By Wanda Krack
When you hear the ‘honk, honk’ of high flying birds, and see birds flying in a V formation, you might think “there goes the Canadian Geese”. The high flyers will most likely be Sandhill Cranes, either returning to their wintering ground just north of Chattanooga, or flying North to their m ating grounds. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 Sandhill cranes spend around two months in the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Tennessee. The refuge is located on about 6,000 acres of land, around the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee Rivers, north of Chattanooga, near the town of Birchwood, Tennessee. Birds come to the Hiwassee Refuge because of the combination of shallow water feeding and roosting habitat, with wet grasslands, marshes, and grain fields. They are omnivorous animals, eating seeds, berries, cultivated grains, insects and small mammals. The Tennessee Wildlife Resource agency encourages their yearly return by planting corn and other grains in the fields around the area. As a photographer it’s exciting to hear the cranes fling overhead and to know they will be available for a couple of months for picture taking.
For the best photo opportunity, arrive early, near sunrise if possible, take your longest lens (300mm or longer), but also be prepared for closer shots. When they fly nearby, you want to set your camera on sports mode, or set to a high speed of between 500 and 2,000th of a second, and auto ISO, depending on the available light. Keep the weather in mind. When cold, camera batteries are depleted quicker, so it’s best to carry an extra battery, and keep it in a pocket for warmth. Some cameras don’t function as well in cold weather, so consider carrying the camera inside your jacket until using it. When bringing your camera indoors, you will want to put it in a plastic bag or leave it in the camera bag until it returns to room temperature. The lens can fog up on the inside, causing multiple problems when brought into a warm area too quickly.
Because you will be shooting at a fast speed, tripods are not necessary. The birds usually are in groups when flying and on the ground. Early mornings, and late afternoons are the best times of day to get shots from the viewing area, as the birds are leaving and returning to the roosting areas within the refuge. Two good locations for taking pictures are from the viewing platform in the refuge, and the old blythe ferry terminal area. Sometimes just driving around the roads close to the river, you will spot them in the fields. When the cranes are flying near you, it makes it all worthwhile as they are a beautiful bird in flight.
The Tennessee Aquarium at Chattanooga offers river boat trips each year, traveling upriver and back. Their link is: http://www.tnaqua.org/plan-your-visit/river-gorge-explorer/sandhill-crane-cruises/ If you take a cruise, a long camera lens is necessary, as the birds are usually at a distance. Bald eagles, whooping cranes, great blue herons, ducks, Canadian geese, sea gulls, osprey, and other species are active in this area in the winter months too. If you search Google for Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge you will find several interesting sites with additional information.
The peak season of the Sandhill Cranes’ migration is between mid-December to mid-February so you’ll need to dress warm for an outing. It is best to dress in layers. If you’ve never seen one of these large birds up close, you might consider taking a trip to the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge area. It took me about 5 trips to the area before I landed what I consider is a good crane shot. Have fun, keep warm and keep tripping the shutter!
The Cookeville Camera Club meets at the First Presbyterian Church, in Cookeville, the second Monday each month at 7:00pm. Guests are always welcome. Check out our website at https://www.cookevillecameraclub.com .