A Trek to Bird-Watching Heaven – Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
While the weather still remained amicable, my friend Linda and I decided ditch the hustle and bustle of daily life and venture to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon, located a mere six-hour drive from Portland. (Oregon is the seventh largest state in the Lower 48 – so it is possible to drive for hours and still be within the state boundaries.) Malheur is considered one of the top birding spots in Oregon and is frequently a destination for birdwatchers from around the world, especially since it is on the Pacific Flyway migratory route.
Little did we know that our adventure would become bigger than we had planned, in a wonderful and delightful way! Ever the intrepid bird watchers (self-described ‘bird-nerds) we gathered our binoculars and assorted bird identification books and were on our way.
We decided to split the drive up on the way to Malheur, spending the night in Bend. The next morning, we were up early and headed east towards the town of Burns, our next overnight stop. Almost immediately about 20 miles out of town, in the pre-dawn light along Hwy 20, I spotted incongruous shapes to the right just off the roadway. Slowing down, we realized that it was a herd of about 15 antelope anxiously watching the people watching them. I managed to pull over safely and grab a few snapshots of the group, with their faces at rigid attention. For a few minutes we watched the herd before the leader made a move, then suddenly the entire group moved off in one motion away from the road.
Continuing on our merry way and reveling in the wildlife we just saw, our trip now took us through one of the loneliest stretches of road in Oregon. Literally just about a straight shot across the desert from Bend to Burns, Hwy. 20 opens up into vast panoramas of sagebrush flats, mesas and miles and miles of wide open expanses. Literally, you can see how far the road goes for 15 miles at a time, it seems.
We stopped at a rest area where nearby, a sign at a nearby intersection letting local ranch hands know about a work site location was commandeered by Linda and myself, indicating that we were having a “Field Day” going birding. Hey, when it is this empty and remote, you gotta have some fun!
Soon afterwards, we spotted sand hill cranes in nearby fields and after observing them for awhile, duly noted the sighting in our bird log.
Upon arrival in Burns, we fueled up at the Broadway Deli for lunch, then winged our way south to the Refuge Headquarters. Linda had never been here before, and we were both anxious to get some heavy-duty bird watching under way.
We made a quick stop at a narrow point in the road on the way to Refuge Headquarters, where the massive seasonal lakes of Harney and Malheur co-join. Depending on the water year, this area can be either flooded as far as the eye can see with only the road bisecting the lakes, or as in the case today, baked hardpan mudflats host sporadic puddles hosting swarms of shorebirds. Linda immediately spotted two big sightings- a Wilson’s phalarope stood resolutely alone in one puddle, and after she turned her scope onto a solitary snag to the west, caught a Peregrine falcon surveying the land for its next tasty morsel.
At this point, a rather windy and blustery day at that point with spotty rain showers made bird watching somewhat challenging, but we managed to add about 40 species to our list. The Refuge Headquarters is an oasis unto itself and usually a proverbial jackpot for species, but in the hurricane-like winds howling across the basin, we had to be content with the baleful stare of the great horned owl that stared down at us from atop a nearby tree.
Unbeknownst to us, Sept 20th was the 100th year anniversary of Malheur becoming a National Wildlife Refuge, and the celebration was in full swing when we arrived at the headquarters. Back in 1908, Malheur was the third refuge in Oregon and one of only six refuges west of the Mississippi – thank heavens they preserved this amazing rest stop on the Flyway! For us humans, though, warm cocoa and coffee got the blood flowing again in our frigid fingers, and the volunteers made us feel very welcome. With the excitement of the anniversary festivities, we decided to take in more of the Refuge’s human history in addition to the natural history at the same time.
The first stop was at the Sod House historic site, which is only open two months a year. The rest of the time, it is closed to keep humans out of critical bird habitat during breeding season. Upon driving up to a old house and outbuildings situated under a copse of trees, we immediately spotted an official standing behind of a display of artifacts, greeting visitors.
Jan Smith, as it turns out, is a volunteer who lives on Whidbey Island in Washington State, and comes to Malheur several times a year to work on archeological digs in the area. She proudly showed off the current dig that they were working on, which involves excavating a pioneer-era septic tank, and talked about the efforts to preserve the ranching history. Jan also mentioned the history of the native peoples who had lived in the area for over 11,000 years before the white settlers arrived in the area.
I mentioned to her that I had spotted some obsidian flakes on some Bureau of Land Management land up near the town of Frenchglen just down the road. I wondered aloud if these flakes were recent or if they could be from when the people from the tribes lived on the land. Jan said they could very well be from long ago, and in fact, there have been so many finds in the area that the federal government can’t even keep up with them. She did warn me, with a little twinkle in her eye, that it is a federal $425 fine for picking up any artifacts. I reassured her that there no problem- I left those flakes where I spotted them out of respect of the people who had lived here before.
