OUTDOORS - In search of Sandhills

The annual migration of the Sandhill cranes has begun, and a trip to the Othello area turns up flocks of the majestic birds.

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Three Sandhill cranes take a break from eating to eye a photographer.

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Five Sandhill cranes fly low.

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A large group of Sandhill cranes eat, keep an eye out and fly away.

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A wooden bridge crosses a stream at the Bailie Memorial Youth Ranch wildlife are.

OTHELLO - Sandhill cranes have arrived. Perhaps 10,000 will pass through the Columbia Basin in the next few weeks.

Well, they may have been here for weeks already. I saw a dozen land in a field along Ringold Road a few days ago.

So, two days later, I hunted for them in earnest, along with my wife, Darlene, and Nora the Schnauzer.

I've snapped dozens of long-range photos of cranes in the Basin during the last few years, but vivid close-ups, even with the 150-500-millimeter zoom lens, have eluded me.

So, this could be my year, huh?

We bought orange juice and bananas in Basin City and motored toward Highway 17. We turned north on a side road and minutes later at least 200 cranes chirruped and grazed in a sloped green field.

The closest were 200 yards away, too far to see their red faces or their yellow eyes through the camera lens.

I snapped a few shots from the car window, with Nora standing on the door's arm rest to see the birds, and we moved on.

We drove back through Basin City and northwest, up the hill on Sagehill Road (where we had seen herons before).

After a few miles, we turned east on Hendricks Road.

As usual, we stopped at the Bailie Memorial Youth Ranch wildlife area so Nora could stretch her legs. We would walk to a waterfall, while Darlene read in the car.

When we left the car, a flock of cranes rose beyond a ridge a mile to the north. Hundreds of the huge birds in flight resembled a cloud of mosquitoes.

Their chirruping , which Darlene called "purring," sounded right overhead. Even Nora tipped her head to listen.

A stream flows south from a lake on posted land north of the road. We followed it for a quarter-mile to the falls and took a steep path down to the water for a close-up view.

After that we crossed the stream on a picturesque wooden bridge 75 yards above the falls.

We skirted a swamp and did the Groucho hustle through a patch of Russian olive trees.

Remember the Groucho hustle? Bend at the waist and bend the knees?

That's it.

Keeps your head out of the low-hanging branches.

After checking the view from the west-side bluff, we headed back.

On the way, Nora found a sun-bleached bovine skull. She sniffed it thoroughly, but gave up on taking it home. She couldn't pick it up.

From the wildlife area, we meandered toward Othello on back roads, some east, some west and some north. We occasionally saw cranes in flight and as blue-gray blurs way off in fields.

We dined with a king, on burgers, at Othello and drove a 30-mile loop through the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, an area of lakes (with waterfowl), sage, tall bluffs and basalt cliffs.

We made it back to Othello an hour before dark and turned south on Thacker Road from Highway 26.

Minutes later, we passed a flock of red-wing blackbirds scratching in a field beside the road. I drove slowly.

When I pulled onto a dirt road to turn around, a bunch of cranes stood in a field on Darlene's side.

And three of the 4-foot-tall, gawky birds stood in the field on my side. They pecked at the ground about 15 yards away. I buzzed the window down, slowly lifted and aimed the camera as Nora, panting with excitement, crowded into the window.

Elbowing Nora to the side, I snapped away. The birds smiled and blinked.

At last, close-up photos of sandhill cranes.

I smiled and blinked.

Why not? In the LCD window I saw their red faces and yellow eyes.

So, we could go home after a day well spent.

Yet, I paused. Alas, I'd never shot photos of them doing their impressive hopping and prancing mating rituals.

Slowly, as daylight turned to dusk, we headed for Highway 17 and home.

Maybe I'll see a mating ritual later this year.

And if not this year, as Boston baseball fans often say, "there's always next year."

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com or 526-8326.

If You Go

The 13th annual Othello Sandhill Crane Festival takes place this week, Friday through Sunday.

For a list of the activities, including the Friday's Birding Lower Crab Creek Tour with leaders Mike and MaryLynn Denny of Walla Walla (from 3:30 p.m. to dark), check the information at www.othellosandhillcranefestival.org or call 509-488-2802.

The festival began in 1998. About 1,500 now attend the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival and another 2,500 or so visit the area from late February through April to look for cranes.

While some events require a fee, visitors may pay an admission fee ($7 for adults, $5 for seniors and no charge for children under 12 with a paid adult admission) and attend free lectures on Saturday at Othello High School (340 S. Seventh Ave.).

Some experts estimate that 35,000 cranes leave their wintering grounds in California, beginning in February, and pass through Eastern Washington to breeding grounds in southern Alaska.

The cranes weigh about seven pounds, stand nearly four-feet tall and have a wing span of seven feet.

They fly up to 400 miles a day, warbling all the way (much as geese honk). They're often seen catching thermal currants and flying in wide, rising circles.

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