Written by Noah Strycker/Photo by Dan Streiffert
A few years ago, at dawn on an early winter’s day, my dad and I were driving out of the Malheur Field Station when we noticed something on top of a power pole.
“Great Horned Owl,” my dad said, and I mumbled agreement.
The shape was round and fluffy, grayish brown, and it had two distinct ear tufts. Having seen my share of Great Horneds on countless trips to southeast Oregon, I hardly bothered a second glance – but I should have known better than to take anything for granted at Malheur.
As we passed under the power pole, my dad simultaneously hit the brakes and exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s a bobcat!”
We eased a hundred yards down the road and gingerly opened the car doors, angling for a good view. The bobcat didn’t budge. On its high perch, surrounded by sagebrush, it was safe and seemed to enjoy the early slanting rays of sunshine.
Around us, the high desert was quiet. Winter brings a sweeping peace to Malheur, the priceless solitude that is usually reserved for inaccessible wilderness. A person fills more room in wide-open spaces, and it doesn’t take many fair-weather tourists for Malheur to get crowded. In winter, when hardly anyone visits, the landscape exudes meditative calm.
A deep chill had settled in overnight, and this bobcat curled itself into a tight ball, peering down at us with evident curiosity.
“You never know what’s around the next corner,” my dad murmured, with appreciation, as he snapped a photo. We watched the cat for a couple of minutes before leaving it to its sunrise vigil, and continued down the Center Patrol Road to see what else the day might bring.
For years now, my dad and I have made a near-annual wintertime pilgrimage to Malheur. We also go in other seasons-each has its attractions-but winter stands out.
Our tradition started when, fresh out of high school, I spent a fall season volunteering at the wildlife refuge. Having decided to defer college for a year, I called to ask if I could help the biologists with their work. They promptly set me up in a three-bedroom house at headquarters, loaned me a pickup truck, and dispatched me for bird surveys and fencing projects. I hung around the office, staffed the visitor center, and went birding every day from September through November.
That fall, I watched the seasons change in increments. The cottonwood and aspen leaves flamed out, and then the nights turned brisk. The first snow fell on Halloween, dusting headquarters in several inches of light powder; that same day, thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans streamed overhead, aiming south, in continuous flocks.
By the time I departed in mid-November, the visitor center was virtually unvisited – most days, nobody stopped by. I packed up to spend the rest of my gap year in Taiwan, Mexico, and Panama before starting college the following spring. But I often thought about those tranquil days at Malheur and wondered what it was like when winter really took hold.
The following year, my dad and I planned a long weekend at the Field Station in January. We’ve been regular winter migrants ever since.
Midwinter is not the time to see a ton of birds. A few hardy species remain year-round, sticking it out through the most desolate conditions: Golden Eagles, Common Ravens, and Canyon Wrens haunt the rimrock, and the occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits in bare willows.
But minimalism is itself a virtue, and the cold months at Malheur present a chance to set aside the usual distractions. When a landscape is laid bare, so, too, is the life within it.
Some birds, such as owls, are easier to find in midwinter. Take a slow January drive down the Center Patrol Road, eyeballing each leafless cottonwood tree and willow thicket, and you’ll invariably spot one – most likely a Great Horned, though with patience you might discover a placid Barn or even a snoozing Long-eared. Without layers of foliage, owls have nowhere to hide.
In the high desert, winter draws back the curtain, unmasks the actors, and simplifies the plot lines. Nests from previous seasons reveal themselves after the leaves drop, reminders of birds that have since flown thousands of miles to warmer climes. The birds that stay tend to be approachable in winter, when they are more preoccupied with warmth and food than avoiding predators.
Birding is also, in a way, much more civilized when the sun rises late and sets early. In December, unlike May, it’s unnecessary to rise at 4:30 a.m. to catch the early birds. You can sleep in, grab a cozy mug of something hot, and venture out without missing a thing. After a day in the field, you may return to a long, relaxing evening of editing photos and thumbing field guides.
For me, Malheur will always be special. Over the years, I made my way through college and then around the world on birdwatching projects, returning home to Oregon. My dad and I still make our annual wintertime journey to the place we’ve explored so many times together. It’s now been 15 years since our first pilgrimage, and every visit brings something new. These days, the trips also offer precious time to catch up between other adventures.
People and jobs may come and go, but Malheur, and its birds, have an enduring quality best appreciated in winter. When the snow falls, the thermometer drops to near zero, and fog freezes on the sage, my dad and I will pack up the car, head over the mountains, and see what awaits in the high desert.
Noah Strycker is a 32-year-old writer, photographer, and bird man based in Oregon. In 2015, during a quest spanning 41 countries and all seven continents, he set a world record by seeing 6,042 species of birds – more than half the birds on Earth – in one year.