Malheur & Me: Celebrating the Before & After Experience



In April of 2019 at age 71 I strapped on my first ever pair of hiking boots and John and I headed out for our first day of volunteering at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. John was to be the volunteer handy man while I greeted people in the Visitor’s Center. To say that month was one of the highlights of our lives is an understatement! We’d never been in that area and we weren’t birders, so everything was new to us: avocets, ibises, bobolinks, curlews, the call of the Sandhill cranes and the winnowing of Wilson’s snipes. Coming from the Portland Metro area where fields are constantly being turned into buildings of one kind or another, the “sense of seamless time” in the presence of the Refuge’s unchanged, ancient expanses and endlessly glorious sunsets was deeply calming.

That immersive experience was a life changer for us! We have developed a common interest in birds that generates hours of fun and conversation. This is our first shared hobby in almost fifty years of marriage. We have since spent many, many hours exploring river banks, old growth forests, wetlands, beaches, and deserts. The birding learning curve has been steep but deeply satisfying and no doubt healthy for our brains during this time in our lives!

It has not been a secret in our family how much we both love Malheur! So our daughter, Sarah, surprised us with this stunning birdhouse modeled after the Visitor’s Center in celebration of our recent 50th wedding anniversary! When asked for the reasons behind the inspiration for this model, she said, “There are defining moments in a relationship where there is a ‘before’ and an ‘after.’ Malheur was such a significant time for my parents. I wanted them to have a reminder of the joy they experienced even when they aren’t at the Refuge.”

She found the artist, Gary Kilburg from Newberg, at the Farmer’s Market in Sherwood, OR. He is a retired professor from George Fox University and two years ago he began making birdhouses for his grandchildren. He then expanded to the Farmer’s Market. He’s created more than 300 unique birdhouses.

Gary told us about some of the challenges he encountered in the making of this birdhouse. He spends a considerable amount of time researching a custom birdhouse before he begins its construction. Since he’d never been to Malheur, he relied on photos provided by our daughter and the Refuge website, as well as satellite images. He said it was the most difficult birdhouse he’s made, and from beginning to end he spent over 150 hours on its creation!

Gary had had no experience with stonework, so that was by far the most difficult aspect of his work. He spent much time researching materials and after several dead ends, he found some tiles at Home Depot. Each piece of tile for the walls and chimney was hand cut to size, custom stained, and individually mortared into place.

The roof presented another challenge. Again after much research, he bought molds and poured them with a stucco mix that he’d colored. After completing the whole structure, he applied Spar urethane as a preservative so that this birdhouse is correctly waterproof for installation outside. Sorry Gary, but this little piece of art will NEVER be kept outside!

Soon we will make our third trek to volunteer at the Refuge. We are waiting with the same patience any pair of kids demonstrates right before Christmas! After all, how often do we, as grown-ups, have the opportunity to be like kids again, open and eager for whatever encounters will unfold that day. That is how we step out of our little r.v. every morning at the Refuge. It is a unique privilege, and we value every minute of our time in this high desert space.

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