Monday, April 20, 2009

Bully for Malheur NWR

Created in 1908 by President Teddy Roosevelt, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon is an important stopover point for ducks, geese and other birds on their northward migration. I drove over on Friday and explored this beautiful area which is only four hours from my home.

My first stop was the Headquarters. This is known for its amazing variety of warblers when they come through around Memorial Day weekend in May. Anytime of the year it seems to be a haven for birds and wildlife. The Belding's Ground Squirrels were my favorite. I don't know who gave them the nickname "Sage Rat".

I saw two different kinds of snakes. Though there can be rattlesnakes there, I was pleased that the first one I encountered was not a rattler because I was looking up at a hooded gull, which as it turned out was the first Franklin's Gull sighting of the year for the National Wildlife refuge. By the time I had left I had about six "first for the year" sightings to my credit. I think of this as participating in citizen science. By creating records of when birds arrive and depart in different areas of the planet our store of knowledge is increased.

So about the snake. The first was a racer, and it feinted toward me ... they do that. It's very unnerving, since they can go very fast. The second snake I saw, a different species, was warming in the sun as well, but didn't race. It posed for a picture.

The headquarters has bird feeders, and this California Quail and a White-crowned Sparrow were enjoying the seeds on this warm April day.

The area has a long cultural history of peoples who lived in this area for thousands of years, eating the Great Basin Wild Rye seed and gathering locally-produced food. Let's not be too specific on the location, because cultural artifacts are not to be collected, but I will say that it is obvious that many people have either overlooked this broken spear point, or have done the right thing and left it lying where it was dropped a very, very long time ago. I also saw an obsidian flake on one of the hiking trails.

There is an auto tour route that I printed off from the website before I went there, but upon arriving I found that nearly every entrance to the area has racks of weather-protected brochures: the auto tour route, information on a nearby Outstanding Natural Area, a bird checklist. This place is geared toward interpretive services with excellent materials, a fine staff, great overlooks and signs. It's like a National Park in terms of quality. So, let's get going and see what's on the auto tour route!

The Patrol Road runs north-south for about 40 bone-jarring miles on a dirt road. OK, so sometimes it is smoother. And, maybe it was just that I need shocks for the little pickup truck I call Dusty. One drives the road with windows down, listening for the call of the Western Meadowlark, the Long-billed Curlew and others. The temperature is about 78 degrees and the vehicle is a blind. Wildlife sometimes depart when they see the vehicle coming, and if one stops the birds swim away.

Get out of the vehicle and they'll fly ... so stay inside and enjoy the view.

A few raindrops spattered the windshield but it was still a sunny day as the sunset approached.

There goes a Cinnamon Teal now, one of my many "favorite" birds. What amazing color. And if they stretch their wings, they have white armpits and beautiful powder blue patches. And very orange, I mean bright orange, feet. Um, I guess they must have LEDs in their eyes, too, because all three of my photos have that glowing red eye. Maybe the low sunset light.

Hmm, low sunset light, raindrops and ... voila ... a photo op!

Well, it is getting on toward sunset, and I'm supposed to find my way to a campground that's at the southern end of the Refuge, and I'm sure going slowly with everything there is to see. There goes a Trumpeter Swan.

Sandhill Cranes are featured on the sign at the entrance to the Wildlife Refuge, and they are everywhere. Some will even stay and raise a family here. Others will continue on to other less-crowded areas.

I guess it should have said something about just how much there is to see, because the auto tour route is only just beginning ... but I have days to spend here so will go back to the paved road and head south to the campground to try to arrive before dark. Well there is a scenic overlook, and the light is quite nice, so I drove the short distance up to Buena Vista Overlook. I was not disappointed. With my spotting scope I could see lots of birds down on the ponds I had just been driving past. It is a vast area. I think I saw a total of two other cars while driving the Patrol Road.

Looking south, toward where I would camp, over near the snow-capped Steens Mountains ...
By the time I arrived at the campground it was dusk. The Western Screech Owl was sitting in a branch calling as I filled out the self-registration envelope. I ate some dinner and flopped down to fall sound asleep under a vast canopy of stars.

... To Be Continued

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