Malheur & Me: Seeking Refuge

Written by Dan Piquette/ Photos by Dan Piquette

I‘ve been to the Malheur Refuge four times now, three in this last calendar year. I’m smitten. On my most recent visit in late July, I was returning to my Monmouth, Oregon home from Colorado where I sat with my mother, Yvonne, as she passed away. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor her life than by enjoying my own at the refuge.

Due to a dry year and being late in the season, I was advised by fellow birders that there “might not be much to see.” What a sad thought. While I appreciate the abundance of an early season and a wet year, the resident species and the vast landscape alone are worth the visit. Besides, it’s not just about the wildlife and the land. 

Under the shade of a Cottonwood at the Historic P Ranch, I spent some dedicated time in reflection, thinking about life and death and what’s important. During migration, the Malheur provides birds a respite from the hardships of life on the move. The refuge offers protected space for rest and nourishment required to regain strength for the journey. Without this sanctuary, they will perish. I came to realize that our winged friends are not the only ones who require refuge.

Having spent fourteen hours driving, I needed time for rest and to take on nourishment essential for my own journey home. Nourishment goes beyond the food we eat. While rest and food are important, it’s also vital to take pleasure in the simple things—a blade of grass, a leaf, a warbler melody, a soaring falcon. We can’t flourish if all we do is keep busy, push ourselves, and strive to achieve. We need a break from the deleterious stressors of modern life. More often than not, we need a break from ourselves.  

As I savored seeing Western Kingbirds for the first time ever at the Pete French Round Barn; as Lark Sparrows gripped barbed wires; as Bobolinks in the “Alley” made themselves visible (another lifer); as resident Sandhill Cranes foraged for food in the not so wetlands; as a Willow Flycatcher perched on a swaying branch; as the toasty July air brushed across my face; as I listened to Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, American Robins, Mourning Doves, and Eastern Kingbirds; as American Coots and Cinnamon Teals shuffled through the shallow waters; as swallows swooped; as Black-billed Magpies taunted and evaded my camera’s lens; as tall grasses danced in the dry, warm wind; as seven White-faced Ibis flew overhead and eventually vanished into a sea of cattails; as a Northern Harrier flew feet above the ground; as critters observed me with an attentive discernment, one thing became very clear: the cacophony of thoughts that usually hijack my life, was silent.

Imagine if we could bring this same level of undistracted attention to all our interactions.

Not only can the Malheur help to ease our busy mind, but the refuge is also healing owing to its diversity. Research has shown time and again that people are happiest when they live amongst a variety of species. Though we may be able to stay alive, we can’t thrive in uniformity.

I founded the Mindful Birder Photography project with the hopes that my pictures will inspire people to get outside and take refuge in the beauty that surrounds us. I’m confident that as we become more aware of the positive effects diversity and open space have upon us, we will put more effort into protecting and expanding these life-preserving refuges. On my Mindful Birder website, I created a “Malheur and Me” gallery featuring pictures taken in or immediately around the Malheur to honor this precious space. Enjoy.

Thank You, Friends of the Malheur, for recognizing and protecting our shared environment.

With Bows of Appreciation,
Dan Piquette

NOTE: Dan’s Minful Birder Photography Project can also be found and followed on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/MindfulBirder
Thank you, Dan, for sharing your insights and connection to Malheur NWR with the world through this wonderful article and your Mindful Birder Project.

Species Spotlight: Western Ridge Mussels

Written by Alexa Martinez/ Photo by pnwmussels.org

Western ridged mussels (Gonidea angulate) are one of three native freshwater mussels that can be found in the Blitzen waters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Not only are they one of the few native mussels found on the refuge, but Malheur NWR holds one of the oldest western ridge mussel colonies!

These mussels may not be flashy to look at or are cute and cuddly like a teady bear but are super cool in their own special way. In general, freshwater mussels are mollusks that produce a bivalved shell. The two valves are mirror images of each other and are connected by an elastic-like ligament along the dorsal hinge (mulluskconservation.org). A specific feature on western ridged mussels are their very distinctive ridge on its shell which gives it it’s name. They also have very strong age lines on the outer portion of their shell. Very much like aging tree rings, you can age a mussel by counting the rings on the outer shell.

Like all mussels, western ridge mussels are extremely important to the environment and the ecosystem. They are long lived species and are sensitive to environmental change which makes them great indicators for long-term degradation, or recovery, of aquatic ecosystems (molluskconservation.org). Mussels contribute to clean water, health fisheries, aquatic food webs and biodiversity, and functioning ecosystems. They are definitely a super species to help enhance riverbed habitat.

As cool as these mussels are, they are also going through a rough patch in their time. Historically this species would range from California all the way to British Columbia, Canada, as well as portions of Idaho. Research indicates that the species has experienced a significant reduction in range from the historic distribution (43%; Blevins et al. 2017a), with the southern extent of the species’ range in California having contracted northward approximately 475 miles as compared to the historic range. Live western ridged mussels were not detected at 46% of the 87 sites where it historically occurred and that have been recently revisited (xerces.org).

We are very lucky to have this species still existing in our rivers at Malheur NWR and we hope we can help and maintain our populations for future generations to enjoy!