Sandhill Crane Cruises Spectacularly Cap River Gorge Explorer's Nine-Year Run

Thursday, December 14, 2017 - by Casey Phillips

With their five-foot wingspan, brilliant red crowns and sheer numbers, the winter migration of Sandhill Cranes to southern roosts is a wondrous sight to behold.

But for birding enthusiasts, the arrival of these majestic waterfowl to the Tennessee Valley at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge is as much an aural spectacle as a visual one.

“When a thousand or a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes are taking off, you get the proverbial locomotive ‘whoosh’ sort of roar,” said John Dever, a naturalist aboard the Tennessee Aquarium’s high-speed catamaran, the River Gorge Explorer. 

“With the length of the cranes’ tracheae, it’s like a vacuum hose, so you can hear their call for miles,” he adds. “They’re very cacophonous.”

Passengers aboard the River Gorge Explorer get a one-of-a-kind perspective of these magnificent birds during special Sandhill Crane Cruise eco-tours. These two, to twoandahalf, hour trips, which include a circumnavigation of Hiwassee Island, offer passengers spectacular views of the cranes and other birds that find refuge there, from spike-crested Kingfishers and enormous White Pelicans to rafts of ducks and Bald and Golden Eagles.

This year’s Sandhill Crane Cruises depart from Sale Creek Marina (3900 Lee Pike, Soddy Daisy) at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.on:

·       Dec. 29-31

·       Jan. 5-7

·       Jan. 12-15

This year’s Sandhill Crane cruises mark the last chance for guests to board the River Gorge Explorer. The vessel will end operations after a nine-year run with the last cruise on Jan. 15.

The cruises coincide with the annual Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival, which will take place Jan. 13-14 at the refuge and nearby Birchwood Community Center in Birchwood, Tn.

The festival, which is hosted by the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA), features live music, food and animal demonstrations. But the real appeal to many of the 2,000 to 3,000 guests who arrive from all over the country and abroad is the wildlife spectacle, which is in full view from the covered sanctuary of the refuge’s observation platform.

Based on early arrivals at the start of December, this year’s migration should more than satisfy the birding crowd, said TWRA Wildlife Information Specialist Mime Barnes.

“We’re seeing good numbers. The technician at the refuge said they had 5,000-6,000 birds this week,” Ms. Barnes said. “As someone who just enjoys wildlife and bird watching, that area has so much to offer.”

Standing on the deck of the River Gorge Explorer just off shore offers an even more intimate, unobstructed way to appreciate the arrival of the largest flock of Sandhill Cranes in the Southeast outside of Florida, Barnes added.

“I really hope folks come out and experience it in every possible way, which means from land and from water,” she said.

Cruise registration is $35 for Aquarium members and $45 for non-members. Tickets must be purchased in advance. Registration links and additional information are available online at:

Kevin Calhoon, Tennessee Aquarium curator of forests, discusses the annual Sandhill Crane migration in the area:

Video of Sandhill Cranes as seen during a cruise:


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