A far parcel of Oregon houses a lasting corner of my imagination. Down a seemingly endless road of silty dust, potholes, and bovine distressed shrub steppe, I find myself at a gate in late May. It keeps happening every year now. No sign of nearby water, yet Franklin’s Gulls (Larus atricilla) dip over the sage and Willet’s (Catoptrophorus semipalmatus) call in the distance. This is a place of seeming discordance.
The Malheur Bird Observatory (MABO) is admittedly a bit of a misnomer. Yes, work that would depict a scientifically founded organization has happened there and many of the field scientists of the West have found themselves there at some point or another. But it’s not a functioning group like say, the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. In the blandest of descriptions, MABO is a nice bit of shrub steppe acreage.
And arguably that’s the best thing about it. Steve Herman, the owner and the inspiration for the gathering of the multi-generational students, just wants to get together with old friends and to make new ones. Simone and I headed out from Seattle and saw people we admittedly could have seen in less than a 10-hour drive. However friends from Wyoming, from Northern California, and elsewhere attended. It was a sort of central meeting point.
At MABO we enjoy the company of our fellows, relax in the sweet smelling patch of intact shrub steppe, become enveloped by the dusty loam, and most importantly – watch birds! An experienced birder of the Western United States will recognize Malheur National Wildlife Refuge as one of the best birding sites around. Not only does it house a huge system of wetlands that nurse many a breeding waterbird but during migration songbirds descend on the refuge headquarters and other areas with planted trees, the artificial lushness we cultivate. So amongst the Black Terns (Chlidonias niger), the White-faced Ibis (Plegadis chihi), and the Willets, you find Western Tanagers (Piranga ludoviciana), Swainson’s Thrushes (Catharus ustulatus), and Townsend’s Warblers (Dendroica townsendi). Frequent “rarities” attract the so called “elite.”
As much as part of me wanted to dash out and find as many birds as possible over the weekend, a more persistent part of me wanted to slow down a bit. I did just that for the weekend. Sure, Simone and our close circle of friends (housed within a larger circle of Hermanites) got out and birded. But it wasn’t rushed and we enjoyed quality not quantity.
Although the refuge headquarters didn’t quite live up to the fame of pulling rare birds this year, we had some fun stuff. The “rarest” bird of our stay was a Black-and-White Warbler (Mniotilta varia), a bird that isn’t typically western but because it winters in Northwestern Mexico, tends to show in regular vagrancy. Also out of place, a Lewis’s Woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis) worked the compound of cottonwoods.
But I had just as much fun watching the family of Great-horned Owls (Bubuo virginianus) and Black-billed Magpies (Pica hudsonia) both with recently fledged chicks. An opportunity to watch awkward adolescence, full of imaginative approaches to locomotion is full of endless hilarity. I was disappointed when the Magpie fledglings moved out of range of easy observation on the second day.
Further out from the headquarters or MABO there’s much more. Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) spurred up periodically in a wet field to sing their hearts out before flashing back to hide in the grass they so like. I often wish I could spy on them in their moist domain. Ibis dotted the countryside, either flying by in formation or probing spotted wetlands. Crane cacophony rolled through the dust as we sped past ditches brimming with ruddy Cinnamon Teal (Anas cyanoptera). A well established (multi-generational) Golden Eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) nest we’d discovered the year before was active with well developed young. Just beyond the dwindling town of French Glen, at the base of the east climbing slope of Steens Mountain is Paige Springs Campground. I’ve never seen Yellow-breasted Chat’s (Icteria virens) in higher numbers or so atypically visible as at the entrance to the campground.
Wildlife in general abounds in Malheur (where cows haven’t been grazing). We watched a Long-tailed Weasel (Mustela frenata) hunting Belding’s Ground Squirrels (Urocitellus beldingi) at the Malheur Field Station. Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana) strutted through the shrub steppe. Coyotes (Canis latrans) rang out every night, culminating in a shouting match with our amassed dogs.
The time always comes to say goodbye (if I have anything to say about it, I’ll soon stop having to say goodbye to exploration and do it for a living). All our dear friends parted ways, we brushed off the soot of good times, sighed our last breath of sage, and hit the road home. Rain ushered our departure and the Cryptobiotic crust gleamed as we bounced down the road in admiration of a greatly undervalued landscape of shrub and steppe in the Great Basin.