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The Sagebrush Country

(A note from Brendan: The main purpose of wingtrip (which is now essentially only written on by me, unless there are tempted contributors out there) is to fuse words, images, and in the near future, video, in discussion of exploring the natural world (hopefully with a new design soon).  This is sometimes a lofty goal and the lack of content only means that I am hard at work.  I’ve recently gotten a role as a regular contributor to a small local newspaper in Seattle writing about urban natural history.  It’s taken a good portion of energy to lately to keep up with it, work, and wingtrip (and my health!).  But I’m back on the horse and I have a bank of stories that will be up in the coming weeks.  I hope you all will enjoy and continue to come back.  This is a big adventure and as any creative knows, it’s a road fraught  with self doubt and a lot of rejection letters.  Thanks for reading and your support, even though simple clicks!) 

The book Sagebrush Country by Ronald J. Taylor had been sitting on my kitchen table (ie writing desk) for several weeks. That’s not to say I’d had time to study, but that at least I’d considered it. Re-reading the introduction, I remind myself that this mosaic is not singularly approachable and that I should just enjoy the time there: “Over this broad steppeland region of western North America – variable climate, topography, and species – the single most important unifying characteristic is the presence of sagebrush, usually conspicuous and often dominant.” As usual I can’t expect to know it all, even after years of practice.

I’ve visited Malheur Bird Observatory, or MABO as we call it, for half a dozen years. This isn’t the bird observatory you might envision, a place with an office, a lab, some interns, a lead scientist. In a ethereal way these things are all true. More substantially, there’s a shitter named Ziggy, a defunct shower, a fire pit, some platforms for wall tents, a well, and the most prominent of structures, the loggerhead shrike emblazoned water tower. I like to think of water tower as the center of the observatory, its height makes it the most prominent promontory.

MABO means many different things to many different people. Generations of naturalists have strung together days and months of their lives on this square of property butted against Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I say naturalists because there’s a myriad of professional roles the visitors take up. We are all united by love of the natural world and a link in our influential professor Dr. Herman.

When I stand on the platform of the water tower and look out across the landscape, I get caught up in imagining this place before Europeans. I try not to get upset and point fingers, that’s not the reason for visiting MABO, but I find it difficult to watch the orgiastic jets of water from the irrigation on the neighbor’s plot. I prefer to pretend there’s nothing but our fire ring and miles of sagebrush and wetlands covering volcanic scablands between here and the slash of the Steens. Possibly it’s an immature approach to take. I enjoy the impassioned discussions by the fire and find the fervor of my contemporaries and elders inspiring. But I’m here to stare at the horizon and listen to Franklin’s gulls.

Many evenings we are treated to the sagebrush sunset. The mingled colors born of dust and steel laced clouds, desiccation and moisture at odds in the distance. We pray for rain, as we are layered with a temporary but palpable alluvial patina, like the seasoning on our cast irons but not quite as beneficial. You eventually forget about the dust, become one with it, and then it rains. Sometimes insufferable dust turns muck, sometimes it merely congeals to a comfortable walking surface. Every year it seems to be dustier, but that’s not an empirical statement (you have to be careful what you state around here, this is a scientists’ camp after all). Then again, who likes camping in the rain?

Migrant traps, that is verdant habitat and water in literal or proverbial deserts, are something that birders dream about. I’ve been to plenty and I still can’t quite decide how I feel about them. Certainly the birds are copious in the right circumstances, but the right circumstances aren’t always ideal for the birds themselves. On the other hand, birds will struggle in migration with or without human consciousness. Best to toss that twinge of guilt in with the twelve hour drive to get here.

Western Tanagers zip about, marmalade sundrops in the overcast sky. Yellow warblers sing their sweet songs and build their rotund nests of cotton fluff and spider silk. American White Pelicans soar overhead or flotilla on the waterways of the refuge. But don’t ask Dr. Herman why they fly in groups overhead, he hates that question. Sometimes the parsimonious answer is admitting that animals also do things for simple enjoyment.

