From across the swamp comes an eerie screeching noise, like a rusty nail being dragged over metal. If I were somewhere else, I might be unnerved, but here in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, I know it's simply the call of this wild place: a Sandhill crane arriving at its winter home.
Okefenokee's secluded, 400,000-acre backcountry attracts more than 1,000 migrating cranes between November and mid-February. The wet prairies, combined with the region's mild winter temperatures, make the refuge a Mecca for all kinds of snowbirds-herons, ibises, egrets, ospreys, and red-shouldered hawks. But if cranes are what you're after, the prairies on the park's east side are your best bet.
Most backcountry campers paddle to one of seven designated campsites along the refuge's 120 miles of canoe trails. The Purple Trail through Chase Prairie or the Green or Red Trails through Floyd's Prairie are good routes for viewing Sandhill cranes, which are larger relatives of the native Florida cranes that live at the refuge year-round.
Okefenokee NWR is 11 miles southwest of Folkston, Georgia, off US 121.
Migrating cranes begin arriving in November and leave around mid-February.
Paddling Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, by David M. O'Neill, Elizabeth Anne Domingue, and Elizabeth Stone O'Neill (Falcon Books, 800-582-2665; $12.95).
Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, (912) 496-7836. For permits, call (912) 496-3331 between 7 and 10 a.m. eastern time.