Sitting at the confluence of the Hiwassee and Tennessee Rivers, the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is 6,000 acre piece of protected land has been set aside for watchable wildlife.

In the summer, everyone can access all lands and waters within the refuge to observe the resident and migrating birds along with seasonal wildflower blooms.

But this time of year, January especially, is sandhill crane time.

At about four feet in height, the sandhill cranes have a sort of gangly grace that draws attention whether stepping across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands.

These birds breed and forage in open prairies, grasslands and wetlands – which is why Hiwassee Refuge is a perfect stopover for their migration from the Great Lakes to Florida.

The migration is a sight the Audobon Society describes as, “among the greatest wildlife spectacles on the continent.” One you can enjoy right here in the Tennessee Valley.

The 26th annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival is January 14 and 15 at the Hiwassee Refuge and the Birchwood Community Center from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free bus shuttle service will be available from the Birchwood Community Center to the Hiwassee Refuge and Cherokee Removal Memorial Park each day beginning at 8 a.m.  No public parking is available at the refuge.

Various vendors will be at the Birchwood Community Center beginning at 8 a.m. In addition, breakfast will be available for purchase at the community center each day from 7-8 a.m. and lunch will be available from 11:30 a.m. until 3 p.m.

Music, special programs, and children’s activities will be ongoing throughout each day. The American Eagle Foundation will be present for its always-popular live raptor show each day with times at 2 p.m. on Saturday and 1 p.m. on Sunday. There will be a presentation from Lizzie Condon, from the International Crane Foundation on whooping crane conservation efforts.