After chatting with Jan for awhile and then wandering around the homestead, we then headed south towards the Benson Pond area on the Refuge, known for its abundant bird life. We parked nearby and walked down the road, admiring the tall reeds, open skies and dramatic clouds overhead. The water in the ponds was positively teeming with birds (mostly waterfowl) gabbling away.
After taking a quick spin on the spotting scope to see what types of birds were out there, we continued down the road to some tents set up as another 100-year anniversary festivity. Inside, we found Beth Coahran, Minerva Soucie, and Sara Barton who are tribal members of the Burns-Paiute tribe, whose forebears called this whole area home. Each of the women was busily weaving baskets in the tent which protected them from the windy blasts outside. Sara showed me how they take the reeds from the marshes (both cattail and tule reeds) and prepped them before slitting them to make the fibers used in the baskets. She explained the process used in weaving that left me shaking my head in bewilderment as to the complexity of the weaving patterns, and I admired the intricate design and details.
After taking in the weavers’ work, Linda and I wandered down the track going deeper into the refuge amongst trees. Winding cautiously past an old stone house, we quietly stepped into a small wooded area that suddenly had numerous birds including warblers, tanagers and vireos flitting about, adding to our bird list quickly.
Finally heading back, we hopped into the car and kept our eyes open for additional wildlife. A coyote appeared in a nearby field and watched us warily before careening across the expanse away from us, but casting backward looks to see if we were pursuing. Fortunately for him, we were more interested in getting back to our overnight lodging and dinner than chasing down a wild animal!
We headed to our inn for the evening, the Sage Country Inn – a delightful bed and breakfast in downtown Burns. Our hosts, Corrine and Michael Huseby, welcomed us and got us situated in our rooms. After dinner, a roaring fire in the fireplace warmed our bones as we shed our layers and enjoyed some quiet reading time on overstuffed comfortable furniture. It was absolutely decadent!
The next morning, we were treated to a scrumptious hot breakfast of freshly made mushroom and asparagus omelets, fruit cups and sausage to whet our appetites. Wow! What a spread! Finally rolling ourselves out the door, we headed back to the Refuge for one more birding run. The winds were calmer, allowing us to spot more species, including Linda’s eagle-eyed spotting of a mysterious thick-billed sparrow. (Which drove her nuts until she finally identified it as a dicksissel!) Satisfied that our birding trip was a success even though it was so late in the fall, we turned the car west to head home, with one more stop in mind.
Just to the west of Burns, the Bureau of Land Management has a wild horse corral. The rule of thumb is if the gate is open, visitors are welcome. Linda and I eased down the road towards the corrals. We found the driving loop that went around the compound’s outer edge, affording views of the wild horses rounded up from the Steens Mountains and environs. Prospective horse owners can adopt a wild horse from this location – the animals are rounded up a few times a year from the mountains as they breed quickly and can overtake a large part of terrain in a short amount of time.
Halfway around the loop, we ran into Jim, the weekend corral ranch hand. He was busy tossing bales of hay into the corrals and interacting with these beautiful animals. We stopped and chatted with him, listening raptly to his stories about the horses. He’s a long-time Burns resident and finds this work actually more play than anything. Jim’s rapport with his equine friends was clear, especially when we inquired about whether there were any of the famed Kiger horses in the corral. “Go drive up to the gate,” he said, “and wait for me up there. A Kiger is sure to follow me up there.” True to form, as he walked through the corral, friendly horses began tagging along with him, including Annie the mule. Taking starlight mint hard candies out of his pockets, the horses’ interest quickly intensified as he offered the treat to the Kiger horse, stroking its black mane which contrasted with its dark ashy gray gorgeous coat. Kigers are a specific breed of horse found along the Kiger Gorge up on Steens Mountain. It is said that these horses are wild descendants of the steeds brought over by the Spanish long ago. Once they are rounded up, each horse is given a ‘brand’ which now is given more humanely using liquid nitrogen, rather than a red-hot branding iron.
Gazing out over the corrals, Jim summed up the horses, “These are all great animals.” His affection for the occupants of the corrals is very clear, and he is happy to talk to pure strangers about these magnificent creatures. I was madly snapping photos, including one of a feisty colt flashing across the paddock with its tail held in high spirits.
Finally, it was time to depart. Linda and I both sat down in the car and started off, both sighing deeply for having such an amazing adventure that started out as a simple avian expedition and turned out to be literally a natural history trip for the entire state!
For the ornithologists reading this blog, here’s a list of the birds we saw on Sept 19/20, 2008:
White crowned sparrow
Great horned owl
Yellow-rumped warbler (Audubon’s)
Great blue heron
Pied billed grebe
Red winged blackbird
For more information on birding and other adventures, please visit our Outdoor Recreation section.
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