A lone, rare hooded crane has been spotted at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge just north of Birchwood, Tenn.
The graceful bird -- one of fewer than 10,000 left in the world -- is a long way from home: Its normal breeding ground is southeastern Russia and northern China. And its normal winter home is Japan, South Korea or the Yangtze River in China.
"Nobody really knows why it's here," said Jen Davis, whooping crane tracker with the International Crane Foundation. Davis is here this week with Operation Migration to watch whooping cranes in a reintroduction migration stop at the Hiwassee Wildlife Refuge.
"It could be somebody's released crane, or maybe as a young crane it got lost," she said.
Whatever the reason, for local birdwatchers, the anomaly is a gift.
"This is a big deal. This is like winning the lottery for $400 million," said Doug Geren, a local birdwatcher.
"Birders get real excited about getting to add a new bird to their list of how many birds and species they've seen. Well, this is a species nobody's seen. It's not even supposed to be in North America," Geren said.
The 3-foot-tall, normally 8-pound bird first was spotted by two birdwatchers from Kentucky here to see the whooping cranes, Davis said.
Hooded cranes are diggers and foragers in both their breeding and natural wintering grounds, according to a U.S. Geological Survey website. The birds' natural diet includes aquatic plants, berries, insects, frogs, salamanders, roots, rhizomes, seeds and grass -- just the stuff of the Hiwassee Refuge.
Melinda Welton, co-chairman of the Tennessee Crane Festival, said she hopes the exotic visitor will hang around for the premier festival set for Jan. 14-15 from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. at the Hiwassee Refuge. The free festival will celebrate the tens of thousands of sandhill cranes that have been migrating through and wintering in Tennessee since the 1990s.
The free event will offer guides with spotting scopes at the refuge to help visitors view the cranes and other wildlife. There also will be speakers, workshops, films and children's activities at the Birchwood Elementary School.