Monday, January 6, 2014

Is Cold, Snowy Weather for the Birds?

If you are of a certain age, you might have heard your parents say, "This weather is for the birds" on a dreary day. When it's raining a lot, you might have heard them say, "It's a good day for ducks." And when it's frigid outside, like now, some might think, "It's a perfect day for penguins." (Especially when we observe others, bundled in thick layers, appearing to waddle along a snowy or icy surface like penguins.)

But have you ever considered how cold weather impacts birds in the wild?

Eagles Soar Where It's Warmer
When arctic air plunges into the United States, Bald Eagles start moving south. In some locations, such as the Upper Mississippi River Valley, they congregate in amazing numbers near dams where the waters remain unfrozen and food is plentiful.

This video was posted in mid-December showing an amazing number of Bald Eagles near Fulton, Illinois.

Numbers of these majestic birds have been steadily increasing since they were listed as an Endangered Species. Improved water quality and conservation efforts helped eagles, and many other species they depend upon for food, and these beautiful birds made a tremendous rebound. While still federally protected, the Bald Eagle was taken off the Endangered Species List in 2007. 

Some of these eagles that nest farther north even make it into the Tennessee River Valley. Aquarium Naturalist John Dever reported seeing 10 Bald Eagles from aboard the River Gorge Explorer during the recent "Eagle Eyes" cruise. A few are local residents, but the rest are "snow birds," enjoying the relative warmth close to Chattanooga.

While the forecast calls for more very cold weather through the middle of this week, temperatures should rebound by the weekend. That would be perfect timing for the Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle cruise that is scheduled for Saturday, January 11th.

Bird expert Kevin Calhoon, the Aquarium's assistant curator of forests, leads this wildlife adventure to see the phenomenal aggregation of Sandhill Cranes that gather in the Hiwassee National Wildlife Refuge each year. "The cranes pretty much settle in for the winter here," said Calhoon. "The Refuge was originally created for geese, but over the years more and more Sandhill Cranes have been drawn to the area. Each year there are between 12 and 14,000 birds roosting in the Refuge."

It's an amazing experience both for to see and hear. Listen to individual Sandhill Crane calls and the sounds of large flocks on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website. Their rattle calls are unmistakable and may be heard for long distances when flocks are approaching overhead.

Calhoon also says there should be a few Whooping Cranes at Hiwassee during the upcoming excursion. Their white plumage makes them stand out amidst the throngs of Sandhill Cranes. Their vocalizations are also easy to distinguish.  

According to Calhoon, local Bald Eagles are already nesting and one or more nest sights should be within easy view during the upcoming cruise. "There are probably 20 to 25 Bald Eagles in the area near the refuge right now between the local population and those that are here for the winter," Calhoon said. "We usually see 12 or more each year on this cruise."

Like the Sandhill Cranes, bird lovers enjoy hearing the Bald Eagles as much as seeing them. Listen to these audio clips to see if you can notice the difference between mature and juvenile bald eagles.

The price of the Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagle Cruise is $34 for adult Aquarium members and $39 for adult non-members. The price includes the 3.5 hour cruise aboard the Blue Moon, BBQ lunch and naturalist presentation.

This cruise boards at 9:30 am on Saturday, January 11th at the Sale Creek Marina, located at 3900 Lee Pike in Soddy Daisy, TN. 

Purchase tickets online to experience being surrounded by one of the region's largest gatherings of migrating cranes. 

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