Away in the desiccated shrubsteppe, you could convince yourself that you are miles from water. Botanize a bit, learn or re-learn species, enjoy the botanical biodiversity that persists where untrampled by bovine blundering. Hear the buzz of Brewer’s sparrows and notice the foolish swaying of a sage thrasher in the throes of territorial posturing. Maybe devote some patience to finding the loggerhead shrike nest that surely exists in a thorny greasewood of the alkaline playa. Several of us did, in succession and unaware of each other, witnessing the successive hatching of their young.

Yet, stooping to enjoy a dwarf monkey flower, just now poking through the soil, you hear the intensity of a willet overhead. You think to yourself, this is a desert (and you would be right). But just over the hill there’s water. Just as the storms mingle with the dust, the curlews, gulls, terns, pelicans, and blackbirds contrast with the sagebrush obligates. And the mosquitoes.

I always want to ramble off and drive somewhere, but it’s difficult to want to sit in a car when you’ve traveled so far already. Still, Page Springs at the base of the Steens, with yellow-breasted chats and ash-throated flycatchers usually lures a group. We’ll drive a portion of the central patrol road (once used solely to stamp out poachers) and enjoy the waterways of cinnamon teal and black terns. Diminutive and gaudy icterids, male bobolink swing around in circles over their wet meadows before evaporating into impossibly short grass. A few cranes and a few surprises every year. This is casual birding at its best, possibly with a beverage in hand.

I’d never seen the road up the Steens open this early and apparently no one else had either. The road’s probably always clear most of the way up, but who would want to deal with a track destroyed during the muddy melt? Our travel up seemed like an adventure, ending at a second gate just short of the Kiger Gorge vista we’d all desired seeing still laden with snow. Mountain bluebirds and wildflowers we’d never enjoyed brightened our day regardless. We were charmed by newly hatched killdeer, unsteadily precocial fluff balls. One joy of knowing a place is seeing it throughout the season and with a locked gate, this joy is denied most on this epic fault block. This was a special experience certainly.

Many complain about the drive, but only because most of us don’t feel much like packing up and leaving when the time comes. In truth, the roadtrip is part of the fun, there’s multiple ways to get there and always new things to see. I stare out the window and pick out plants and birds. A Ferruginous hawk nest and its occupants. Mustard, buckweat, lupine, locoweed, phlox, balsam root. It’s high speed identification paired with a hasty, harrowing breaking to the shoulder to jump out and poke around. If you aren’t in a hurry, you can take nine hours to drive what should take six.

I’m always aware there’s tragedy on the road. We watched six Vaux’s swifts plastered by a truck ahead of us. Two were too smashed to be made into study specimens, but four will grace the education vaults of a non-profit’s museum. I hate seeing birds die but I won’t lie, I also appreciate the opportunity for close scrutiny they present.

Busy with my (foolish) enduring goal of being a professional writer and photographer, it was easy to rush down to MABO and try to document. I always take pictures, I always write, but I had to force myself to ease back. This is the difficulty of my path, missing the divisions between life and work. My scientist friends, currently in the field or otherwise can make this distinction and are happy to relax. These are friends reuniting once a year, people who work as far away as Alaska and those who spend months apart from their loved ones to collect data and help inform the continued existence of the places we love. While I rush around, attempting to fuss with this camera or that, they are back enjoying stories from the North Slope or Mexican islands. After devoting too much time to learning a new wildlife camera and getting nothing from it, I swear I’ll bring no cameras next year. I’ll likely forget or change my mind by then.

This parcel of land evokes strong emotions and is equal parts inspiring while shaking up my resolve. When people talk about god or religion I try to assume they just talking about an abstraction of spirituality for the land. After all, the dust, the mosquitoes, and the frenetic swings of temperature remind all of us that the landscape doesn’t care about our comfort and all we can do is adjust. The shrub steppe, is a blindingly beautiful community and a harsh environment all in one moment in time. I desperately hope it’s around for my children and that when they crest the cascades and descend into the great basin, they’ll see a vibrant biological community, not a desiccated wasteland.

Bonus:  I’ve been working on time lapse photography and incorporated off the cuff audio recordings I’ve made into a video.

1 Comment so far

  1. Pingback: A 2013 (Photographic) Year in Review | Wingtrip

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