My gratitude began even before I arrived at the marina. What I witnessed as I drove across the bridge over the Tennessee River on Hwy 30 brought tears to my eyes. With the golden pink of sunrise still glowing on the horizon, more than a thousand sandhill cranes rose in front of me, their bodies waving in long broken V’s, above me and below me, some at nearly eye level, shimmering like mythical winged creatures as they departed their roosts for feeding grounds or more northerly breeding destinations.
The awe of this one moment would have been enough to make my day but there was more to come.
Our 3.5 hour journey on the Blue Moon took us from the Hiwassee River to the Tennessee River, around the grassy Hiwassee Island and through the Hiwassee State Wildlife Refuge. This is the area where thousands of sandhill cranes and endangered whooping cranes stage and where waterfowl, shore birds and eagles spend their winter months. I expected to see a bald eagle or two on this trip, but I wasn't expecting what I witnessed--a pair of eagles at the nest. Above in the warm sunlight you see one eagle perched on the nest, the other, directly above, is partially concealed by a pine bough. Wintering eagles arrive in Tennessee in late October and their numbers peak by late January to early February. But nesting bald eagles remain in Tennessee year around and are generally incubating by February 10-15. While we watched, the eagle on the upper branch lifted from his perch.There were 14 active nests at Reelfoot Lake in western Tennessee in 1955. But Tennessee had no known successful eagle nests from 1961 until 1983. The hatching of one bald eaglet in 1983 marked the first known successful bald eagle nest in Tennessee in 22 years.Due largely to the banning of the insecticide DDT in the U.S. in 1972 and restoration efforts since 1976, bald eagle nests in the lower 48 states doubled about every 6 years from 1980 to 2001.
I had not seen a bald eagle in the wild until I visited the Hiwassee Wildlife refuge in 1999. It was there that I first encountered thousands of staging sandhill cranes, met organized birders with their scopes set up to bring them closer into view and witnessed my first bald and golden eagles in flight over head with identification help from veteran birders. And to add one more tidbit of history, in the early 60's, greater sandhill cranes were only suspected as migrating through Tennessee but rarely observed.
And so yesterday's journey took me full circle. It's February of 2009, exactly ten years later and I have again witnessed thousands of sandhill cranes and topped it off with a pair of bald eagles at their nest and I can't help but feel immeasurable gratitude.
We humans would be a formidable species indeed, if every individual on the planet joined forces to revere and preserve the beauty and balance of our natural world in the same manner that many championed our bald eagles. World peace and prosperity would surely follow.Above, our hosts on the Blue Moon cruise. From left, Rick Houlk, one of the owners and cruise naturalist; yours truely; Will Ross, crew member; Dave Anderson, captain and interpreter.
Coming up: More highlights from the cruise--immature bald eagles, blue herons at the rookery; and in a separate story, a nesting pair of red-shouldered hawks.