When the best moments are after you miss the turn to head home.
I sat in an Othello High School hallway, eating my sandwich at the 20th Annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival. The Owl Lecture room was standing room only, so I found myself in familiar territory—flash back to eating lunch by myself in high school about forty years ago.
I had no adolescent feeling of exclusion, though I lapsed into the same behavior I did back then: eavesdropping on the popular kids.
A trio of seniors chatted nearby. In the spring, Othello, Washington’s, population of 7,634 swells to 42,634—if you count the cranes. The Keynote Speech was titled Cranes Are People, Too!, so they definitely count.
It soon became evident that the chatting trio were part of the 400 volunteers at the festival—an astonishing 5+% of the population. One of them, I learned, would be the agriculture expert leading my Sandhill Crane Tour later that afternoon. They compared notes on how the tours that day had gone so far.
The Blind Photography tour had been a total bust, my guide lamented to his seatmates.
“Where did they build it?” the seatmate asked.
Oh! A blind! Noun, not adjective.
“You know the stand of Russian olives south of town? Go down past that a couple blocks and over to the hay stacks.”
“Oh, yeah, great spot. But no luck, huh?”
Now those were locals. In Seattle, it would be along the lines of, “You know the Starbucks by the freeway? Go down a couple of blocks and over to the Whole Foods. It’s right behind the HILLARY billboard near the homeless encampment that got swept by Mayor Murray.”
“They were there for 45 minutes, and not a single bird. So they got back on the bus and drove off to find birds.”
While my crane tour wasn’t a bust, neither was it entirely satisfying. We saw cranes—from a distance, often from a moving school bus, through closed windows. The driver would slow to a creeping crawl—torture to birders trying to use optics and long lenses. At one point as we crept along at one mile per hour, which I’m sure the driver thought was helpful, I shouted, “Stop the bus!” The couple in front of me, the husband armed with a long telephoto, echoed, “Stop the bus!” Then a small child in the back seat screeched, “Stop the bus!” and the bus lurched to a stop: the school bus driver was attuned to shrieking kids.
We blasted past flocks of Yellow-headed blackbirds and a Marsh Hawk, as our ag guide called what is now named the Northern Harrier. I gave him points for using the name I prefer, though I had to dock points for his lecture about the benefits of Roundup. Still, this illustrated the delicate balance of what we were dealing with here: an endangered, migratory species dependent on fallow corn fields, and on tourists wanting access to private farmland to see the birds. Of keeping the peace between big business agriculture and nature lovers. Of maintaining a harmonious relationship between the farmers and the birds themselves: the birds, in fact, had not migrated through this area until it became agricultural land when the dams were built in the mid-20th century.
In the usual unsolvable What came first, the crane or the egg? debate, the answer here was clear: ag land came first with the advent of irrigation systems. Some stray sandhill crane, sidetracked by a Dylan or Stones concert, caught up with his friends and family at their breeding grounds in Alaska at the end of migration and said, “Guys! You have got to check out this buffet on the way back to California in the fall!” (Cranes dance to attract mates, and it is entirely possible that this same crane brought back some moves from a counter-culture rock festival.) And thus a new migration route was born—like soggy Washingtonians to arid Arizona with stops at Chick-fil-A.
Othello seemed to be doing a darned good job of bridging this gap, through educating the tourists and involving the local community. The tours include a National Wildlife Refuge guide and an agricultural guide—so I got to learn about irrigation systems (I can now tell the difference between surface, wheel line, pivot, and drip systems) as well as about cranes:
- the bright red on their heads isn’t feathers; it’s bald, red skin
- the newly hatched cranes are called colts
- sandhill cranes mate for life
- 20% of eggs are fertilized by the neighboring male
There was still work to be done, though, as evidenced by the hallway trio complaining about seeing some tourists walking onto private land earlier that day. They sounded ferociously indignant at the trespassing, which seems harmless: a few folks walking on an unused dirt field. But I’d get my hackles up if a stranger strolled through my backyard to get a closer view of how well my teen has done with his weekly chore of cleaning up the dog poop.
Neither of our tour guides mentioned who or what was here in this landscape before the dams, before irrigation, before agriculture, before the cranes, before the many fishermen we spotted on man-made bodies of water in the middle of the desert.
But I learned at a lecture that in 1932 there were only 69 trumpeter swans left in the United States. SIXTY-NINE! Lewis and Clark mentioned many swans all along the Columbia River. They had been hunted for food; quill pens; feathers for stuffing; and for their tanned skins, used for powder puffs by the likes of George Washington. By the 1950s, there was 1 swan–one!–in Washington’s Skagit Delta, where there are now 14,000. There are now nearly 63,000 trumpeter swans in the United States: decimated by man, brought back by man from the brink of extinction. Swans, like the cranes, now rely on fallow agricultural fields. Even our Roundup-enthusiast guide planned to report a farmer applying weedkiller too close to a field of cranes.
We were finally let off the school bus to view the cranes on a distant hill. They were far away, but I wasn’t disappointed. Birding was never a sure thing. We could have easily seen no cranes at all. The day was gorgeous, and we got to hear their calls: rather turkey gobble-gobble-ish.
That distant glimpse on an official tour, I thought, was the last I’d see of the cranes.
Our tour bus had traveled southeast of Othello to see the cranes, but we doubted we would find cranes on our own, no matter how hard we tried. So the next day my friend Wendy and I headed for the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Othello. We saw ducks and birds (and a big black dog waiting in line all on his own for a Port-a-Potty), but the primary road through the refuge was closed while the cranes were in town, to give them some mating privacy. It was rainy and chilly, so we turned around and headed west toward home on a back highway.
Black-billed magpies flew over the car or perched on wires, but we saw little other birdlife on a damp and grey day. Giving up, we searched for the creatively named Road M in order to get to the freeway.
Then I saw this:
“Wendy! Two f&%$ing cranes! In the field!” I shouted. I’m still not sure how I spotted them this far away from a moving car. Our tour had successfully schooled me on what smudgy grey vertical blobs to look for.
Wendy, as she had done expertly the entire weekend, managed to swiftly pull over. We knew not to get out of the car and startle them, plus we didn’t want to trespass, so through the windows we watched them court.
It turned out that we had missed our turnoff, even with Wendy’s modern GPS system on her lap. Road M lay somewhere behind us. If we had made the turn, we never would have seen the pair of dancing cranes.
Wendy turned the car around and we headed back along Frenchman Hills Road. We spotted another group of cranes, as well as a pair of Marsh Hawks hunting over a field. The hawks separately flushed two birds that The Not So Little Birder (home studying because of failing grades) could have immediately identified. Rail? Bittern? Snipe? Curlew? Willet? I’ll never know. Long-billed, brown, and big bodied, they seemed shorebird-like and wildly out of place here in the desert side of the state. But so did many of the other birds we’d seen in this altered landscape: not just the cranes, but American coots, northern pintails, redheads, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, green-winged teals, killdeer, wigeons. Wildlife has lost so much habitat because of humans, it seemed somehow fitting that we’d given something back.
It’s a pivotal place, and more than ever this seems like a pivotal moment in time for the preservation of species on our damaged planet. Festivals like Othello’s remind us to try to live upon it more gently, to attempt compromise between big business and struggling wildlife, to leave a footprint like a puff of dry grass (but not on someone else’s lawn), and to savor moments of wonder when we stray from planned routes (and also to leave the teenager home sometimes).
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Photos of the Red-Coated loon by Wendy Call.
All other photos by Jennifer D. Munro.