Although you'll most likely drive into into Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in North Alabama, most of its visitors arrive by air.
That’s because most visitors here are birds – many, many birds. In fact, 285 species have been identified on this 35,000-acre tract along the Tennessee River between Decatur and Huntsville.
The most storied and conspicuous of Wheeler’s visitors are whooping cranes. These giants stand up to five feet tall and have wingspans of almost eight feet.
A few whoopers, North America’s most famous endangered bird, plus thousands of slightly shorter sandhill cranes spend winters at Wheeler. There are now a few hundred whooping cranes in existence thanks to human intervention and protection after the total population at one time plunged to only 15 birds.
The first whooping cranes found Wheeler thanks to a follow-the-leader game. A man disguised as a bird flying an ultra-light aircraft first led juvenile cranes to land here as part of Operation Migration, which established an eastern wintering ground in north Florida. Operation Migration teaches whoopers from central Wisconsin the route. In the program’s early years, they stopped at Wheeler. Now, mature birds bring youngsters with them.
Wheeler’s wildlife observation building offers a glass-enclosed room (spotting scopes included) that provides you a sheltered place to see a great variety of birds – migrating songbirds in spring, hummingbirds returning from Central America as summer approaches, warblers in October and thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese in autumn and winter. In addition, other wildlife is abundant, five hiking trails are open and fishing is good.