Written by Debby De Carlo/Photo by Debby De Carlo

Not everyone who volunteers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a birder. But it was my interest in birds that led me to visit in May of 2003 nine months after moving to Oregon. Though the Refuge was 30 miles south of Burns, the birds appeared as soon as I turned south on 205 just outside of Burns. I pulled over immediately. There were more yellow-headed blackbirds than I had ever seen. There were avocets, sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews in the flooded pastures. There were cinnamon teal, shovelers and pintails. Right there, still parked on the side of the road, I called a friend in Wisconsin. “There are so many birds it’s intoxicating,” I said. And I had already missed the hundreds of thousands of snow and Ross’s geese who had been in the same fields in March and April. 

I haven’t missed a year since. I’ve seen dry years and wet years. I didn’t think about volunteering until Tim Blount, then the Executive Director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, mentioned on their Facebook page (@MalheurFriends) that they were looking for someone to volunteer in late September and all of October in 2015. I sent him an email immediately and had the pleasure of working in the Headquarters Visitor Center. Though it was fall, there were still plenty of migrants. One day a red crossbill hit the window and was knocked out. I put it in a paper bag on the deck where it could recover, safe from hawks and owls, and hop out when it felt ready to fly. Another day, a visitor came to say they’d found a saw-whet owl in a tree. We averaged 30 visitors a day, a far cry from the 300 a day in the spring. It was just the right time to be introduced to volunteering for the Friends group. I didn’t volunteer again until last fall. 

In April of this year, I began two months of working at the Malheur Field Station just 3 miles down the road. At last I got to see the huge flocks of white geese with black-tipped wings as I drove to Burns for the migratory bird festival. Now I have my FOMR hat back on, though I plan on visiting Rose, Doug, Deb and Michael at the field station and attending the upcoming members meeting. Janelle is coming up on one year as Executive Director of FOMR, and she is a joy to work with.

When I was a kid growing up Pittsburgh, PA, our family spent summer vacations on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. My siblings and I slept in the back of the station wagon while my father drove all night. I remember always waking up to the smell of salt water as we crossed the bridge to the Cape. That distinct smell meant vacation had officially begun. Over the years, new places have taken on that special vacation aura. But nothing quite like turning south just outside of Burns.