Despite federal shutdown, the 2019 Festival of the Cranes at Wheeler NWR is ON (Photos)

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Sandhill Crane at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge – Photo by George Lee

The show must go on! This weekend, despite the federal government shutdown, the 2019 Festival of the Cranes at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge and at locations in and around Decatur, Alabama is ON!

Home to thousands of Sandhill Cranes and a couple dozen Whooping Cranes, the rarest bird in the world, Wheeler NWR attracts thousands of visitors annually, especially during the festival which has been held on the 2nd weekend of January for the past 6 years.

Sand hill crane at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, photo by David Frings, December 9, 2017

Thanks to volunteers and funds from the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Association and the International Crane Foundation, this year’s festival is packed with activities through the weekend of January 12-13.

Why is this particular Crane Festival important

Before, we highlight the list of activities happening this festival weekend, let’s explore briefly why the Annual Festival of the Cranes is important, especially here in Alabama.

Alabama – Whooping Crane’s home in the east

As we mentioned earlier, Whooping Cranes are rare.

Whooping Crane – Photo by George Lee

In the 1940s, Whooping Cranes were on the brink of extinction. In 1941, only 21 cranes lived in the wild and two in captivity.

For over seven decades, scientists and crane advocates have been working on saving the Whooping Crane. Today, there are more than 450 Whooping Cranes in the wild. The whooping crane remains listed as an endangered species, but fortunately it’s population is continuing to grow because of the persistent efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and advocacy groups such as the International Crane Foundation.

So, why is Alabama important when it comes to the Whooping Crane’s survival ? The bird loves our state.

Whooping Cranes
Whooping crane (white) at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge, photo by David Frings, December 9, 2017

Every November, the Whooping Cranes leave Wisconsin and journey south to spend their winter. East of the Mississippi River only about 100 Whooping Cranes migrate to the region. Their number one destination? Alabama.

Presently, 20 to 30 Whooping Cranes winter in Alabama, primarily on the grounds and around the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge area.

That is why this festival is important.  Along with celebrating the thousands of Sandhill Cranes that make Wheeler their home, we also learn how to protect and support conservation efforts to bring back the rare and beautiful Whooping Crane.

Festival Highlights

International Crane Foundation’s mascot “Hope”

Check out the entire schedule and logistics for both Saturday and Sunday Festival events  – HERE

Here is just a sampling of the activities.

Open All Day… Visit the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge Observation Building to view thousands of Sandhill cranes along with several Whooping cranes, ducks, geese, raptors and perhaps a bald eagle from the comfort of the heated building. There are bleachers and spotting scopes available along with volunteers and staff standing by to answer all your questions.

Saturday and Sunday -9:00 AM • David Akoubian Bear Woods Photography Workshop / Wheeler NWR Auditorium

Sandhill cranes with a juvenile whooping crane in the center - photo by George Lee
Sandhill cranes with a juvenile whooping crane in the center – photo by George Lee

David has been a photographer since 1972 when his father presented him with his first camera, but his career in photography started in 1992. David learned his craft originally as a painter and from his father who shares his love of nature and photography. Early in his career, he traveled with, learned from and taught beside some of the masters of nature photography including John Shaw, Art Wolfe, Galen Rowell, Bryan Peterson, Pat O’Hara, and Rod Planck. David has been teaching photography since 1994 in the classroom and leading workshops around the United States.

Saturday and Sunday – 10:30AM (Saturday only) and 3PM • President Theodore Roosevelt as portrayed by Joe Wiegand / Wheeler NWR Auditorium

Joe Wiegand entertains audiences nationwide with his reprisal of President Theodore Roosevelt. As a one-man theater show, Joe’s T.R. shares stories full of adventure, laughter, and inspiration. T.R. will be in character throughout the day.

Saturday evening 6 PM • Ibex Puppetry Show • Princess Theatre • Admission 112 2nd Ave NE, Decatur, AL 35601 |

“Celebration of Flight” is a spectacle designed by Heather Henson. Giant dragonflies, cranes, and the spirits of the air will descend to earth when called by drums and noisemakers of the audience. Families will play music, fly kites, and dance along with the creatures that fill our sky as part of the performance. Tickets: $5.00 plus fees for children and seniors and $10.00 plus fee for general admission.

Can’t miss event

Photo by – International Crane Foundation

For many the Festival of the Cranes is a “bucket list” event.  Make the journey from Birmingham on Saturday or Sunday. You won’t regret it.

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Pat Byington
Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.
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