Archive for May 2009

DIAMOND CRATERS: Visions of Hell Quenched

May 16, 2009

 

 

Great Horned Owl at Diamond CratersGreat Horned Owl in Lava Pit Crater

 

 

A time traveler here could see red magma flowing out of deep vents and volcanic bombs tossed through the air as a huge blast forms deep craters.  A version of hell or a terrible war zone.  This is Diamond Craters, a place unexpected in the remoteLava Pit Crater within Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area desert.  Karen and I visited Diamond Craters in late April 2009, in conjunction with our trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which I described in another recent post:  Malheur in April.

 

Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area is on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land adjacent to Malheur.  One of the wonderful aspects of the experience here is that we can explore on our own; there is a volcanic cinder road and a few short (but poorly marked) trails.  Other than that, we are free to tramp around the craters and cut our boots on jagged lava and watch for rattlesnakes and enjoy the vast blue desert sky.

 

I’ve been here several times over the years, and the first time was terrific, when I climbed down into Lava Pit Crater and observed a family of Great Horned Owls with three nearly mature young.  Karen and I decided this time that we could try and see if the owls still nested there.  While glassing the sheer walls of the crater from the rim, I spotted a mature Great Horned Owl perched on a ledge along the vertical wall.  We decided at that point that we would make a careful descent into the heart of the crater.

 

Lava Pit Crater is not large or deep, but the path down is tricky.  The first time I climbed down it, about 15 years ago, I fell and conked my long lens against a boulder.  My body is getting more fragile as I age, so I have to be more careful now (he says while nursing an ankle sprained while jogging!).  We took our time on this hike, and made it to the bottom without incident.  The broken volcanic rock is unstable underfoot, making a clanking sound when rock hits rock.

 

Inside the crater, we found the nest, which wasn’t too difficult; we just looked for the places with a lot of “whitewash.”  One adult was sitting on the nest, and eventuallyGreat Horned Owl on nest in Diamond Craters we saw a youngster sticking its fuzzy white head out from beneath the mother.  The nestling was too young to hold its head up for long, and it repeatedly wriggled under its parent’s body for shelter and warmth.

 

We spent the rest of the day investigating the craters and scattered wildflowers of Diamond Craters.  We especially enjoyed the sight of Malheur Maar, which is a crater resulting from a volcanic explosion that later filled with water.  The small desert lake has held water for about 7,000 years, according to scientists, and was home to Red-winged Blackbirds and American Coots during our visit.  Its deep sediments have botanical clues to the climate of the geologically recent past.

 

Malheur Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural AreaMalheur Maar is an explosive volcanic crater now filled with water; the tiny, geologically important lake is home to waterfowl and marsh birds

 

The BLM has an outstanding brochure, available online, called the Diamond Craters Tour Brochure that interprets the geological formations of Diamond Craters.  I found this brochure to be among the most informative interpretive guides I’ve ever read; it is endlessly informative and doesn’t “dumb it down” for the general public.  The brochure says that the volcanic activity at Diamond Craters is relatively recent at under 25,000 years.  The hot springs in the region, including the one below Steens Mountain that is such a great place to soak on a cold day, show that geothermal activity is alive and well nearby.

 

Side-blotched Lizard PortraitSide-blotched Lizard in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

 

 

Sand Lily (Leucocrinum montanum)Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff

 

 

East Twin Maar in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area

East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion

 

 

Western Juniper stands alone in the prairieA Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex

 

 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit jawbonesJackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl

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Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

 

GREATER SAGE GROUSE: Dawn on the Sagebrush Plain

May 15, 2009

 

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse dancing on lek near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

 

 

They gather in darkness, males on a mission.  Elaborately costumed, they begin to dance to an ancient inner song in a place that has remained a tradition for countless generations.  Spread out among the sagebrush, the males strut and puff out their chests in a show of virility and athletic prowess.  Their tail feathers fan out like those of a wild turkey.  These native Americans are the Greater Sage-Grouse, and this is their lek.

