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Malheuring Around Part 1

Hours of driving take it out of you. Even if you aren’t behind the wheel the whole way, you’ll feel tired after a 12 hour trip. There were a few birds along the way to ease the pain, fifty some Red-tailed Hawks, Mountain Bluebirds, a Great-horned Owl, a Prairie Falcon, and quite a few twittering White-throated Swifts.

In Burns, Oregon we stopped for food in a Subway. Accompanying our fine dinning experience was a sour colored water feature which began dripping on one of our party suddenly and vigorously from a crack in the drywall ceiling. The employee’s response resounded with familiarity of such nuisances:

“Oh, is it raining again?”

Welcome to Eastern Oregon.

On the plus side, and there’s always a plus side, we managed to coerce a friendly kangaroo rat to join us for a visit post dinner.

I’m sitting in Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County, Oregon. Yesterday we trundled out of Seattle in a van stuffed with food, camera gear, and skivvies for five days. Somehow we found room for six high school students and four chaperones. I’m out exploring the high desert, of lava fields and wetlands, with Seattle Audubon’s Birdwatch Program.

Wind was tossing the loose, eroding landscape when we all pulled ourselves from a much needed slumber. Ground squirrels (there was a continued discussion of their identity all day), Nuttall’s Cottontail, and Black-tailed Jackrabbits didn’t seem to mind the buffeting and the cold. Neither did the California Quail. I was a bit concerned because I knew wind wouldn’t favor birding.

Feeling like we’d entered an entirely different vehicle, we spread out in the emptied van and readied for a day of birding. For some, like Adam (who you’ll hear from below), this was a new habitat full of new species. For others like myself, though I’m far from an old hand, we’d been here and explored a bit. Either way we had a blast.

People visit the area for various things. The geology alone is spectacular, consisting of eons of erroded lava and I’m pretty enamored with the shrub steppe ecosystem in general. Yet birds always manage to top the list. Waterbirds flock here because it is an oasis in the desert, excellent breeding habitat with abundant food and safe nesting areas for a myriad of waterbirds. Though a very dry and hot for much of the year, there’s a good amount of open water between the lakes and ponds of the refuge. While National Wildlife Refuges are largely purposed with managing waterfowl populations this also means that other animals are about too. Large ungulates like Pronghorn and Mule Deer stand out most, but Coyotes are common and rodents and rabbits abound. With many small mammals come many raptors. And if you get tired of birds of prey and waterbirds you can jaunt over to some sagebrush and find a whole new community of birds there.

With the first day past, we’ve clean up a lot of the birds that are present. This is the “shoulder season” in many ways. Most of the songbirds have not arrived yet and many of the wintering waterbirds are only around in low numbers. No matter, we saw a lot of flashy, sought after birds.

A target bird of one of the teens, a Ferruginous Hawk, flew by within the first half of the day. Ross’s Geese were a nice surprise, sitting for comparison with a few Snow Geese. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocets gave our mobile blind cold shoulders, but we saw them well anyway. Franklin’s Gulls, Sage Thrashers, Loggerhead Shrikes! Birds, birds, birds!

The most notable for me were the multitudes of American White Pelicans, at least 400, which soared overhead, sailed across the horizon and sat majestically in bright groups that shone across the xeric landscape. Adorned with their breeding “horns” (growths that develop for the breeding season on the upper mandible) and neon orange faces, they looked to me the kings of the shallows.

Probably the most numerous besides blackbirds were American Coots. You could sail a rock blindfolded and probably hit one. Their comical waddling and strange noises prompted an amusing quote from a student:

“If any bird makes being a bird look difficult it’s a coot.”

And in some ways he was right. They were the most numerous dead animal we found all day.

It was still cold in the afternoon but the sun soon got to us. After a much needed siesta we explored some proper shrub steppe habitat. A good deal of people, even honest naturalists and birders will see only monotony in such ecosystems and I made it my goal to erode that mentality a bit with the students. It didn’t help that the wind and early season meant many of the migrant songbirds that are obligates of the sage were absent but it forced us to look at bit harder for things to enjoy. A Coyote track, scat filled with reptile exoskeletons, some cryptobiotic crust. We still saw plenty.

Evening set and the Short-eared Owls changed shifts with the Northern Harriers. Snowy Steens Mountain caught the last of the sunlight as the storm clouds lifted, revealing the tall peaks. We watched a Coyote drooling after a group of geese, laying in wait for an opening in twilight. Black-crowned Night Herons and White-faced Ibis flew dark across a brilliant sunset. Our light had gone for the day.

Adam, a member of Birdwatch had this to say about his time out on the range:

“On my first day in Malheur I saw at least 20 new birds. The habitat is awesome and something I have never seen before. The sagebrush habitat holds many different types of animals including jackrabbits, scorpions, and Sage Thrashers. I learned today that Malheur has many different weather patterns from very sunny to all the sudden cloudy and very windy. I will never forget my first day day here.”

Sounds good to me Adam! Stay tuned in the next couple days, I’ll have more to share and a few more dispatches from the students before we are headed home.


  1. Kathy

    Great photos! I especially love the avocet and the sunset. Makes me want to visit the area. Have you gotten any shots of the pelicans?

  2. Dave Sanks

    All I can say is that I enjoyed your article. It made me wish that I had tagged along.

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