Othello Sandhill Crane Festival
The Othello Sandhill Crane Festival is about a lot more than just cranes. If you love nature and are interested in birds, geology, plants, etc. this is a great way to meet like minded people while attending seminars and tours which are lead by some very interesting people who have been studying these topics for most of their lives. The daily schedule is packed with several tours our talks going on in parallel every hour four several days. It was tough to decide which ones to do because you could not do it all.
Othello is a unique location with most of the area being farm land for grains, fruit and onions. It is in the middle of no where but it is surrounded by some really cool country. Potholes State Park, Vantage, Hanford Reach, Saddle Mountains, Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and Ginko State Park and West Crab Creek are all less than an hour away.
This year's festival was the first one that I have attended. For the last couple years I have birded in the area in the spring on my own because the festival was not on because of Covid . I saw and taught myself a lot of good stuff but going to the seminars and the tours at the festival opened up my eyes to how much more there is. I was more than impressed with how well it was planned, the effort put into it and the quality of the guides and presenters. Most people probably go for the cranes but I was most impressed with the knowledge of the people who were there to share it.
The first thing we did was take a tour to view the cranes. We were loaded on school buses and driven around with a biologist. They have negotiated with some of the locals farmers to cut their corn stalks off just above the last row of corn leaving some in the field for the birds. I believe it is around 800 acres around the area. They know where those farms are and I didn't so I saw a significantly larger number of birds in one hour than I had in two years prior.
The guides knew where they went to roost too so that evening we went on a guided tour at sunset and the cranes flew in one by one in small flocks landing on the opposite side of the lake from us with the sunset in the back ground and the moon above. It was remarkable.
They offered several guided birding trips and the first one we chose was 1.5 hours long in one of the two main local parks. It was a stark contrast to the landscape around us. It is densely populated with large mature evergreen trees surrounded by desert and irrigated farm land. It turns out owls roost in evergreens and eat the mice in the fields. It was led by a guy named Micheal who was raised in Africa as a young child and would spend his time after school in the bush and was interested in the birds along with the rest of his friends. He said when he moved here at the age of eight he was surprised to find out the kids here were not interested in the birds and wildlife. After the tour it was an easy decision to decide on which tour to do for the next day. Micheal was leading on all day birding tour along West Crab Creek.
Luckily the tour was not full for the next day and we signed up. That guy knew were individual birds would be and delivered on a Plover in a field and a couple Great Horned Owls. He could glance at a bird and know what it was.
We went to an owl roost and found some pellets on the ground. Mike tore them apart and could identify the individual mouse bones inside
While hiking up the alluvial fan on the north side of the Saddle Mountains to find a spot to eat lunch we noticed that there was some light colored rocks randomly in the mix of dark basalt Darcy picked up a piece and determined it was petrified wood. The mountains are on the opposite side of the Columbia River where Gingko State Park is. That layer in the rock is on both sides of the river and the river cut through it. One side is state park and the other BLM. They both have agatized wood.
The following week I went to the BLM office to ask where I could find some petrified wood and if it was okay to take home rocks and minerals from BLM land. They handed me a map with some areas on Saddle Mountain where you can mine up to 25 pounds a day.
We went back the following weekend and drove to the top of West Saddle Mountain. It turns out the mines are in the ORV park so expect to see some motorcycles. The road is rough. We did not take the Prius and it would not have made it but any car or truck with decent clearance should be fine.
The views from the top are some of the biggest I have ever seen. To the south you overlook the Hanford Reach and White Bluffs along with the only free flowing section of the Columbia River that I have ever seen. Across the river is Rattlesnake mountain and the Hanford Site where they enriched uranium for nuclear bombs. To the west again looking across the Columbia is the Cascade mountains and looking further north you can see the Vantage bridge and the Gorge.
In certain areas people have been digging seemly randomly all over. I really could not determine what the best strategy was but after digging in the dirt for an hour or so we started finding small pieces of petrified wood with the largest being slightly bigger than a bar of soap. After a few hours we had approximately 30 pounds between the two of us.
Sandhill Cranes coming in to roost. They like to hang out in shallow water to protect them from predators.
Cranes feeding in a corn field
From the top of West Saddle Mountain looking north at the Gorge and the Vantage bridge
If you look closely you can see a small red wing patch. Female Red-winged Blackbird
Can you hear the Meadow Lark singing?
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