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Bird fanatics

by CHERYL SCHWEIZER
Staff Writer | March 29, 2023 1:30 AM

OTHELLO — Sandhill cranes have a special meaning for Debb Reiley.

Reiley lives in Seattle now but spent 30 years in Alaska, the summer range for sandhill cranes.

“The sandhill cranes would land by my house,” she said. The flocks would take flight early in the morning. “I would wake up, listen to them go overhead.”

Reiley was among the people who came to Othello last weekend to watch birds, learn about local flora, fauna and geology at the 25th Sandhill Crane Festival.

Birdwatchers filled the Othello Church of the Nazarene Saturday, and the table where longtime festival volunteer Chris Braunwart was selling souvenirs was doing a brisk business.

“We have a wonderful crowd this year,” Braunwart said.

The festival was canceled in 2020 and was scaled back in 2021 and 2022.

“Last year we had a slow opening,” Braunwart said. “We only had six lectures.”

But 2023 brought back a full schedule of lectures and tours.

Mike Denny has been leading tours for the Sandhill Crane Festival since it started in 1997.

“The first year we had 400 (attendees),” he said.

People around Othello were familiar with the flocks of birds that came and went in the spring, but they were a little skeptical about the longevity of a community event built around them, he said.

Birds congregate all around Othello, including the city’s wastewater treatment facility, and the first festival included a trip out the treatment pond, he said. The first person off the bus on that first tour tripped and fell, getting some bruises in the process. Denny remembered asking if she needed to go back to town to get the scratches and bruises treated.

“She said, ‘Absolutely not, I’m not missing those birds.’ That’s when I knew,” Denny said.

His hunch, that the festival would be successful, turned out to be correct, he said.

“It has grown and grown and grown,” he said.

The festival now attracts birdwatchers from all over, many longtime birders and some people who just wanted to see what it was all about.

Darcy Varona, Spokane, used to participate in sandhill crane counts back in Wisconsin, she said.

“They’re special to me,” she said.

Reiley remembered trips with her children early in the Alaskan spring after the birds had returned, just to watch and listen to them.

“We’d take our burner and make hot cocoa in the snow,” she said.

Barb Boland, Lewiston, Idaho, said she and her husband Russ aren’t really birdwatchers. But they were looking for things to do so they fit the festival into their itinerary, which also included a stop at a Tri-Cities quilt show.

“Road trip,” Boland said.

Susan Johnston, Thorp, said she and her husband were attending for the first time. Being birdwatchers they were curious about it, she said, and it turned out to provide, among other things, a chance to hang out with other birdwatchers.

“There are like-minded people,” she said.

Festival organizers also sponsor crafts and exhibits for children, and the McFarland Middle School gym was filled with children making bird masks and bird hats.

Braunwart said the entire festival depends on the help of volunteers, both from Othello and other places. Like Denny, Randy Hill has been volunteering at the festival for a long time. Saturday he was out at Marsh Unit 1 on the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge with a spotting scope, at a location that provided prime viewing of sandhill crane roosting grounds.

The cranes were there in abundance - Hill said he counted about 1,150 early Saturday afternoon. He said they choose that spot because it gives them space and a good view of their surroundings.

“Security,” he said.

Denny said birds are a source of endless fascination for birdwatchers.

“You never learn it all,” he said. “You are never at the end of the learning curve.”

Cheryl Schweizer can be reached via email at education@columbiabasinherald.com.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Birdwatchers Raina Glenn, left, and Katie Tackman, right, scout for birds at an overlook on the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge during the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Isaiah Zuniga works on a bird-themed craft Saturday during the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Cynthia Purinton uses a spotting scope to examine the roosting ground for sandhill cranes and other birds at the Marsh Unit 1 overlook on the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge Saturday.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Adyra Flores concentrates on her painting while working on bird-themed craft for children at the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Debb Reiley looks over the classes and activities in the Othello Sandhill Crane Festival brochure. The festival celebrated its 25th annual event this past weekend.

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CHERYL SCHWEIZER/COLUMBIA BASIN HERALD

Teagan McCuistian paints a bird mask at Saturday’s Sandhill Crane Festival in Othello.