by Dan Egan

Springtime in Othello, Wash., is for the birds. For six weeks or so, peaking in late March, more than 25,000 sandhill cranes will pass through the region, stopping to eat, meet and greet before continuing the trip to their summer mating grounds on the south coast of Alaska. This weekend, hundreds of visitors will also flock to Othello, armed with Nikons and Bushnells to celebrate their arrival at the annual

SANDHILL CRANE FESTIVAL. This is the fifth year for the event (the festival, not the migration), which was the invention of city leaders and area wildlife managers when they realized that the sight of 25,000 of these huge and elegant birds might be a big draw. They were right. The festival has become so popular that it's in danger of outgrowing itself. The 100 or so hotel rooms in Othello will be full, and last year the town of 5,500 saw more than 1,200 visitors on festival weekend.

"Oh my gosh, it's grown incredibly," says Festival Coordinator Tamara Millage. "It's been a really good thing for our area."

Organizers are bracing for more people this year. The keynote speaker is Peter Mathiessen, National Book Award Winning author of The Snow Leopard. He'll be discussing his new book, The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes. Other lectures and activities take place throughout the weekend, including a crane-viewing bike tour and a five-mile crane run.

The object of all this attention is a tall, grey heron-like bird with a dramatic red patch on its forehead. At four feet tall, it stands about the same height as your average fourth grader, yet moves with considerably more grace. Millage says it's easy to see why people are so enamored with the animal.

"They're fascinating creatures. They're very intriguing and beautiful birds." The highlight for most people is seeing the lanky birds display their complex courtship "dance," which consists of synchronized dips, bows, head swings and elegant leaps off the ground as they spread their wings to a span of six to seven feet. Particularly inspired birds will also occasionally pick up items off the ground and toss them in the air. Randy Miller, a U.S. Fish & amp; Wildlife biologist, says the highly social birds usually have one mate for life, and the dancing is important because "it helps establish pair bonds." Older birds, who've typically retained their mates from the previous year, dance less frequently.

Miller says the cranes are popular with bird watchers because they have all the ingredients for a satisfying bird-watching experience. "They're tall, they're visible and they make an interesting call. You have to hear it," he says, unwilling to imitate the call himself. "It's kind of a low-pitched throaty, rolling... kruuck kruuck."

The birds can be seen and heard for 30 miles in the harvested corn fields and fertile land along the Scootney Reservoir southwest of Othello. Miller says they gorge themselves on waste corn and small, protein-rich invertebrates.

"They're going after insects, grubs, worms, things like that, which are higher in protein that they need for egg-laying and reproduction." He says the best way to see the birds is to register for one of the many guided tours and field trips. The best times to see them are in the mornings and late afternoons when they're most active. People can go out and view the cranes on their own, but Miller discourages it on festival weekend because the birds can be easily spooked. "Sometimes birders don't know when to stop getting closer," says Miller. " We're trying to take a lot of people up there to show them, and if somebody makes a mistake and spooks the birds off and they land in an area that's inaccessible, then we have a whole lot of people who are not very happy."

Organizers highly recommend registering in advance for the guided tours and field trips. "A lot of field trips have already filled up," says Millage. "So, if they come on festival day hoping to be on the guided tours, they may be out of luck." She says if visitors can't make it to the festival, they can plan a self-guided tour anytime. The cranes generally stay in the area until mid-April, "But," she jokes, "they're not really good about letting us know exactly what their plans are. They never call or write, they just show up."

The Sandhill Crane Festival takes place in Othello, Wash., March 22-24. For more information call (866) 726-3445.

Possibly no sport is so monastic as running. The simple act of going for a run can offer a certain degree of solitude that, for many runners, can't be achieved at any other time in their day. It's a time to clear their minds and put the world on hold for an hour or so. The fact that you don't need anyone else to run is one of its great advantages. Still, there are times when it's fun to run with other people. Maybe you're having trouble getting motivated to train for a certain 7.46 mile run that is less than six weeks away (yes, it is). Maybe you should join a local running club.

The largest local club is the BLOOMSDAY ROAD RUNNERS CLUB, which has 350 members. Club President John Pierce says runners of all abilities join the club. "It tends to break down into smaller sub-groups that run at the same speeds. Anywhere from people who've competed in the Olympic trials to walkers, we have all ranges."

One such subgroup (whose name suggests their speed level) is the Sunday Slugs, who meet every Sunday morning at Manito Park. Pierce says the club can offer motivation and support to people new to the sport. "People who want to get started in running discover that if they can get together with other people, they're not so self-conscious." The club has longer training runs on the weekends, and on Thursday nights the focus is on speed work on a track.

Not all clubs are created equal. In fact, two other local running clubs couldn't be any more different in their philosophies than the INLAND EMPIRE HASH HOUSE HARRIERS and TEAM MESSIAH. The Hashers describe themselves as "Drinkers with a Running Problem." Their training consists of running from various drinking establishments while partaking at each. They say "Hashing is to competitive running, what slo-pitch is to Major League Baseball. If you enjoy good times and a few (or many, many) cold beers, you're Hasher material." Members have colorful nicknames like Duke of Hurl, Beaver and Everhard.

Meanwhile, Team Messiah describes their club as: "As a Christian running ministry for anyone who has given their life to Jesus Christ and would like to represent him in the sport of running. If you love the Lord

and running, please feel free to join us today!" "At Team Messiah," they say, "the race is already won."

Other area clubs include: Palouse Roadrunners Club (Moscow, Idaho), North Idaho Road Runners (Coeur d'Alene, Idaho), Seaport Striders (Lewiston, Idaho). The 3 Rivers Road Runners (Tri-Cities, Wash.)

For more information, call Runners Soul at 624-7654.

The North Idaho Fly Casters host the First Annual FLY SHOW AND BANQUET on Saturday, April 6 at the Coeur d'Alene Inn. The event will start at 9 am, when the fly-tying demonstration begins. Fifty of the area's best fly-tiers will be demonstrating their techniques throughout the day. "You can just pull up a chair, sit down and watch them tie their specialties and pick their brains," says organizer Skip Silvester.

Fly casting instruction for kids and adults will be offered throughout the day, as well as a variety of programs and slide shows. Topics include, "Fly Fishing in Argentina," "Fishing Spring Creeks in Eastern Washington" and "Fly Fishing Alaska." All funds go to various conservation and restoration projects, including the Iron Honey project on the Coeur d'Alene River. The North Idaho Fly Casters have an impressive record when it comes to conservation. In 2000, they were voted the best conservation group among more than 100 Federation of Flyfishers clubs nationwide.

For more information contact Skip Silvester at (208) 772-5337. General admission: $8; $5 for 16 and under. Prime rib banquet tickets are $30 (includes general admission) and can be bought at Northwest Outfitters/Orvis, 402 W. Canfield, (208) 772-1497, and at the Coeur d'Alene Inn, 414 W. Appleway, (208) 765-3200.

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