(Reuters) - A rare Asian hooded crane, normally seen only in Southeast Asia, China and Japan, apparently "took a wrong turn" and has joined sandhill cranes wintering at the Hiwassee Refuge in southeast Tennessee, bird experts say, drawing flocks of curious birdwatchers along with it.
"It's a great thrill," said Melinda Welton, conservation chair for the Tennessee Ornithological Society and a bird migration researcher. "People are coming in from all over the country to see this bird."
Welton said local birdwatcher Charles Murray has been keeping a log of visitors to the town of Birchwood, near the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency refuge.
"He has had more than 700 people come and visit from all over the country to see this bird," she said. "People have come from 26 states and from two countries, including Russia."
The bird has been seen every day since mid-December, when the sandhill cranes arrived for their winter residency at the refuge.
Welton said this particular type of crane "nests in southern Russia and northern China and winters in Japan."
The TWRA said in a release that more than 8,000 of the hooded cranes - approximately 80 percent of the world's population of the species - winter on the Japanese island of Kyushu.
Welton said it is unlikely that the bird escaped from captivity, since there are no bands or other markings. Instead she said it's probably a happy freak occurrence that brought it to Tennessee.
"There have been other records of birds that take a wrong turn," she said. "And now that he's on the North American continent, it looks like he's associating with his closest relatives."
In addition to the Asian crane and the flock of sandhills, whooping cranes are wintering at the refuge.
"This is the highlight of the century for southeast Tennessee," said local birder Tommie Rogers.
"Likely there have never been three different crane species visible in the wild east of the Mississippi River before."
Bald eagles also are a common sight at the refuge that is about a 45-minute drive north or Chattanooga.
(Reporting by Tim Ghianni; Editing by James B. Kelleher and Tim Gaynor)