26th Annual Sandhill Crane Festival one of the largest in years

Apr. 1—OTHELLO — The 2024 Sandhill Crane Festival flew into town the weekend of March 22, bringing with it a flock of visitors and bird enthusiasts heading into Othello. Festival Co-chair Kurt Braunwart said this year's event had one of the largest attendances yet.

"As we lead up to it, we always worry about how it's going to go, and then we get here for the day, and the attendees are so appreciative of being able to learn about the area, learn about the wildlife, learn about the connection of people, farming, and wildlife," Braunwart said. "It's going wonderful."

The event featured numerous lectures, tours, informational booths and activities for event attendees, covering birds, nature and wildlife in the Othello area.

"(There were) a lot of topics about geology, the Ice Age flood, other birds, mammals, the interaction of that wildlife with human life, like the heritage garden talk," Braunwart said, "and then that springs into how can you do a type of local landscape garden that helps promote the native (vegetation and wildlife) as well, which helps to tie everything together."

The festival has shaken off the COVID-19 pandemic's influence.

"We've, now as of this year, I think fully recovered from the pandemic years, because the first year of the pandemic, in 2020, we had to cancel the festival 10 days before it was to occur," Braunwart said. "That was kind of disheartening, and then the next year we had a virtual (event) and then the next year a small one and last year a little bit bigger, so it's been a challenge to get back the energy to pull it off again. But when we get smiling faces and appreciative people and attendees, all of a sudden it puts the energy back in."

Braunwart said feedback from those attending and involved in the event was positive.

"This year rivals probably our biggest attendance," he said. "I think some of that has been spurred on in that during the pandemic people didn't get to do this, and now people are more cognizant of, 'if we've got a chance to do it, we better do it.' And we appreciate that and we're just happy that it's been a (success), but it also makes it a challenge worth doing."

Jenny Bell, who was attending the event with her son, Garrett, said she came from out of town for the festival.

"We've really liked it," she said. "We drove an hour and a half to get here and so far we've done all kinds of fun crafts, like (making) butterflies and snakes. It's been really great so far ... And we think we saw a flock of sandhill cranes in the distance when we were driving here."

Meredith Shafer, a counselor at McFarland Middle School, was making crafts with her daughter, Neko.

"It's great. We started off by talking to some people from the (Columbia National) Wildlife Refuge, and then we came around into the crafts, and so far so good," she said.

Event attendees Barbara Culp and Theresa Connolly said the event was going well.

"I'm loving it," Culp said. "This is my first time here and it's terrific."

Connolly said it was also her first time at the festival, and she came down from Anacortes to attend it.

"We were going to come the year the pandemic struck," she said, "So now, here we are."

Both Connolly and Culp said their bus tour was one of their favorite parts of the festival.

"We went on a bus tour to see the cranes and the (guide) told us about the agricultural aspects here, which interested me," she said.

As for setting the event up, Braunwart said the festival doesn't usually have issues finding volunteers in Othello.

"We get up to around 400 volunteers that get involved with this, and they work for about two-thirds of the year doing it, more intensively right now," Braunwart said. "It's probably because of what we've all recognized. This is an opportunity not only to show off our area but to build community in our own town of Othello ... It's an opportunity to show off what we appreciate about nature in this area."

Braunwart elaborated on what else the event does for the community.

"The other thing that's nice about (the event), is it shows off how agriculture here is learning how and wanting to do an even better job of farming with nature, which we really want to be able to do and which people in the city want to know that we're trying to do," he said. "How can we (enjoy recreation) in combination with nature, not just in place of (it)."

Gabriel Davis may be reached at gdavis@columbiabasinherald.com.