OTHELLO _ More than 15 years ago, workers at the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge noticed that dozens of sandhill cranes had stopped in this central Washington town to feed before moving north.
The open farmland around Othello serves as “staging grounds,” where large numbers of cranes congregate and rest before departing on the last leg of their migration to breeding grounds. The birds stay in the area for about three to four weeks, experts say.
This weekend, those cranes are expected to attract 1,500 tourists from across the country to Othello’s Sandhill Crane Festival.
“It’s a delicate balance of nature and agriculture,” said Barbara Anderson, manager of the Othello Chamber of Commerce. “We believe Othello is a perfect place for those two things to merge.”
When it began in 1998, the festival had approximately 400 attendees and few activities. Today, the three-day festival brings in $20,000 in revenue and fills local restaurants and hotels.
“It brings people in to eat at our restaurants, sleep at our motels and shop in our stores. It’s a huge boost in the economy for Othello,” said Marie Lotz, coordinator for the festival.
The cranes once appeared to be nearing extinction before the population rebounded, according to Dr. Richard Johnson, an ornithologist and professor emeritus at Washington State University.
Johnson said the area’s extensive marshes attract the birds. In flights, cranes are relatively easy to distinguish from other birds like herons, Johnson said.
“Instead of flying with their neck in an S-shaped kink like herons do, they hold their necks straight out, so their beaks, heads, necks, and body are all in a straight line, with their long legs in straight line out behind. Rather impressive,” Johnson said.
The festival organizes various events throughout the weekend, ranging from prestigious guest speakers to exhibits, featuring approximately 47 different species of birds. Visitors can tour an Ice Age landslide west of Othello, and craft workshops and scavenger hunts are available for children.
Featured speakers include Johnson, who will discuss how and why specific birds migrate, as well as Idie Ulsh, past president of Seattle Audubon and founding president of the Washington Butterfly Association.
About 400 people volunteer each year to help the festival, Lotz said.
“We’re hoping to continue to build the festival stronger and stronger,” she said.
This year’s festival will take place April 5-7 at Othello High School. The festival is sponsored by the Greater Othello Chamber of Commerce and the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Photo courtesy of Othello Outlook