Written by Linda Craig/ Photos by Dan Streiffert
“What is the black bird with the yellow head?” I love this question, which is asked often of me as a volunteer at the Friends Nature Center/Store. I love it because it reminds me of the first time I saw this remarkable, flashy bird driving into the Malheur Environmental Field Station more than 40 years ago. I had arrived at the Field Station to take a three-week Field Botany class, and I was excited to see the country and learn about the plants and animals that live here.
I chose a career in accounting instead of biology, but I’ve always loved natural history. When I moved to Portland from Iowa in 1970, I promptly joined the Portland Audubon Society and the Native Plant Society. I first saw eastern Oregon ecosystems while working for Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). A friend and colleague took me to OMSI’s Hancock Field Station in the John Day area, and I was hooked on the beauty, diversity, and strength of the living things who survive in arid places.
The Field Station’s botany class was a first opportunity to spend more time in Harney County’s sagebrush/grassland steppe. The class keyed the plants in the Field Station locale and visited the lush beauty of the high Steens and the stark Alvord Desert. While botany was our principal focus, we also spent time with the birds, reptiles, and mammals we encountered.
I’d found an environment I loved. After that first year, I returned almost annually, usually staying at the Field Station. Birding at the Refuge Headquarters and along Center Patrol Road was always a highlight, and I hoped that some time I’d be able to spend more time here…to commit an entire summer to Malheur.
My chance came this year. Portland Audubon’s volunteer coordinator posted a notice that Friends of Malheur Refuge needed volunteers for the summer. Due to Covid and some changes in family obligations, my Portland commitments were minimal or virtual. I talked with Janelle, and she found me a place to stay. I asked her when she needed me, and she said, “Now!” I packed my bags. At the end of the next week after our talk, I arrived. That was late April, and I am planning to stay through mid-August.
My volunteer duties include staffing the Nature Center/Store in rotation with other volunteers and assisting Janelle with maintaining the Friends’ membership records and the store’s inventory. My favorite assignment is talking with our visitors about the birds they want to see and what tours or hikes might be best for their goals and available time. Although I am not an expert birder or trained naturalist, because of my many years of visiting and birding here, I have enough knowledge of the Refuge and the region to be of help.
I particularly enjoy the questions that start with, “Where can I see a….?” Burrowing owl, Sandhill crane, Great horned owl and Bobolink are most frequently requested. I tell the visitors where I last saw that bird, or where other visitors told me that they last saw it, and I ask them where they saw the birds they are thrilled about. We share our enthusiasm and knowledge with each other.
Talking with visitors is my favorite part of my volunteer assignment, but I also enjoy selling our wares and keeping the store tidy and inviting. We sell lots of books and I get to share my suggestions about which of our many birding guides will best match a customer’s needs.
A highlight of this Malheur summer is plenty of time for birding at the Refuge. Previously, visits to Malheur were never long enough, usually just one trip across the Center Patrol Road, a stop at Page Springs for a hike up the Blitzen, and a morning or two at headquarters to check out the regular birds and the rarities. This summer, I get to make the rounds most days at headquarters and return as often as I like to hot spots such as Benson Pond or Bobolink Alley. Consequently, I often see a new bird or two on many days, and I’ve had the opportunity to see the rarest of our avian visitors this spring, Veery, Grasshopper sparrow, Magnolia warbler. I’ve counted more than 150 species in Harney County since I arrived in late April.
This volunteer assignment is a commitment to sharing my values and helping the Friends support the Refuge I love, but it also fulfills my long-held desire to take the time necessary to steep myself in the natural history of the Malheur Refuge. And even though the Yellow-headed blackbirds are an unruly mob at the Nature Center’s feeders every morning, I don’t tire of them. They are a most remarkable, flashy bird.