OTHELLO - The invasion occurs every spring. Like clockwork, the visitors seem to drop from the sky. Once assembled, they prance around in fancy plumage not often seen in these parts, engage in hilarious courtship rituals and saunter around like they own the place.
And those are just the bird geeks in Subarus from Seattle.
The prey they’re seeking – often with a pair of $1,200 binoculars or a spotting scope cradled like an infant – is the elusive sandhill crane, tens of thousands of which drop in on Othello, not coincidentally, every March, as well.
To the cranes, the fecund lands in and around the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge are like an avian Fred Meyer store: It’s onestop shopping for everything they need for the coming long push north to Alaska for summer breeding.
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Water, for a roosting refuge? Check. The Potholes Reservoir, the Crab Creek drainage and seep lakes provide an abundance you can see not only from the several-thousand-foot soaring height of a migrating crane, but from space. It’s not really natural, per se – the water is backed up from the various dammings of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. Doesn’t matter to birds.
Food, like downed corn crops? Check. The transformation of this former desert to fruitful agricultural land over the past half-century has opened the buffet line for cranes and other migratory birds in search of high-test fuel for their next flight. Cranes began stopping here, rather than just flying over, in the 1970s.
Safety, in the form of lands closed to hunters, dogs and other predators? Check, also. Many sections of the Columbia refuge, established in 1944 as a byproduct of the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project, are closed to humans during the crane’s spring and fall migrations, allowing them to mingle and make their throaty cooing calls in absolute peace.
Unassuming Othello thus is on the mental map of a good chunk of the North American crane population. It’s the largest single staging area for this group of some 25,000 (mostly lesser) sandhill cranes that breed in Alaska. And the town for the past 14 years has taken advantage, with a Sandhill Crane Festival that smartly combines wildlife tours with natural history and wildlife lectures at Othello High School. The event draws up to 1,500 visitors.
Last week, most of them were out on school buses, bouncing around on gravel roads in search of crane nation. A three-hour tour of the visually stunning refuge provided a close-up glimpse of the region’s rich wildlife: great horned owls, numerous songbirds and waterfowl, a swimming muskrat and somewhat-rare (now) birds such as the loggerhead shrike. All could be seen from a road normally locked and closed to the public in spring.
But the big show was saved for the end, at twilight Friday. Refuge managers opened a gate in Marsh Unit 1 near O’Sullivan Dam along the Crab Creek drainage, allowing the bus to creep forward into a grassy-floored canyon. Across the creek, around a bend, above a large sandbar in an open meadow, stood hundreds of sandhill cranes, the uncontested showy redhead of North American bird species.
The birds, which stand up to 4 feet tall on pipe-cleaner legs and really do dance and hop around in a mesmerizing fashion, are a stunning, prehistoric throwback, looking and sounding – at least one can imagine – very dinosaurlike. The species dates back as far as 40 million years, and spying on this flock, in evening orange-juice sunlight between red-rocked canyon walls, feels like a spectacular glimpse into Earth’s past.
Bird watchers on the bus fall completely silent as the leading edge of this silvergray flock leans into the winds and, with the grace of a kite launching in a soft breeze, lifts off into flight for an evening feeding session, the distinctive, throaty clicking coos echoing across the canyon walls.
The call worms its way deep into the brain. If you can watch this, hear this and not get a shiver down your spine, you’re not really alive.
It’s the sort of Lewis-and-Clark moment that makes the Northwest such a treat to call home: a scene so spectacularly natural that it’s easy to imagine being the first person to see it.
It happens out here, somewhere, every day, for those willing to take the time to look around one more bend. It’s not necessary to hit the crane festival to find cranes, which will linger here another two or three weeks.
EASY TO FIND
With a stop at the wildlife refuge headquarters in Othello for a map, it’s not difficult to find the cranes, best viewed in fields south and west of town during morning and evening feeding times. They fly back to roost in less-accessible areas inside the refuge at midday and at night.
Viewers, of course, should exercise common-sense, wildlife-watching etiquette: Stay on roads, don’t block traffic or trespass and don’t do anything to spook the flocks. That’s all that’s asked by the friendly folks in Othello, who saw sellout crowds this year for a festival that almost didn’t happen.
The event was canceled in midwinter when numbers of volunteers, and available speakers for the lectures, were lagging. City of Othello staff members picked up the slack and rescued the festival, which is a godsend for local businesses.
Part of the motivation was the realization that, if Othello dropped the ball on the cranes, some other local town was sure to swoop in and take advantage.
“You can bet Quincy was going to snatch it right up!” longtime resident Barbara Pedersen, 85, said Saturday morning at a Rotary-sponsored pancake breakfast in the high-school gym.
The festival’s near-death experience might have given it new life, she said. “Now, instead of the crane-festival committee, it’s the crane-festival community.”
It has become part of the life cycle of Othello, which is surrounded by unusually poignant hints of the interaction between man, his habitat and other species.
For Othello, the cranes are spring’s alarm clock, and it rang loudly last week, to the tune of thousands of birds and dozens of cash registers.
For the rest of us, it is that rare, hopeful reminder: Our footprints on the earth are inarguably deep. But not every step is in the wrong direction.