A large refuge north of Chattanooga where thousands of Sandhill Cranes winter. Also look for migrant shorebirds, waterfowl, and songbirds.
By Eric Harrold | Published: 12/13/2017
This refuge in the southeastern corner of Tennessee attracts a variety of birds due to its combination of cultivated and forested landscapes. Wetlands and edges further enhance the habitat diversity attractive to numerous bird species.
Many songbirds breed at Hiwassee, including Yellow-breasted Chat and Summer Tanager. Seventeen species of migrant shorebirds have been observed along with King Rail. American White Pelican, Common Loon, and Yellow-crowned Night-Heron are a few of the species that can be seen here but that are not easily found elsewhere in the region.
Winter is the most popular time to bird the refuge. You’ll see dabbling ducks such as Gadwall, Green-winged Teal, and Northern Shoveler. Canvasback, Redhead, and Common Goldeneye are some of the more sought-after diving ducks. Osprey and a number of other raptor species breed here while others such as Peregrine Falcon pass through as migrants. Although Bald Eagles breed on the refuge, they are more easily observed in winter. Golden Eagles, though much more rare, have been seen annually. The highlight of the refuge is the annual winter staging by Sandhill Cranes, which occurs from November through February.
Eric Harrold is a naturalist, environmental educator, and tour guide. He also wrote about the Virginia Creeper Trail, Hotspot Near You No. 211, the Santee Coastal Reserve WMA, No. 260, and Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, No. 265.
At a Glance
Click on the coordinates below to view location:
Rivers, brushy thickets, vegetated wetlands, cultivated land, pine forest, hardwood forest.
Winter: Sandhill Crane, Whooping Crane (re-introduced eastern population), Bald and Golden Eagles, American Black Duck, Mallard, American Wigeon, Gadwall, Common Goldeneye, Redhead, Canvasback, Northern Pintail, Green-winged Teal, Lesser Scaup, Bufflehead, Ruddy Duck, Wild Turkey, Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Belted Kingfisher, woodpeckers, Loggerhead Shrike, Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed Gulls, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Field Sparrow, Eastern Towhee. Summer: Osprey, Yellow-breasted Chat, Summer Tanager, Willow Flycatcher, Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and numerous migrant shorebirds.
When to go
Winter for cranes. Peak numbers in January.
Restrooms near observation platform. Cherokee Removal Memorial Park (located approximately 1 mile from refuge on Shadden Rd.) has a visitor center (open Thursday through Sunday), restrooms, and picnic tables. Tennessee Sandhill Crane Festival held each January; this year it’s on January 13-14.
Wildlife refuge owned by the state and Tennessee Valley Authority. Closed from November 15 through the last day in February; however, the observation platform is open year-round. Open for foot travel from March through October. No fees.
For visitors exploring refuge on foot during open season, wear tick and mosquito repellent and be aware that venomous snakes are present in the forested portions of refuge.
For more info
Standifer Gap Marsh
On the northeast side of Chattanooga, on Standifer Gap Rd. Wetlands and grasslands good for waterfowl, rails, orioles, Bobolink, and Blue Grosbeak.
Booker T. Washington State Park
5801 Champion Rd., Chattanooga. Located on Chickamauga Lake. Good for eagles, Osprey, herons, and spring and fall migrants.