Shoving as much natural history as a place holds into the space of five days will never promise restfulness. During the course of a few days we drove hundreds of miles in pursuit of birds, mammals, and reptiles. I’m feeling pretty pooped just thinking about it now and blogging about it during the trip was ultimately beyond me completely. In younger years I would have blown off writing completely but I’ve come to realize that memories fade and that this is the craft I wish to work and grow in. When these experiences are penned (or typed), they take on a whole knew life. The photos of this trip will always exist but the embellishment of a good yarn is equally important in immortalizing stories. Years from now I’ll thank myself for recording any experiences I had. I’m already kicking myself for not doing a better job in more formative times.
I left off on day three of our twisting navigation of the Malheur area. We continued to drift on and off the refuge and saw much of the birdlife the place offered. A few surprises even popped up along the way.
To begin the day we decided to drive Central Patrol Road in hopes of seeing some good birdlife by using our vehicle as a blind. While we certainly saw a few nice things, including the first Brewer’s Sparrow of the year, this turned out to be unproductive in terms of seeing new species on the trip. Adam was particularly vocal in letting us all know we’d not seen any new species much of the day. However, it was a pleasant drive along the Donner und Blitzen River surrounded by the eroded walls and hills of basalt. (No, this river was not named after the reindeer but with German for the thunder, Donner, and lighting, Blitzen, that an early exploration encountered in a crossing).
Central Patrol Road runs practically the length of the refuge North to South, ending at the base of epic block fault Steens Mountain. While the gate to the top is closed till June, when snow from Steens has mostly melted bringing life to the wetlands below, Page Springs campground at the base offers variety to the sage weary. We retreated into the bowels of the upper Donner und Blitzen for a break amongst willows and juniper.
As I mentioned before a lot of the breeding songbirds hadn’t arrived yet. So as we entered the canyon, it was to enjoy new sights more than new birds. We heard both Canyon and Rock Wren, the later of which sat singing in plain sight, but that was the extent of our avian experience. Tristan and Ira sprinted off in search of snakes (and a potential Mountain Quail), hoping the hot day would reveal some serpent treasures (they caught a large Gopher Snake). The rest of us took our time along the slow river, admiring butterflies, plants and geology. Afternoon found us strolling about with no particular aim, what I consider a great joy in life. A few of the more bird manic of the group were initially disappointed as this pace but later admitted it a pleasurable way to spend the less active afternoon.
Night drives are one of the pleasures of being out in a place rife with mammals. You’ll never know what will be bounding along the road. What’s more, it offers and opportunity to acquaint yourself with a few of the animals more easily convinced to say a quick hello. Many cottontails and jackrabbits skittered about the roads on the nights Tristan, Ira, and I went out exploring but we were particularly keen to encounter kangaroo rats the most common of which was Ord’s Kangaroo Rat (Dipodomys ordii).
These desert adapted rats were surprisingly easy to find along the road on the nights I got up enough energy to drive us around. Most active at night, they spend their days deep in burrows and emerge in cooler weather to find seeds, which I learned they cache for later use. We spent a lot of time catching reptiles and amphibians during the trip, so it should come as no surprise that kangaroo rats were also handled. Luckily I’d learned from past experiences prowling for nocturnal mammals that they are beyond friendly in the hand, cuddling up, sitting calmly, or gently exploring your shoulder and hair. (You may take issue to catching wild animals simply to admire but I think the benefits of understanding and appreciation that result far outweigh the negatives – every rat we caught was handled with care and released uninjured).
Bleary eyed from rat catching, I woke to rain and wind the next morning. The sage and rabbitbrush turned a pleasant saturated gray-green to match the weather. Us Seattlites weren’t going to let the rain hold us back and besides this weather was needed. According to Duncan, a director of the field station, it was drier than normal, with 60% less rain than the average. The state of the more pluvial loving Greasewood (Sarcobatus vermiculatus) was evidence of this, having lost most of their succulent leaves in response to the dryness.
Again we had a full day ahead of us and we struck out on a similar route we’d driven our first full day. This reaffirmed my notion that repeat visits gain you new, different sights. Almost immediately we noticed Clark’s Grebes amongst the Western Grebes on Malheur Lake. Stopping to admire one and some Cliff Swallow nests, Adam spotted a rare sight, a Great-horned Owl nest beneath a bridge on a highway!
The rest of the day was spent tooling around, just like we’d done on days before but with more activity. We were treated to a herd of Pronghorns right off the highway – a cooperatively perched Golden Eagle (we visited a nest too) – hundreds more American White Pelicans (which I tried to sneak close to unsucessfully) – a Common Raven nest – for once a sitting Prairie Falcon (all we’d seen were ones on determined wing). And there was one more delight and total surprise, a Snowy Owl!
If you paid any attention to the news or nature in North America this last winter, you’ve probably heard about Snowy Owls being all over the place. Last season was a good lemming year and there were a lot more owls born, which means they need to disperse to find food, often very far from their tundra homes. Many young birds die when they get far south (and in the case of the first record in Hawaii are shot….). That fact was not far from thought as we crept up to this shining white emblem of the North, sitting placidly right off the highway. The theories to explain it’s reluctance to fly were that either it was very sick or that it was stuffed on abundant food. Snowy Owls eat lots of waterbirds in addition to rodents, which could very well have meant it was simply in a blissed out state of heavenly indulgence while the weather stayed cool. Whatever the case, we saw it three times during our stay and it seemed content, even with two trailer semis zooming by mere feet from its fluffy face.
There will be one more installment on the trip coming soon. There’s some star characters to be sure, spectacularly absurd obligates of the shrub steppe that lek. See if you can guess what I’m talking about and stay tuned!