Othello provides glimpse each March into world of migrating sandhill cranes
To sandhill cranes, tens of thousands of which drop in on Othello each March, the fecund lands in and around the Columbia National Wildlife refuge are like an avian Fred Meyer store: It's one-stop shopping for everything they need for the coming long push north to Alaska for summer breeding.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Sandhill cranesOverview: Grus canadenis. Among largest North American flying birds; long-legged, long-necked marsh and field bird with gray body, red forehead, white cheek and tufted rump feathers; one of world's oldest bird species, dating back 40 million years; known for distinctive, throaty calls, made with a trachea that can measure from 2 to 5 feet long.
Size: At 4 feet tall, with wingspan of up to 8 feet, the greater sandhill crane is significantly larger than the great blue heron, another large wading bird commonly seen in Washington. (Lesser sandhills are about 3 feet tall, with a shorter wingspan.) Unlike the heron, the crane flies with its neck straight forward.
Population: While nonmigratory subspecies in the Southern United States are in trouble, North American stocks of migratory sandhill cranes are healthy, numbering more than 500,000.
Breeding pairs: Wiped out by hunting, predation and habitat loss in Washington state by 1941; some returned in 1970s and now number about 50, mostly in the Conboy Lake Wildlife Refuge in Klickitat County, although they are considered endangered.
Columbia Basin: Up to 25,000 stop annually from February to mid-April while migrating from winter habitat in Southern Oregon and California to breeding grounds in Alaska.
Age span: No breeding until age 2 to 7 years; the birds live up to 25 years in the wild, up to 80 years in captivity, and mate for life, although biologists say "divorce" is not uncommon
For more information and to hear a recorded sandhill-crane call, see www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Sandhill_Crane/id
For details on the annual Sandhill Crane Festival, see www.othellosandhillcranefestival.org.
Sources: Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and Columbia National Wildlife Refuge
OTHELLO, Adams County —
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 one-stop shopping for everything they need for the coming long push north to Alaska for summer breeding.
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.
Over the weekend, 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 silver-gray 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.
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.
At a Saturday lecture, Gordon Orians, professor emeritus of biology at the University of Washington, clicked off the changes he's seen in these hills and waterways over a half-century of research on red-winged blackbirds.
The irrigation project has made the wildlife refuge and its native shrub-steppe habitat a tiny, 30,000-acre island in a vast ocean of plowed agricultural land, which has caused some native species to vanish. Cheatgrass has pushed out native grasses.
In the water, invasive species such as carp have made their way up the Columbia River and into local ponds, clearing the bottoms of vegetation and stealing the insect food source of some bird species.
Beavers, thanks to the now-constant water, have thrived but were kept in check by trappers in the water project's early years. With a collapse in the market for beaver fur, those trappers have gone, Orians noted.
Result: An exploding beaver population has stripped the refuge of most of its native cottonwoods, allowing Russian olive trees to replace them. And an ecosystem has been altered by a simple human fashion choice.
But one lesson of the Columbia Basin is that nature quietly, persistently, adjusts. Turning the region into a breadbasket for the world has taken away jackrabbits, ground squirrels and tiger salamanders, and sent burrowing owls scurrying for new homes along irrigation ditches. But other species have thrived. And over the weekend, people were celebrating them, photographing them and cherishing the memories.
For Othello, the cranes are spring's alarm clock, and it rang loudly over the weekend, to the tune of thousands of birds and dozens of local 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.
Ron Judd, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, scours the Northwest in search of people, places, traditions and endangered icons. Reach him at email@example.com or 206-464-8280.
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