TOS. “It’s when they can’t get to a food source because it’s frozen over; then they may move south.”

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,” says Armstrong. 

wcp 1/27/11