Written by Cheryl Hunter and Larry Hill
Photo of Cheryl with newly replaced Area Closed sign to protect the spring at Barnes Spring Homestead
Turkey vultures drying their wings on the fire tower and roosting in the cottonwood trees, rustling their wings as they get settled; northern flickers hammering on the trees and buildings all around us, calling to their mates; a bald eagle pair taking turns on their nest just south of the Central Patrol Road, never leaving it unattended day or night; and California quail calling in the grasses around the ranch buildings. Starlings, warblers, robins, sparrows, blackbirds, and an occasional killdeer calling and flying up as we stepped outside each morning; the distant sound of sandhill cranes calling in the nearby fields; and especially Wilson’s snipes surrounding us with eerie sounds as they winnowed in the darkening sky – these are the joys of being assigned to volunteer for Friends of Malheur at P Ranch in April.
During the past several years, we have volunteered for a month each year at Refuge Headquarters, helping at Crane’s Nest Nature Store and taking on a few assignments around the Refuge such as checking signs along the trails and the Central Patrol Road (CPR), and helping with the annual highway clean-up near Frenchglen. This year, we enthusiastically agreed to be stationed at the far south end of the Refuge at the homesite of the former Pete French Ranch, now known as P Ranch. Staying in our cozy 15 foot trailer with access to the Bunkhouse for more of the comforts of home, we took on new responsibilities. Our biggest task was to report on the conditions of all the trails maintained by FOMR from Buena Vista Overlook south to Barnes Springs Homestead at the very southern tip of the Refuge, giving us great motivation to get out on the trails as the temperatures finally started to warm up. We introduced ourselves to members of the local community including the camp host at Page Springs Campground, the owners of Steens Mt. Resort and the owner of the soon-to-be opened coffee house in nearby Frenchglen and provided them with brochures and maps from MNWR and FOMR. We also staffed the P Ranch Bird Crawl station for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, happily on a weekend of sunny days, greeting and sharing bird sightings with the over 40 visitors who drove the full length of the Refuge. We even put up a new “Closed to Entry” sign at the warm springs at Barnes Springs homestead, once again reminding visitors that this is a sensitive area that can be damaged by swimming.
Spring was late coming to Malheur this year and brought a few days of swirling snow and brief hailstorms as well as spectacular clouds and thunderstorms later in the month. As the temperatures warmed and cooled and warmed again, snowmelt streaming off Steens Mountain filled the Blitzen River, clogging the old dams with branches and tree trunks, threatening to overflow the levies protecting the old ranch. One day late in the evening, Zach McCoy, MNWR South End Substation manager, knocked on the door of the Bunkhouse to tell us that the river was only a half foot below the top of the levy and strongly suggested that we might want to pull our trailer to higher ground in case the river overflowed that night! We quickly packed our trailer, hooked it to our truck in the dark and drove the mile to Frenchglen, parking for the night in front of the Frenchglen Hotel. The next day, we checked into the Steens Mt. Resort, just a couple miles west of P Ranch and on higher ground. The level of the river was at 6.2 feet, just below the record of 6.4 feet set in 1972! The road into Page Springs Campground was underwater for a brief time and there was talk of closing the CPR between Krumbo Lane and P Ranch. In the next few days, however, the temperatures dropped again, and the river level gradually went down – danger averted at the cost of delaying spring weather once again! Meanwhile, Zach hauled out multiple loads of woody debris that had been caught in the river, and by the end of that week, we returned to P Ranch, once again sharing the grove with the vultures, flickers, a few more warblers and now the winnowing snipes.
After almost a month at P Ranch, we reluctantly left, feeling a real sense of connection with the community at the south end of the Refuge. The eagles’ behavior seemed to indicate they might have fledglings in the nest, the flickers had slowed their mating behaviors while the snipes had increased theirs. We had spotted river otters along the CPR and kestrels were now flying among the trees around the ranch. Blackbirds and warblers were calling in the bushes and Amy’s coffee shop in Frenchglen was now open! All species were feeling the warmth of spring at last!