 

Karen and I shimmied out of our sleeping bags at 4:30 a.m., leaving our tent while stars still glowed in the endless high desert sky.  It was 22°F on this clear morning and there was no time to make coffee, so I substituted a Diet Coke to get my caffeine fix, hoping that adrenaline would also kick in upon seeing the Sage-Grouse.  We drove the 20 or so miles up to the lek, arriving at 5:30 a.m. as the sky was brightening.  We turned off the car engine, and began watching.

 

The Sage-Grouse wait for no human, so the display was well underway.  We counted 13 males, many strutting at once.  After an intense session of dancing, the tail feathers would fold and a male would take a break.  Then, if a nearby male started strutting, others in its vicinity would resume.

 

We have been to this lek perhaps seven times through the years, beginning about 15 years ago.  The numbers of birds and birders vary from time to time, but it is always unforgettable.  On our first morning this year we were the only humans at

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,

Directly across the road from the lek

 

the lek.  We decided to go a second morning, and we were one of five cars.  Every birder was on their good behavior; nobody got out of their cars to try to get a closer look (unlike one year, when a loud trip leader gathered the birders around him outside the vehicles).  Grouse on a lek are sensitive to human disturbance, so it is important to minimize the threat to the birds.  Sometimes other creatures will show up; this year a lone Pronghorn walked nearby.  We have also seen Mule Deer and a Badger.

 

Some mornings we have seen a lot of chasing and jousting of aggressive males (you have to love that testosterone!).  One time we saw a female go from male to male, observing its display with a critical eye, then go on to the next, and so on–as if she was on a shopping trip.  Which, in a sense, she was.  From our readings, we understand that there are one or two males in a lek who occupy the most important location, and they are the ones who will most likely attract the female (it’s kind of like high school, with the football star and the prom queen likely to match up).  After the mating is done, the male is abandoned by the female; she goes to make a nest and he just keeps dancing.

 

The Sage-Grouse display is a blend of visual and auditory cues for the female; if you listen carefully you can hear strange pumping and flapping sounds that are part of the ritual.  Since the experience is so sensory, I will stop trying to describe it here and let the photographs speak for those wonderful mornings we spent in the sage.

 

Greater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lekGreater Sage-Grouse, Centrocercus urophasianus, on Malheur lek

A sequence, facilitated by the camera’s motor drive, of the Greater Sage-Grouse mating dance

 

On our first morning this year, at about 8:30 a.m., the males collectively decided that the dawn dance was done.  One flew a beeline over the road toward a low ridge; one after another all the others quickly followed, leaving the lek quiet and lonely.  The next morning, we left before the grouse did.  On our way down, we saw a pair of Wild Horses.

 

Sagebrush-steppe habitat near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge,High desert sky above the sagebrush on the road to the Greater Sage-Grouse lek

 

If you go, stop at Malheur National Wildlife Headquarters for directions to the lek, which is on BLM land about ten miles up a sometimes rough gravel road to the west of the refuge.  The grouse are on the lek each morning from sometime in March until sometime in May.

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OREGON OUTBACK: Malheur in April

May 12, 2009

 

 

Buena Vista Ponds and Overlook in Malheur National Wildlife RefuBuena Vista Ponds and Overlook in beautiful light

 

 

When the Olympic Peninsula’s spring rains get the better of me, my mind wanders to the high desert of eastern Oregon, where the wide open spaces and vast blue sky provide a particularly American salve for the soul.  In that land of sagebrush, my favorite place is Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which is located south of Burns, about 550 miles from my home.  This year Karen and I spent a day on each end driving, plus three days, April 24 to 26, in and around the refuge.

