Monday, December 15, 2008

Cranes overhead

Have you heard an eerie sound lately and couldn’t quite figure out what it was or where it was coming from. No, I am not talking about your spouse; I am talking about a sound coming from outside.

The Sandhill Cranes have been migrating the past several weeks over Tennessee. Sandhill Cranes call almost constantly as they fly and it is a sound like no other. Some of the best sounds in nature are coyotes and wolves howling, elk bugling, and to me, Sandhill Cranes calling in flight. Canada Geese also call in flight, but Canada Geese sound like a pack of barking beagles. Not bad, but not nearly as cool as the sound of Sandhill Cranes. Their sound has been described as a low rattling trumpeting, or the trilling of an “R” that is made in some languages.

When I heard Sandhill Cranes the first fall that I moved here, I had no idea what it was. The problem was compounded because I was in a valley and the cranes were over the hill. I could hear their eerie call but couldn’t see anything. Many times they fly very high or even after dark so you often have to look hard to spot them. They will be in a “V” formation, sometimes with 50 or more birds.

Not everyone is as lucky as we are here in Eastern Tennessee. We are right on one of the migration paths of these cranes. The cranes that fly over Tennessee are ones that breed and nest in the Great Lakes region. They fly over Tennessee on their way to winter in Georgia or Florida. In fact, as many as 40,000 cranes actually stop and rest in Tennessee before continuing south. The big stopping area is at the Hiwassee Refuge near Birchwood Tennessee in Meigs County. In past years there has been a big Crane Festival at the refuge in January, but budget cuts have curtailed the festival this year. However, you can still visit the refuge to see the cranes. Supplemental feeding of corn has caused more and more cranes to stop at the Hiwassee Refuge each year. But then, the cranes were so well fed at the refuge that many stayed and skipped the rest of the trip to Florida. It’s kind of like many of us who like Tennessee so much that we don’t feel the need to go to Florida for the winter.

If you visit the Hiwassee Refuge you won’t just see tens of thousands of Sandhill Cranes, in case that isn’t enough for you; there are other birds to see as well. When I was there last January, many birders had their spotting scopes set up to see Snow Geese, eagles, ducks, and other birds. If you are really lucky you might even see a couple of the rare Whooping Cranes that pass through the Hiwassee Refuge also. But the Sandhill Cranes are the big attraction. You can’t miss them…they are 4 to 5 feet high and the adults have red crowns on their heads. These are big birds with 6-7 foot wingspans, even though they only weigh about 12 pounds.

There may still be flocks going over our area in the next couple of weeks, but don’t worry if you missed the beautiful eerie sound of the cranes this fall. They will be flying over Tennessee again next spring on their way up north. You will hear them before you see them – always. When you hear them, look up, there are cranes overhead. Just listen! You will hear one of the best sounds in nature.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008


It’s getting cold outside, it will soon be dark at 4 o’clock, everything is brown and grey….Great! Just the way I like it. I love winter.

Pessimists look at the dark side of winter…I look at all the positives.

Winter in most of the country is a time when plants and animals slow down, shut down or head down south. A lot of us head south also. Not me. I love winter.

First of all, we live in a great part of the country with 4 distinct seasons. We get the best of everything…beautiful springs and falls with temperatures just about perfect, and summers that aren’t too hot or humid, and winters that give us a nice change, but aren’t too long or snowy. You have to admit that you don’t hold many fond memories of those long Ohio or Pennsylvania winters or Florida summers. Heck, the winters here are so mild that most of us play golf all winter long.

I love the winter season. With the leaves gone so are the ticks, chiggers and snakes. I can hike anywhere in the woods without spraying down with nasty chemicals or watching where I step. In winter you can see things in the woods that summer vegetation hides, such as rock caves, animal signs, long vistas, and the way home.

The number one key to enjoying winter outdoors is dressing for the weather and dressing in layers. Last week 4 of us hiked 11 miles in the Smoky Mountains through several thousand feet of elevation changes. Starting out it was below freezing so we were bundled up. After 15 minutes we were sweating and shedding hats, gloves, and clothes. By wearing synthetics and not cotton we dried quickly and weren’t cold and damp even though it got colder as we hiked higher. The last 3 miles on the top of the mountain we hiked through snow, so we put gloves, hats, and jackets back on. The same plan works for walking or golfing around here…layer up, layer down, as needed. Start out dressing colder than you think you should because you’ll heat up quickly when walking or hiking.

I love snow. I don’t mean the two feet close down the roads kind. I mean the three inches animal tracks in the woods kind. The sparkling white on tree branches, picture perfect kind. The time for a fire in the fireplace kind. When it snows I am the first one out in the morning looking for tracks in the snow or pictures to take. The last two years we haven’t had quite enough snow. I am hoping for a little more this year…I won’t wish for too much, just the right amount. If we get fresh snow and a full moon look for me hiking around one of the golf course paths about 8 or 9 some night. I will look for you there too.

My neighbor Ed loves the winter air…me too! It feels fresher, denser, and cool. You get more oxygen per breath than you do with the hot summer air. Winter air is a bargain…more for your money. In these economic times you have to love a bargain.

The days are shorter in winter. The change back to standard time makes them seem even shorter yet. But most people waste a lot of good morning daylight. It is light before 6:30am these days…just get up early enough to take advantage of all the available light. Even though the days are shorter, we get fewer cloudy days here than in many parts of the country. The amount of sunshine in the winter is a mood changer. I seem to recall a winter in northern Pennsylvania not seeing the sun for 6 months…or so it seemed. Just a few years ago I spent 10 straight days in December in northern Indiana without seeing the sun once. That is when I looked on a map and found Tennessee. The winter sun here in Fairfield Glade keeps us warm and feeling good.

If you want to complain about winter don’t do it around me. I love winter here in Tennessee. Bundle up, get outside, and see things you can’t see in other seasons. Winter is great! Enjoy it!