By Michele Wolski/ Photo by Alan Nyiri
I had only vague memories of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge dating back 40 years when I committed to spend the month of April volunteering for Friends of Malhuer. In one, we are watching a playful bobcat throw a small rodent up in the air over and over in the tall grass as the sun drops behind it. Another is not so glorious. It is me backing up to take a photo of a rattlesnake coiled on the cattle guard as the second snake, whom I had not seen, begins to rattle ominously behind me. Duly warned, I manage to jump away.
This visit is different. I am a newly retired high school science teacher who left the classroom on the cusp of the pandemic. I was longing to find a new place to explore with some unique natural history to challenge and absorb. My hope too was to connect with other volunteers; perhaps like-minded people who thought highly of the mission of protected natural lands. I wondered how retirement could replace some of the joys I had discovered in teaching. My experience at Malheur has provided all of this and more.
Malheur NWR is engrained in my heart and mind. I have accepted that no matter what comes ahead for me, I will always tend to this place and never cease to wonder if all is intact. I will hope that the many species and their endless cycles of living and movement are perpetuated and unaltered. I am attached and committed.
All of it drew me in, yet at first it was so startlingly unfamiliar. The only thing I could clearly figure out when I arrived was direction. A
large slab of snow-covered rock (Steens Mountain) marked south. The road from the refuge turn-off led in the straightest way possible north to Burns. A gravel road (Sodhouse) continued east to smaller towns than I had ever known. And west was the direction I looked over decidedly flat landscapes to watch sunsets in cloudscapes more beautiful than I had ever seen. My photos reflect my new felt wonder at desert skies.
And the rest is my new history with this place. It is my first sighting of white (so startlingly white) pelicans resting and flying in flocks, it’s the drive to Burns to stand on the green fence peering into fields at hundreds of sandhill cranes, it’s the bird feeder outside the Crane Nature Center and Bookstore where dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds chatter and swoop in for the seed I place there each morning. Then it’s the almost imperceptible change over the weeks until it’s undeniable that a now giant flock of brilliant Yellow-headed Blackbirds had decidedly taken over the terrain. It’s me watching alone on a cold, cloudy morning near the pond as a Prairie Falcon flying at bird speeds I had never seen nor even knew were possible, suddenly fold up into a ball and hurtle through the air, reconvene its’ flight path then do it again. I was learning to watch with new patience and most decidedly with gratitude. There were ducks, sparrows, curlews, avocets, stilts, hawks and so many more that the other volunteers pointed out for me.
The landscape which at first seemed like an endless scape of sagebrush suddenly was filled with nuance. On the walk towards Malheur Lake from our volunteer camp, there is a bridge where the river crosses below. I would stop there when alone to listen. The silence was so absolute in the first few seconds that I felt myself searching for some familiar landmark. And then it came; the low calls of birds, the subtle sound of the wind, the distant but louder calls of geese. To me these small experiences were precious finds.
There were other delightful discoveries. I enjoyed my volunteer duty which was to open the bookstore several days a week, sell carefully selected treasures of books, wonderful children’s games and stuffed birds, clothing, jewelry and some locally hand-made items. All of this was housed in a CCC sturdily built structure that withstood well the many days of spring winds. The customers were a pleasant and interesting group of people, some new to the refuge but most returning many times over. I appreciated the community we made amongst the volunteers. It was a fun, really caring and energetic group of adults. I had the great joy of becoming a student in their midst. Because of these excellent birders, I am so happy to see my own skills at identification increase. I have been involved in teaching or learning natural history for many years and I see how birding draws one in more deeply in understanding the entire system.
Now I am back where the trees are tall, many and form thick forests, where allowed. I visited the beach today on the shores of Puget Sound and watched for birds, asking more questions in my mind than I knew the answers. And I have some more of those about Malheur; questions about all the underpinnings of life there, its’ health, stability and future. My new memories are built upon the old and I am already thinking about Malheur and what might come next.