 

I like Malheur in any season, but July can be a bit sleepy and hot.  Late March is great for seeing thousands of Ross’s and Snow Geese near Burns; the sight of ten thousand white geese suddenly lifting off a marsh is enough to inspire my love of nature for years.  This year our window of opportunity was late April; to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld’s crude comment:  you go to bird with the time you have, not the time you might want.

 

Just over 100 years ago, Malheur was a hotspot for plume hunters.  In the early 1900s, ladies loved to wear egret plumes on their hats with the same fashionGreat Egret, Ardea alba, in flight at Malheur Refuge, OR intensity that twenty-somethings now feel for their eyebrow piercings.  Bird populations at Malheur and the Everglades and other bird hotspots were mined for feathers by hunters who were as plume crazy as the ladies that lunch.  To stop the slaughter in its bloody tracks, President Theodore Roosevelt created Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 1908.

 

It took another crisis and another Roosevelt to develop the refuge’s infrastructure.  During the Great Depression of the 1930s, young men working in two CCC camps on the refuge built the beautiful stone headquarters complex, as well as two fire towers and the Center Patrol Road that so many of us now like to explore.  You can thank Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency for this birding opportunity.  Some say the 1930s social programs suchBuilding built by CCC at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as the CCC were makework jobs programs:  don’t believe it for an instant.  Everywhere across America our state and national parks and refuges owe much of their long-term success to this early, sensitive development by hard-working young men and the designers and foremen who led them.  This program was the very model for success, and I would like to see a new version implemented today.

 

Birders know the key birding locations at Malheur, and there are plenty of guidebooks that tell the best places to see various birds.  I’m not going to reiterate

Center Patrol Road in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon The Center Patrol Road runs north and south through the heart of Malheur

these, but I’ll give a few impressions of our experiences at the hotspots.  I’m also not going to list the species we saw, because I didn’t keep a list and I’m not much of a birder anyway; I’m more interested in photographing and observing intensely rather than seeing how many species I can see.  I’ve never quite gotten the gestalt of bird identification that the best birders have.

 

Double-O Ranch is a favorite place.  With water levels low in Harney Lake and elsewhere, the areas west of Double-O are blindingly white with salt crystals that

 

Fence through alkali flat in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Alkali flats west of Double-O Ranch in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

 

look as if snow has blanketed the desert.  It is truly an alien environment, but one Killdeer didn’t seem to mind.  She laid her eggs in a shallow scrape in the salty soil; when we got too close, she tried to lead us away from the nest with herKilldeer faking broken wing in salt flats at Malheur Refuge trademarked broken wing ruse.  Which reminds me:  about ten years ago we were on the Center Patrol Road and found a Killdeer nest on the shoulder of the gravel road.  In this instance the Killdeer did not run away; instead, it attacked me and my lens with a ferocity that reminded me of insanity.  I was able to get so close to this bird that I got full-frame pictures with a 24mm lens.  It is possible that the bird was attacking its own reflection in the lens, but who knows what’s in a bird brain?

 

Double-O was also good for Willets and American Avocets and a variety of ducks this year.  The small ponds are good for photographing these wading birds, using

 

American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana, feeding at Malheur, OR

American Avocet feeding near Double-O Ranch

 

the vehicle as a blind.  In the past we have seen Short-eared Owls and Black-tailed Jackrabbits here, but not this year.

 

One late afternoon a windstorm arose.  In most places a windstorm is unsettling and unpleasant for birding, but here the high winds reduce visibility dramatically.  As the wind races across the abnormally dry expanses of Harney Lake and Malheur Lake, it picks up the salty dust from the lake surface.  Dust devils twirl in

 

Dust storm in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A dust storm created when wind whipped across a dry lakebed

 

happy abandon during the lighter winds, but in a heavy blow the dust rises in thick clouds from the dry lakes, reminding us of the dust bowl photos from the dry 1930s in Oklahoma.  It is grim.  The normally calm surface of Benson Pond turned into a severe chop that tested the seaworthiness of the Trumpeter Swans.  Most of the Common Egrets in the area gathered together in the willows to ride out the storm on bucking branches.  Fishermen out for opening day on Krumbo Reservoir had to give up the quest.  Birders’ Subarus driving down the paved road sent up plumes of white dust.  Fortunately, the wind settled down that evening.

