By Jerry Black
If you’re intrigued by the prospect of photographing thousands of Sandhill Cranes just a few hours from Atlanta, now is the time. Beginning in mid-November, the Hiawassee Wildlife Refuge in Tennessee is home to huge flocks of wintering cranes that provide plenty of opportunities for wildlife photographers.
The cranes nest there throughout the winter, and after arriving at Hiawassee this month, will typically stay around the refuge until mid to late January. There will be thousands of them, up and down the river and in the fields of adjoining farms. My understanding is the refuge has the largest winter flock of Sandhill Cranes in the southeast other than Florida. I can say I’ve been to many locations in Florida and have never seen as many cranes in one place as I see in Hiwassee.
Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge spans about 6,000 acres, comprised of roughly 2,500 acres of land and 3,500 acres of water. At the refuge location on Priddy Road (545 Priddy Road, Birchwood, TN) there is an observation platform and gazebo. From this location you can observe a large area, but it’s still only a small portion of the total refuge. If you are a bit more adventurous and have a few dollars to spend, you can book a tour with a friend of GNPA who occasionally takes people out on the river to see the back side of the refuge, where you will find thousands of cranes along the shorelines and islands. Or, you can rent a boat at the marina in Dayton, TN. But because the refuge has certain locations that are protected for the cranes, check ahead of time to see where you’re allowed to venture by boat.
If you live in north Georgia and you’re an early riser, you can be there by sunrise for early light, stay the whole day, photograph during late light into the sunset, and then drive back home. Some may prefer to drive up around noon on day one, shoot the late light, spend the night nearby, shoot the next morning early light and depart for home around 9-10 a.m. depending upon light conditions.
I have photographed at the refuge many times in all kinds of weather conditions, from sunny fall days to cold and blustery conditions. Personally, my favorites are when the temps are in the 40- to 60-degree range with good light, or on foggy days when you can create magical images of the cranes flying through the mist. If I had to choose between morning and evening conditions as my only option for a day trip, I’d choose evening. At that time of day, you can shoot one direction toward the lake and river and capture the cranes in flight as the sun illuminates their beautiful mating plumage. Then, as the sun sets, you can shoot the birds flying by from the opposite side of the gazebo and capture silhouettes against the sunset skies, which are especially striking if you are fortunate enough to have a sky full of reds, yellows, pinks and oranges.
What To Expect
The refuge is closed from Nov 15 through the last day in February. This means you cannot travel down into the refuge itself, as this a protected habitat for the cranes. But the gazebo and platform are open year round, and are great places to set up. The cranes roost in the field at night, but as the morning sun rises they begin to fly out to nearby fields to feed for the day. Then, as the evening approaches, they will fly back into this field across from the platform. These are the two best times to photograph them in flight.
These fly-in and fly-out times will vary depending upon weather and light conditions. You may have about 90 minutes to two hours of ideal shooting time in both the morning and the evening. If it’s a very windy day, don’t expect a lot of flying.
On some days there can be lots of people there. The overall area to shoot from is rather small, all things considered. In the accompanying photo, you’ll see the gazebo and to the right of it is a ramp where many photographers choose to set up. The main open field area is to the right of this gazebo. Try to go during the week if possible, to avoid the larger weekend crowds. Your field of view can seem a bit restricted depending upon where you position yourself. Getting there early to “claim” your spot is a good idea. The 2022 Sandhill Crane Festival is currently scheduled for January 15-16, and there will likely be more visitors then. Once you leave the main entrance road, access to the parking area is via a dirt road that’s usually in decent condition and is almost always quite passable by car. The parking area can handle about 30 or so cars.
Recommended Camera Gear
Since you’ll want to capture birds in flight, you will benefit from using a good camera and lens with fast, reliable autofocus and continuous autofocusing capability. Ideally, you’ll want to have a lens with a focal length of at least 300mm. Many people will use a Nikon 80-400 or 200-500, Tamron 150-600, Canon 100-400, or any variety of 300mm-plus prime lenses. In my opinion, a tripod is optional. I like the flexibility to move around quickly and be able to follow the birds’ flight patterns.
Hiawassee Refuge is a great place to see lots of cranes and to test your birds-in-flight skills. But there is more to the refuge than just cranes. You may see eagles, herons, ducks, hawks, assorted small birds in and around the platform and white pelicans flying overhead. Even whooping cranes have been photographed there on occasion, as well as a golden eagle. In the evening and early morning, you may also spot deer in the refuge area.
Jerry Black is an avid amateur photographer who is well known for his wildlife and nature photography, having won numerous local, national and international competitions. Jerry has received first-place awards at GNPA EXPO in both the wildlife and landscape competitions, first place in the Ansel Adams B&W Photo Contest, and for six years running has had one or more images selected for the Booth Museum Photography Annual Exhibition and other curated exhibits.