By Tammy and Jimmy Cash
In mid-November each year, there is a vast natural wonderland that becomes blanketed not with snow, but with thousands of migratory birds.
Just over three hours from Atlanta, nestled around the Tennessee River in various areas near Decatur, Alabama is one of America’s largest wildlife refuges and a true national treasure. Known as the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Complex, this 35,000-acre site becomes a winter home to literally thousands of migratory cranes, geese and ducks. The remarkable concentration of birds continues through February, peaking in mid-January.
The “main attraction” is situated just three miles west of the I-65 Decatur exit. As you enter the road leading to the visitor center with open fields to each side, you will begin to see sandhill cranes flying in groups overhead and scattered about the landscape, feasting on the remnants of corn, millet, winter wheat and more. As you reach the visitor center, you begin to hear the cacophony of inharmonious vocalizations of literally thousands of sandhill cranes as they frolic, feast and dance in and around the purposely flooded farm land behind the visitor center. After leaving their roosting areas each morning, this is where the majority of the cranes spend their day.
You’ll find several viewing areas and blinds, plus an enclosed, heated observation building (note: viewing and photography from the building is done through glass). From inside, we use telephoto lenses (100-400mm and a 500mm prime) on tripods with the lens positioned very close to or against the glass. The best time to visit WNWR for the cranes and waterfowl is late November to early February, before the cranes begin their migration north to their spring nesting grounds. At their peak, there were 12,000 sandhill cranes reported during the Jan. 18, 2022, waterfowl survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
However, sandhills are not the only crane in town for the winter. Ever since 2004, a few highly endangered whooping cranes have been joining the party. Each year since, anywhere from a couple of “whoopers” up to 15 have been reported, most of which are banded and/or fitted with GPS tracking devices. Even when mixed in among the sandhills you cannot miss their snow-white plumage as they tower above their smaller cousins. Also in the mix, you may see large numbers of greater white-fronted geese, Canada geese, ducks and white pelicans, plus occasional snow geese, bald eagles, hawks, wading birds and shore birds.
The refuge is also known to be the home of Alabama’s largest duck population. Various species combined to reach a total of over 55,000 ducks at their peak in the Jan. 18, 2022 survey. Wintering duck species common to Wheeler include northern pintail, blue-winged teal, green-winged teal, American black duck, mallard, gadwall, American wigeon, canvasback, redhead, ring-necked duck, lesser scaup, hooded merganser and northern shoveler.
The year-round resident wood ducks are common nesters in the spring and summer months within the refuge. The White Springs Dikes area is the best place to view and photograph the wintering ducks, according to one of the rangers. Some can also be seen behind the observation building at the visitor center.
What makes WNWR such an inviting haven for migrating birds? At the time of its designation as a national wildlife refuge by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1938, share agreements were reached with crop farmers who cultivated thousands of acres nearby. That continues today, so farmers intentionally leave a percentage of their crop in the fields as food source and cover for ducks, geese, deer and other wildlife. Additionally, water control structures were built to manage the water levels and provide food for waterfowl by encouraging the growth of moist-soil plants and flooding agricultural crops such as corn, milo and millet. Examples of water-level control and field flooding during the fall and winter can be seen behind the visitor center and at the White Springs Dikes area.
So where are the best places to photograph wintering birds at WNWR? Here are our suggestions:
The Visitor Center (3121 Visitor Center Road, Decatur, AL 35603). Here you can see cranes, geese, ducks, wading birds, bald eagles, hawks and more. From November–February, the Visitor Center is open seven day a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The entrance gate to the Visitor Center locks at 5 p.m. (see “Important Note” below for ongoing renovation info). A brief walk to the water’s edge directly behind the Visitor Center offers an open view.
A short trail behind the Visitor Center and to the right leads to the Wildlife Observation Building, offering glass-enclosed rooms with seating and spotting scopes.
Also, viewing and photography blinds overlooking the fields are scattered about, and established walking trails wind along the water and through the fields and woodlands.
Flint Creek Day Use Area and Hiking Trail: Leaving the visitor center, turn left onto Hwy. 67 and take an immediate right into the parking lot of the day-use area. Cranes can be seen along the water’s edge, and white pelicans frequent this area. Songbirds and other wildlife can be spotted along the trail.
Crabtree Slough: Leaving the visitor center, turn left onto Hwy. 67, travel a half mile and turn left into a small parking area with walking access to what looks like an old road on top of a pond dam. The slough to the left is often frequented by white pelicans.
White Springs Dikes: Located eight miles from the visitor center, this is the best place for viewing wintering ducks, colonial waterbirds, marsh birds and shorebirds. Leave the Visitor Center and turn left onto Hwy. 67. At the Hwy. 31 & 67 intersection in Decatur, turn right onto Hwy. 31. Follow 31/72A through Decatur and, just after crossing the Tennessee River, turn left onto a gated gravel road with a very small parking area to the left before the gate (GPS: 34.628761, -86.951042). Walk around the gate to enter. There are several miles of dikes that you can walk to view birds and wildlife in and around the wetlands and backwaters of the Tennessee River. This area of the WNWR is noted as a premier birding area by Alabama Birding Trails.
Other nearby areas of interest within WNWR:
- Beaver Dam Swamp Boardwalk (GPS 650328, -86.818176)
- Arrowhead Landing & Boat Ramp area on Limestone Bay for birding, kayaking and canoeing. (GPS 602002, -86.891991)
- Public boat ramp on Hwy 67 on the left before the Visitor Center entrance for birding, kayaking and canoeing. (GPS545650, -86.931404)
Click here to view the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s video of the refuge to learn more about the wildlife at WNWR.
For bird photography you will want to use a long telephoto lens, ideally 400mm or more, and a tripod. For capturing birds in flight, a camera with fast autofocus capabilities is ideal. You may also want to bring your lens of choice for landscape photography, especially for early mornings and evenings.
Whether you make it a daytrip or choose to spend a couple days photographing in the various areas of the refuge, we believe you will not be disappointed.
Due to on-going renovations at and around the Visitor Center, some of the areas have been closed. However, we were told by the ranger the renovation of the observation building, board walk replacement, and new viewing blinds have been completed, and the refuge around the visitor center is scheduled to reopen November 12. Renovations of the Visitor Center building are ongoing through the winter, but the restrooms inside the center are scheduled to be accessible via a side door beginning November 1. Because plans are dependent on contractors and weather, it is best to call or check their website to confirm days and hours prior to making the trip. Their annual Festival of Cranes will still take place on January 14-15, 2023.
Tammy and Jimmy are avid nature photographers and conservationists. Their hope is that by capturing and sharing images, they will inspire a greater appreciation, awareness, and stewardship in others for the infinite wonders our natural world has to offer. They enjoy being members of Friends of Chattahoochee Bend State Park and serving as the park’s photographers. As active members of the GNPA, both are members of the Conservation Committee. Jimmy serves as a GNPA Instagram moderator, and Tammy chairs the Communication Committee and serves as the Conservation Committee’s Communications Sub-Committee Chair