 

Refuge headquarters is a good place for birders to stop.  We always check out the visitor center whiteboard with recent bird sightings;  in addition, the tall cottonwoods and nearby water attract all sorts of rarities each year.  My favorite sight this year was seeing Yellow-headed Blackbirds and California Quail feeding at the seed feeder in front of the visitor center.  A Red-tailed Hawk screeched obscenities at us from its high nest over the museum building.  Belding’s Ground Squirrels appeared and disappeared like the groundhog star of Caddyshack.

 

Down the road at Buena Vista Overlook we watched lichens, which is much easier than watching birds but not quite as exciting. Though they may be even harder to identify.  One chartreuse lichen, in particular, grew vividly on the north sides of volcanic boulders; the other sides must get sunlight too intense for this species.

Ruddy Duck breeding male in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A Ruddy Duck with a bill to match the clear desert sky

 

Down on the Buena Vista Ponds, Ruddy Ducks with their intense blue bills stole the show, though the Marsh Wrens and Cinnamon Teal competed for our attention.  This year the light was wonderful on these ponds; sometimes when I’ve been here the ponds were dry, so this was beautiful.

 

One last favorite stop is at P Ranch.  If we were here a month later we could see Bobolinks establishing territories in grassy meadows just to the north.  This time, we saw dozens of Turkey Vultures coming in at sunset to roost in their traditionalTurkey Vultures, Cathartes aura, roost on CCC fire tower at Malh location:  up and down the tall fire tower.  P Ranch is a good place to watch for Great-horned Owls roosting in the cottonwood grove.  One year we saw five porcupines feeding at sunset in the meadows near here.  Each porcupine, backlit by the setting sun, had a quill halo that reminded me of a particular late ’60s Bob Dylan album cover.  Kind of a prickly memory and an indicator of my age.  Another year here I saw a Mule Deer with a fawn so fresh that the doe was still bloody from the birth.

 

I could ramble on about our Malheur nature experiences for hours, but my dear readers might abandon me wholesale.  I will, however, mention that we also saw a weasel (my highlight for the trip!) along the Center Patrol Road that I attracted with my crude rendition of bird spishing.  We also observed several pairs of Coyotes that ran away as if we were some rifle-toting ranchers; plus some Sandhill Cranes lifting off in their achingly graceful dances; and Wild Horses and Pronghorns gracing the sagebrush hills bordering the refuge.

 

If you’ve never been to Malheur in the Spring, you are depriving yourself of one of the great birding experiences in the West.  Get in your car, do the un-green thing and drive hundreds of miles to the refuge, and have one of the finest birding experiences of your life.  Malheur’s aura will stay with you for years.

 

 

Willows, Salix sp., near Frenchglen in Malheur Refuge, Oregon Willows intense with spring color near Frenchglen and P Ranch

 

Benson Pond area at Malheur National Wildlife RefugeSagebrush and willows along the edge of Benson Pond

 

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Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.

The Old West Lingers on in the Oregon Outback

May 8, 2009

 

 

Cow skull decorates front of Frenchglen Mercantile, OregonAn old cow skull and handmade chair on the porch of the Frenchglen Mercantile

 

“Next gasoline 99 miles,” read the sign just east of Bend, Oregon.  We were on a late April trip to eastern Oregon, land of high desert and vast, sagebrush-covered distances.  There used to be several mom-and-pop gas stations along this straight stretch from yuppie Bend to cowboy Burns, 

remote oregon outbackbut these places now sport broken windows and tumbleweeds.  Just the kinds of places that Americans think of when we imagine Route 66.

