Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge provides ideal backdrop for crane and waterfowl sightings during winter

Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge provides ideal backdrop for crane and waterfowl sightings during winter
Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge. (Erin Harney/Alabama NewsCenter)

Last weekend, the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) welcomed 4,100 visitors to the site for the 5th annual Festival of the Cranes – a celebration honoring the only two crane species found in the United States, the sandhill and whooping cranes.

While the festival is over, there is still time to spot the cranes, as well as over 30 species of waterfowl at the refuge. But don’t wait too long to see the cranes.

“The sandhill and whooping cranes usually begin their migration mid-February and all will have migrated by the first week of March,” said Teresa Adams, Wheeler’s supervisory park ranger.


Here are the most common wildlife species visible during the winter months, according to the refuge:

  • January: Waterfowl numbers are at their peak during the first half of the month. Canada and snow geese are abundant along with many species of ducks; mallards are the most abundant. Waterfowl begin moving back by the end of the month.
  • February: Waterfowl numbers begin to decline rapidly. Wood duck nesting begins. Depending on weather, fishing can be good by the end of the month.
  • March: Waterfowl numbers are low, but a variety of species can still be seen. Blue-winged teal and shorebirds begin migrating. Turtles are present on sunny days. Crappie fishing is at its best.

As of Jan. 17, 2017, over 14,000 sandhill cranes and 14 whooping cranes had been counted at the Refuge.

“The diverse habitats found on Wheeler NWR provide excellent feeding, resting and roosting sites for wintering waterfowl, sandhill cranes and whooping cranes, as well as nesting sites for migratory songbirds and many species of resident wildlife,” Adams said.

“As surrounding wildlife habitat continues to disappear, the refuge becomes even more important for the survival of Alabama’s native species and the species that depend on this refuge during migration.”

The Wheeler NWR was established in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s executive order. It was the first national refuge “superimposed on a hydro-electric impoundment,” said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Today the refuge supports over 295 bird species, 115 species of fish, 74 species of reptiles and amphibians, 47 species of mammals, 38 species of freshwater mussels and 26 species of freshwater snails.”

Each year, the refuge hosts nearly 650,000 visitors for hunting, fishing, observing the wildlife, picnicking, or education activities at the Givens Interpretive Visitor Center. The Visitor Center provides information about the area’s wildlife and habitats through exhibits, programs and activities for all ages. From October through February, the Visitor Center and Observation Building are open seven days a week from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. From March through September, they are open Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 256-350-6639.

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