As the nighthawks fly with lazy, yet determined wing beats I know the road to Hart Mountain is approaching. I’ve been greeted by nighthawks here before. I watch them as I turn onto Hart Mountain Road and consider them my welcome home as they wheel in the fading light.
The Warner Wetlands, at the base of Hart Mountain, host many birds. Through my binoculars I see a line of American Avocets, their heads tucked into their backs. I don’t stop long. The excitement of returning to Hart every summer never diminishes. The drive to our camp in Robinson Draw, inside the refuge, takes me past rocky outcroppings, a sea of sage, grasses and snowberry and a small, wary herd of pronghorns. Songbirds flush from the shrubs on the side of the road as my car bumps over the washboard road. The landscapes here look, from afar, as though they are perhaps devoid of life. You can see no trees as you approach Hart. But to think that this area and this habitat have nothing to offer would be a tragic assumption.
My ornithology professor, Dr. Steve G. Herman, has been bringing students here for 25 years. This place is special, even sacred. The draw, with its grove of aspens and the willows dotting the base, are home to countless birds from diminutive Brewer’s Sparrows to Long-eared Owls and Sage Grouse. Although I am a visitor in this landscape I feel a strong connection to it. Does this feeling of connection root in the fact that I have held this draw’s birds in my hands? Looked them in the eye and after close scrutiny been able to determine their age, sex, and even if they were recently warming eggs under their bellies? Perhaps this connection is because a tiny piece of the mystery of this place has been revealed in my hands. Looking into a thick wall of aspens with a spring running though it and tall, lush green grass below, I see great potential for discovery and exploration. To me the chance to explore a patch of habitat like this, in this unique wilderness holds more opportunities for excitement than most I can think of.
Perhaps what I love most about Hart is the pulse of life seemingly indifferent to the outside world. Yes, there are people here (and there used to be cows and sheep) but I imagine Hart (and other areas of southeast Oregon) as an increasingly rare example of a place in the lower 48 that is much the same as it was 500, 1000, 2000 years ago.
As I write below a juniper on the hill overlooking the other side of Robinson Draw, a chipmunk scolds me from around the trunk. The wind blowing through the juniper branches sounds deeper, more fierce than it really is. Beaty’s Butte rises in the distance, fluffy cumulus clouds throw their shadows at her base, and the scattered Mountain Mahoganies conjure images of Africa, though I have never been.
Of what importance is a place like this? I suppose for some, there is none. But for the countless students who have come to this place to learn about it and its birds, the answers are obvious. As you hold a Pacific-slope Flycatcher in your hand, feel its heart beat, see the whiskery feathers that surround its bill, you are changed. Students may enter this classroom, with its walls of aspens and carpets of grass and daisies, knowing nothing about birds. By the end of three weeks here, if they have absorbed the cascade of information coming at them daily, they can tell you intricate details of plumage, condition, age, sex, and molt of a variety of bird species.
Here on Hart coyote song greets you in the morning. The call of a poorwill mingles with the sound of banjos and voices, becoming background to your dreams. A few lanterns glow through the aspens as dusk settles and tents are filled with laughter and the murmur of voices retelling of the discoveries of owl pellets, bird nests, and sapsucker wells.
As I sit under my juniper tree, a female Northern Harrier patrols the canopy of her sagebrush forest and the magic and beauty of Hart Mountain continues untouched and unnoticed by the majority of people.
Hart Mountain National Antelope Wildlife Refuge is located in far South Eastern Oregon. At 278,000 acres, it is one of the largest expanses of shrub steppe habitat free of domestic cattle. Dr. Steve Herman of the Evergreen State College, has been taking students here to learn to band birds, find an appreciation for the high desert, and live in a remote field camp since 1985. Simone and Brendan were both previous students and teaching assistants and are consequentially life long devotees to the landscape.