 

Driving past the road to the Pine Mountain Observatory; it’s the wrong time of day to stop for sky-watching.  Passing Glass Mountain, a mountain of shiny obsidian (black volcanic glass); someday we’ll stop, but our time is limited.  A quick stop to check out the restored buildings in the historic Civilian Conservation Corps at Gap Camp Ranch, where young men labored under the hot sun and into hope.  

 

Into Burns, a small town of ranchers and loggers hit hard by the timber wars of the 1990s, that left mills without enough logs from public land to stay open.  Burns is the place to fill up with gas and groceries for the push into even more remote country.  I stop here for some quick photos of signs and an abandoned motel.  Then we push on for another 60 miles without a town along the route.

 

We pulled into Frenchglen (population 11) as twilight approached.  This town was named for Peter French, a cattle baron of the late 19th century who controlled most

 

The streetscape of Frenchglen, Oregon 

of the land in the vast valley of the Donner und Blitzen River.  He left his mark on the land with scattered ranch outposts and a spectacular round barn in the middle of nowhere.  Alas, in old West tradition, he was murdered by an outlaw.

 

Frenchglen is tiny.  There is a K-8 school that draws kids from the surrounding ranches.  Eleven of them, as counted in a photo from the Frenchglen school website, but a more recent article pegs the number at 14.  Just imagine, in our world of vast suburban sprawl, that this directOuthouse at Frenchglen Hotel State Heritage Site descendent of the one-room schoolhouse still exists!  And how different the education of these children must be.

 

Across the road, the Frenchglen Mercantile stands tidy … and empty.  As does the house next door where I believe the owner used to live.  A sign on the window of the store says you can still get gas here if you place a phone call to a nearby resident:  $40 minimum plus a $2.50 service fee; cash only, please.  I imagine this recession and high gas prices and the increasingly urban interests of our society made life difficult for the owner of this little store.

 

Just down the road is the Frenchglen Hotel, which is actually a state historic site that still offers lodging to folks passing through.  As of 2008, the price for a room was $67.  There is a colorful true story about the hotel’s manager from 1948 to 1974.  One night, after a few drinks, Kenny Pruitt decided that he needed to remove his own appendix and did some self-surgery.  It didn’t have a good outcome, as you might guess.  Read more about Pruitt and the colorful history of theFrenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen, Oregon hotel in an article by Richard Cockle at The Oregonian.

 

We drove on a couple more miles to our destination, the pleasant Page Springs Campground operated by the Bureau of Land Management.  This camp sits at the base of Steens Mountain, accessible by road in the summer but certainly not in April, when snow still blankets the nearly 10,000 foot peak.  We set up camp and crawled into our sleeping bags after I tinkered with a few night photos in camp.  

 

We awoke just after dawn, to a temperature of 22 degrees F.  You might think late April in the desert would be relatively warm, but this is high desert.  The campground is at a 4,200 foot elevation, so nights here can be cold until summer

 

Hereford cow and calf 

arrives.  From here, we spent three intense days visiting a Greater Sage Grouse lek, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and the Diamond Craters volcanic area.  I’ll describe these in detail in another post, but one more note about the settlements of the area.  The next day we visited the hamlet of Diamond, which sports two signs:  one says “Population 5,” and the other says “Congestion,” seemingly with a straight face.

 

Highway 205 centerline in the Oregon high desertHighway cut through a rock outcrop near Frenchglen

 

 

Cattle trails on range near Burns, OregonCattle trails on rangeland near Burns

 

Central Hotel BurnsThe classic Central Hotel sign in Burns has Art Deco touches

 

 

Western Juniper and stars near Malheur Refuge, OregonWestern Juniper in our campsite with a dazzling starry sky above

 

To see my web site, which includes photographic prints for sale, please go to LeeRentz.com

To see thousands of my photographs in large file sizes for use in magazines or other printed materials or electronic media, go to my PhotoShelter Website

Click on the photographs below to see them in a larger size, with captions.