I traveled to Othello, Washington, to witness the spring spectacle of thousands of Sandhill Cranes that gather in the area during migration. Their favorite spots are well known to their followers and I had a good birding book to guide me as well. So, I was lucky enough to find some cranes when I went looking for them.
I saw the first group as the sun was setting. On two sides of the road, cranes were munching in some stubbly fields. Their gray bodies almost disappeared against the gray-beige landscape.
The next morning I headed to the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge, where I hoped to see more cranes, but really went there to see the geological wonders of the region. The refuge is an incredible landscape of high desert, or shrub-steppe as it’s called, with numerous picturesque rocky cliffs. Basalt columns lord over the hills, with sagebrush dotting the parched land.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains habitat for the cranes, keeping water levels low so that the birds have a safe place to roost. They prefer rather shallow ponds and lakes. A FWS staffer, who was set up at a refuge overlook with a scope on the birds, told me that cranes’ biggest predator is the coyote, and the birds will spend the night in the water, away from any access of predators. The cranes like to have an open view, and the surrounding area should be free of hiding places for predators, such as woods and shrubs. I appreciated the view from the scope, though it was hard to keep a focus with the high wind gusts. What a windy day!
The refuge also provides access to an overlook of the Drumheller Channels, part of the channeled scablands of eastern Washington. It’s hard to appreciate the amazing aspects of the area from the ground. I suspect the best views are from the air. But I was happy to see part of the area I had read about.
I left the refuge and drove on to find another area further south that my guidebook said was favored by cranes. The roads are laid out pretty much in grids and I was able to find the road easily. I began to see some cranes, so pulled over and parked. I saw only one other car further down. I watched as small groups of cranes circled around. There were a few others on the ground at a distance. I decided to hang out for a while, and eat my lunch there. The sun was out, though it was windy.
As I was finishing my sandwich, I looked to my right and happened to see a cloud of cranes. I leapt up, grabbed my camera and was out of the car. Birds were swirling around, with groups passing under others. They made abstract patterns against the sky. They flew left and they flew right. Some landed. Others kept coming in from the east. The trumpeting calls announced their arrivals. They sounded so joyous, like they were all coming to a great family reunion. “We’re here,” they seemed to shout. “We’re coming.” I watched the spectacle for about a half hour. There were only a couple other cars by then, and I considered myself lucky to be there at the right time. I don’t know how many cranes were gathering there, thousands I’m sure. I watched until the strings of birds finally seemed to end.
What a great sendoff for me. I was ready to head home now. After I returned, I did a little research and was saddened to learn that many states allow hunting of Sandhill Cranes. I thought it was illegal to hunt cranes. I know Whoopers are protected, but I assumed so were Sandhills. These magnificent birds should be appreciated alive, in the air, not as stuffed trophies. What kind of thrill can it be to shoot one of these graceful birds out of the sky and then admire the dead creature in hand? At least there are refuges and communities in which to see these magnificent birds.
Here’s a good site to hear the crane’s calls: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/sandhill_crane/sounds