CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- The stately appearance, graceful flight, and trumpeting call of Sandhill Cranes are unmistakable. The birds have been seen as far away as Siberia in the former USSR, but it was first spotted in East Tennessee in 1969.

They have been spending their winters in large numbers at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers since the early 1990s. It was then decided a festival should take place annually in their honor.

"One of the things that's so marvelous about the Sandhill migration through Tennessee is it's really a wildlife extravaganza. Your Serengeti experience, and it's right here in Tennessee," says Melinda Welton.

Welton is an ornithologist with the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory and is helping with this year's Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival.

Sporting a bright red "cap" on their heads, standing up to four feet tall, and boasting wingspans of six feet, the Sandhills are a sight to behold for bird enthusiasts.

The cranes were almost extinct at one time, sending them to the endangered species list. They have made a strong comeback in the past several decades. Fly-away councils from various states came together to preserve habitats along the migration from Canada, over the Great Lakes and Midwest, and into the South.

"It's a true wildlife success story as a result of efforts from multiple states protecting a species," explains Dan Hicks with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.

The Sandhills, along with their cousins, the Whooping Cranes, have learned to migrate to East Tennessee by following along side a special type of aircraft.

"Operation Migration, where the birds follow the Ultra Lights," says Welton.

Hicks says, however, the planes may not be necessary in the future since most of the birds have learned the route on their own. The young can be re-introduced with adults up north before heading south.

"If they were never, ever able to fly an ultra-light again to lead them down, they've [the cranes] already established a fly-away and they've been imprinted," said Hicks.

While it is a mystery how the Sandhills first arrived, Hicks is just happy they are here.

"We're not really sure how it showed up here, but we're glad it did," exclaims Hicks.

For more information on Sandhill Cranes and the Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, which is January 14-15, click here.