Crow Creek: A Birder's Paradise in Alabama

BY BOB BUTTERS

 
Sandhill cranes gather along the shoreline. Photo: Bob Butters

Sandhill cranes gather along the shoreline. Photo: Bob Butters

Sandhill Cranes at Stevenson City Park

One of the best spots for birding in the Chattanooga region is Jackson County, Alabama’s Stevenson City Park. About 45 miles southwest of downtown Chattanooga, the park is located on a peninsula in Crow Creek, here a wide, shallow backwater embayment of Lake Guntersville and part of the 3,346-acre Crow Creek Refuge.

Stevenson City Park is a stop on the North Alabama Birding Trail and largely consists of a mixture of trees and grassy areas, along with easily accessible shoreline. A gravel road circling the park creates an optimal situation for birding.

In recent years large flocks of sandhill cranes have begun wintering in the refuge, usually between October and March. The cranes are considered one of North America's tallest birds standing 3-4 feet tall with a wingspan of 6-7 feet. Hundreds of the birds roost along the far shorelines west of the park after feeding in nearby fields during the day. Flocks begin flying in from the surrounding area to roost along the far shorelines just prior to sunset. Occasionally, a few cranes can be seen standing along the shore in the park, allowing a much closer view.

While the water in Crow Creek is generally quite shallow, parts of the park can be underwater during rainy weather periods, which can result in the cranes looking for more desirable locales.     

If there are no cranes to be found in the park, try driving around to a field on the back side of the refuge (GPS 34.856645,-85.854624). After crossing a bridge over Crow Creek, look for a gravel drive on the left (I recommend a pickup or SUV) and drive out to the railroad crossing. Park, then walk up onto the crossing (being alert for trains, of course) and look across the field to your left. There will usually be cranes on the far end of the field.

A great way to see birds and other wildlife is to put a canoe or kayak in at the launch site on the west side of the park and paddle around the various islands, the numerous bays, or even miles upstream in the main creek channel. Wood ducks can be spotted in some of the smaller, wooded backwaters. In some places you can paddle close to fields where sandhill cranes are feeding.   

In the past, much of the water surface was covered with lotus plants in summer. Adverse weather conditions a few years ago largely killed it off, but the lotus has begun to make a comeback.  

Canoeing is a great way to explore Crow Creek Refuge. Photo: Bob Butters

Canoeing is a great way to explore Crow Creek Refuge. Photo: Bob Butters

Whooping Crane sightings

In some recent winters, several whooping cranes have shown up at the refuge standing out conspicuously among the sandhills. Standing about 5 feet tall and with a 7-foot wingspan, they are North America’s tallest bird, noticeably larger than the sandhills they hang out with. Besides their size, whooping cranes can be easily identified by their whiter color, and their black wing tips when in flight.

In the 1940s, the whooping crane population had dwindled to 15 birds. Today, a flock of over 300 migrates between the Texas Gulf Coast and Canada’s Wood Buffalo National Park. As part of Operation Migration (now discontinued) an eastern flock was started, with first-year migrants being taught to follow ultralight aircraft from Wisconsin to Florida, Whooping cranes seen here are ones that have learned to migrate on their own.

Waterfowl and other birds

While winter is an especially good time to view birds at Stevenson City Park, there are opportunities year round, In addition to cranes, there are plenty of other species to observe. Bald eagles are often spotted flying overhead, and a pair are currently nesting in a pine tree on the south shore opposite the park.  A variety of waterfowl congregate in winter, especially in the bays on both the east and west sides of the park. Commonly sighted are mallards, coots, cormorants, northern pintails, green-winged teals, lesser scaups, pied-billed grebes, redheads, canvasbacks, and ruddy ducks, as well as numerous Canada geese. White pelicans have been observed stopping over during migration.

In addition to waterfowl, killdeer, belted kingfishers, ring-billed gulls, meadowlarks, and the ever-present great blue heron, as well as the occasional green heron, can been seen around the park. This is one of the best places in the region to see redheaded woodpeckers, which can usually be spotted on any visit year round.

In the summer, Crow Creek Refuge is a prime location to see great egrets and ospreys. For a number of years a pair of ospreys have nested atop a light pole in one of the park’s ballfields.

Besides birds, other wildlife are common. Paddling on the creek typically includes sightings of white-tailed deer, muskrats, spotted gar, various turtle species, and sometimes river otters, as well as plentiful signs of beaver. Two otters were recently spotted playing in the shallows along the park’s shoreline.   

NOTE: Although there is no hunting in Stevenson City Park, nor waterfowl hunting in the Crow Creek Refuge, small game hunting is allowed in the refuge, along with a nine-day archery deer hunt in November. Waterfowl hunting is allowed in the adjacent Crow Creek Wildlife Management Area, which is beyond the railroad to the west of the park.   

A bald eagle basks in the evening sun. Photo: Bob Butters

A bald eagle basks in the evening sun. Photo: Bob Butters

Map and Directions

From Tennessee, take the South Pittsburg/Kimball exit on I-24 and go southwest on U.S. Highway 72 for about 15 miles, exiting at AL Highway 117 at Stevenson. Turn right, then left in less than half a mile at the sign for Stevenson City Park. Driving straight into the park, restrooms are on the right just past the playground area.

View a map of the Jackson County wildlife management areas, which includes Crow Creek Refuge and the city park, here.

GPS: N 34.8502 W 85.8342

 

 
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Bob Butters is an outdoor writer, photographer, and landscaper. A lifelong naturalist, as well as a hiker, mountain biker, and paddler, he has been exploring the outdoors in the Chattanooga area since 1980. Bob lives with his wife in the beautiful Sequatchie Valley, just west of Chattanooga, and publishes the blog Nickajack Naturalist.