The sandhill crane is one of the largest birds found in Tennessee. Its length is about 4 ft (1.2 m), and its wingspan reaches 7 ft (2m). Sandhills are also known for their distinct calls that can be heard for miles around. Tennessee birdwatchers witness the return of sandhill cranes every fall when thousands of migrating birds from the eastern population pass the state on their way to Gulf Coast and Florida. Their route lies through Pickett, Clay, Bradley, and Monroe Counties. In late February, they can also be spotted on their way back to their breeding sites in the Midwest and Canadian tundra. About 20,000 sandhill cranes spend the whole winter in Tennessee, staying in the wetlands surrounding Hiwassee and Tennessee rivers.
At least ten thousand sandhill cranes winter around the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge in Meigs County. A few thousands more can be spotted in west Tennessee, at Hop-In Wildlife Refuge as well as nearby Reelfoot Lake in Obion County.
The largest number of cranes has been spotted near the Watchable Wildlife viewing platform at the Hiwassee Refuge throughout January. This is also the time for the Tennessee Sandhill Cranes Festival. The event combines bird-watching tours and educational programs with an art fair. Hiwassee Refuge provides shallow waters and roosting areas for birds that feed on seeds, grains, insects, and even small mammals. In addition to the massive sandhill crane population, birders can see white pelicans and even endangered whooping cranes.