If you hear the distant sound of a calliope overhead, it’s probably a flock of sandhill cranes flying in formation looking for a place to land.
That’s how Audubon master birder Connie Sidles describes their call.
They’re big birds, with long necks and long legs.
And like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano, they’re back in the fields around Othello, Adams County.
Othello isn’t only a rest stop for Washington State University Cougars heading east to campus in Pullman along Highway 26.
It’s also an important rest stop for sandhill cranes migrating north to the Matanuska Valley of Alaska on their journey from the Central Valley of California.
For Dave Goeke, “They’re the sound of spring.” He used to manage the Columbia National Wildlife Refuge and the Hanford Reach National Monument and looks forward to their arrival each year.
“You can hear them a mile away, hear them without seeing them.”
Four feet tall with 6- to 7-foot wingspans, they love open prairies and wetlands on the Pacific flyway.
In this area, fields of corn stubble are favored. They’ll also eat mice, snakes and insects.
The birds are showy and like to strut about, standing tall, wings spread, ready to dance.
They’re most active early and late in the day.
They really don’t like people and will move to another field, leaving a birder to watch the remnants of harvested corn.
Just at sunset overlooking the Scooteney Reservoir a few miles outside of Othello, the birds come in for a secure place for the night.
In small groups, hundreds arrive in their V formations.
They’re joined by hundreds of ducks and geese.
At the next morning’s dawn they’ll be gone.
By mid-April the last of the 35,000 visitors will be heading north to Alaska to nest, breed and stay until September.