Written by Steven Kratka/ Photos by Steven Kratka
Spring 2021 and time for my annual pilgrimage to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. This sacred place has been calling me back for over a year and it was with great excitement that I once again find myself in the midst of this wildlife mecca. My plan was to spend three days here, crisscrossing the refuge road system in search of subjects for my mind and my lens. Malheur never disappoints.
Within the first hour of my arrival I photographed my first Great Horned Owls of the trip. The female sitting on her eggs while the male kept careful watch of his mate from an adjacent tree. I marveled at the amazing camouflage of the female nestled in the crotch of a tree. She was easy to miss even just a few feet away. Two hours later I spotted another nesting Great Horned Owl about 2 miles from the first pair. We observed each other intently but at a respectful distance. A good place to have some lunch I thought as I communed with this wonderful owl on a more spiritual level. I tried to lighten the mood a bit and decided to have a staring contest with my feathered friend. I lost big time. I photographed a total of six Great Horned Owls. The most ever in one trip for me. My favorite owl encounter I was not able to photograph. As I was driving the refuge I spotted, through a dense tangle of branches, two Great Horned Owls sitting on a branch shoulder to shoulder, both with intense stares in my direction. As quickly as I spotted them they flew away but that amazing image has recorded itself forever in my mind.
Usually I enjoy only the solitude and peace that Malheur has to offer during my visits avoiding other people always, however this time I spent many hours at the Headquarters. What a wonderful experience that was. So many birds gathered at the feeders, in the trees, on the small pond. I sat for hours watching and photographing a plethora of bird species. My favorites were Audubon’s Warbler and White Crowned Sparrows flitting through the branches of the sagebrush. I was serenaded to the songs of Red Winged Blackbirds, the always striking Yellow Headed Blackbirds and of course the ever present Meadowlark. One of my favorite shots was of the Mountain Cottontail Rabbit. I love that photo and already have it hanging on my wall at home. While in the headquarters building someone opened the door to come in and they were preceded by a quick moving four foot bull snake who decided to tour the facilities before being escorted out. The refuge Headquarters will always be a part of future trips. A must see for everyone.
One of the more difficult birds I have tried photographing has always been the Belted Kingfisher. Malheur came to the rescue. I spent several hours photographing Kingfishers on the ponds at the entrance to the Paige Springs Campgrounds. To my delight they were very cooperative diving for fish for my lens. The refuge always has new experiences for me every-time I visit.
As always, during my drives through the refuge, the every present Northern Harriers treated me to their low level flight skills as I whipped my huge telephoto lens back and forth attempting to record their gracefulness.
My heart jumped for joy when I heard the rattling bugles of Sandhill Cranes. The sound that will always mean Malheur and home to me. I could listen to their vocalizations for hours. Several took the opportunity to pose for my camera.
Over the three days I was on the refuge I saw so many of it’s wonders. The nesting Bald Eagles by Frenchglen, Mule Deer everywhere at dusk and dawn, Antelope running so effortlessly through the sagebrush, the striking plumage of Magpies as they flash by, various lizards scurrying over lichen covered rocks and the spectacular iridescent feathers of the Northern Shoveler duck.
Three days was much to short to explore the treasures of this refuge. However I have several thousand images to process and catalog so Malheur will still be with me for many more months. Already I am missing my day long explorations. I am not sure I can wait an entire year before my return to the place that I consider my other home.