Over 14,000 Sandhill Cranes along with several pairs of Whooping Cranes spend the winter each year at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Decatur, Ala. In celebration of the winter migration of these long-legged and long-necked birds, Wheeler Wildlife Refuge Association hosts an event offering a variety of activities for experienced birders and anyone who would like to learn more about birding and other wildlife that call the Refuge home.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, modifications to the 2021 Festival of the Cranes have been implemented as additional safety measures for attendees. The event is set for January 9 with presentations held at the Princess Theatre located at 112 2nd Avenue in downtown Decatur. Admission to each of the presentations is free and seating is limited (due to social distancing guidelines) with first-come, first-served admission.
9:00 a.m. - Video presentation by Master Falconer Lauren McGough McGough has been a licensed and practicing falconer since age 14 and has been particularly enamored with gold eagles as hunting partners, a unique branch of falconry that has only a handful of practitioners in the United States. She learned to hunt with eagles through years of living with the nomadic people of Mongolia, as featured in a 2018 segment of 60 Minutes.
10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. – Auburn University Southeastern Raptor Center live performance The Southeastern Raptor Center presents its educational program to teach about birds of prey. Attendees can see hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls up close while learning about habitats, conservation, and ecology.
2:30 p.m. – Snowy Owl: A Visual Natural History video presentation by Paul Bannick The video presentation provides rare intimate looks into the life history of one of the world’s most charismatic birds. In the presentation, the physical features, preferred habitats, breeding cycle, hunting strategies, as well as prey and conservation issues are explored through several dozen never-before-published images.
4 p.m. – Gareth Laffely live performance Laffely is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, composer, and producer from Gallatin, Tenn., whose music has been licensed by the Discovery Channel, NASCAR, and Public Television. An award-winning Native American flute player and composer, Laffely is of Mi’kmaq/Cree descent.
5:30 p.m. – Ben Raines Saving America’s Amazon: The Threat to Our Nation’s Most Biodiverse River System live presentation Raines has won more than two dozen awards for his coverage of environmental issues and natural wonders in Alabama and on the Gulf Coast and co-authored several peer-reviewed papers published in scientific journals. He wrote and produced documentary America’s Amazon, which has aired on PBS stations around the country.
In addition to the presentations at the Princess Theatre, a variety of activities are planned in the community before, during, and after the Festival of the Cranes.
- Jan. 8 - Feb. 19: Festival of the Cranes Art Exhibition at the Alabama Center for the Arts - Jan. 9: Bird and nature art journaling workshop led by Timothy Joe at the Carnegie Visual Arts Center https://www.carnegiearts.org/event/bird-nature-art-journaling-workshop/ - Jan. 7 - 9: Lunch and Learn Lecture Series, movies and crafts at the Cook Museum of Natural Science https://www.cookmuseum.org/calendar/wild-about-whoopers-2/?occurrence=2021-01-07.
A free two day event featuring storytelling, photography workshops, music, live raptors, children activities, films, and of course thousands of Sandhill cranes and the endangered Whooping cranes, along with ducks, geese, bald eagles, and whatever other wildlife makes an appearance in the fields around the Visitor Center and Observation Building. This year the Auburn University Southeastern Raptor presentations will take place at the historic Princess Theater in downtown Decatur. There will be children activities, the premier of the latest George Lee video of the cranes of Wheeler, birding walks, “Hope” the mascot of the International Crane Foundation and the the refuge mascot “Blue Goose” will be present.