Spring in the Mid-Columbia means 25,000 lesser sandhill cranes passing through on their way north and stopping to forage for grain and corn.
One of the best ways to see them is with Othello Sandhill Crane Festival guided tours to the places that locals know they return year after year.
Registration has opened for the 20th annual festival March 24-26, which offer a variety of tours, lectures and other activities. The most popular tours fill quickly each year, many with visitors coming from west of the Cascades.
The birds usually leave their wintering areas in California’s Central Valley from January to mid-March on their way to breeding grounds to south-central Alaska, according to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.
They may spend a couple of weeks, usually in March, in the Mid-Columbia to rest, feed and restore their energy before resuming their migration.
3 to 3.5 feet height
5 feet wingspan
6 to 7 pounds weight
The Othello area includes the right mix of croplands, with leftovers on the ground in the spring and wetlands nearby for roosting, loafing and drinking.
When the festival began 20 years ago, the fields and slopes around Othello attracted fewer sandhill cranes. As more farmers in that part of Adams County began planting more fields of grains and corn, benefiting from the Columbia Basin irrigation Project, more cranes began making the area a stopover.
These days, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service leases land in the area to farmers to plant corn, with the farmers getting a portion of the crop and leaving the rest of in the fields for the migrating birds. Some of the participating farmers serve as festival tour guides, helping explain the agricultural aspect, along with wildlife experts.
Tours are offered by boat, bike and bus. Visitors can choose from tours to see and hear sandhill cranes, or other tours focused on topics like geology, waterfowl, photography and wind turbines.
Sandhill cranes can fly 15 to 50 miles per hour, depending on wind speed and direction, and may fly 150 to 400 miles a day. Unlike herons, they fly with necks outstretched, not pulled back.
A full day of lectures is planned Saturday, March 25, plus a Friday evening talk by Nick Zentner from Central Washington University, known for his 2 Minute Geology videos.
Other key speakers will include photographer and author Paul Bannick on his new book Owl: A Year in the Lives of North American Owls, and wildlife artist and photographer Bart Rulon talking about field and camera techniques. Gary Ivey, of the International Crane Foundation, will talk about what cranes and people have in common at the Saturday banquet.
Mid-Columbia experts will cover drone use in agriculture, area reptiles and growing mushrooms, among a wide range of topics. The Washington State University Raptor Club is bringing its hawks, owls, eagles and falcons.
Many activities will be geared at educating the next generation of birders, including crafts, games and wildlife caricatures by cartoonist Jimmye Turner.
Sandhill cranes may live up to 20 years or more and mate for life. Juvenile cranes are called colts.
General admission is $10 for adults and $5 for seniors, with children under 12 free with paid adult admission. Tours are priced separately in addition to admission. Crane viewing tours to see and hear the birds are $14 for adults and $8 for seniors and children.
Locations are listed in the festival brochure. Most lectures are at Othello High School, 340 S. Seventh St., and tours may depart from MarDon Resort, the Stevens Funeral Home at 511 S. Seventh St. or the main gym doors of the high school parking lot.
The brochure listing all activities, with a registration form, is posted at othellosandhillcranefestival.org. Register by mailing the form and payment to the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival, P.O. Box 542, Othello, WA 99344, or by leaving a message at 866-726-3445. Keep your registration form and credit card handy for when a volunteer returns your phone call.
The deadline for registration by mail is March 17.
The Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report.