Great 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 remote 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 eventually 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 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 in Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area
Sand Lily growing on volcanic tuff
East Twin Maar, a volcanic crater caused by an explosion
A Western Juniper stands alone on the flanks of a volcanic crater complex
Jackrabbit jawbones from animals probably killed by a Great Horned Owl
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