OREGON OUTBACK: Malheur in April
Buena 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 fashion 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 such 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
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
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 her 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 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
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.
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 traditional 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 intense with spring color near Frenchglen and P Ranch
Sagebrush and willows along the edge of Benson Pond
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