Malheur & Me: A Love Essay

When I moved to Wisconsin in 1975, I fell head-over-heels in love with its lush green pastures, rolling hills and woods. Maybe it reminded me of the Western Pennsylvania landscape where I grew up. Aldo Leopold died the year I was born, but he left Wisconsin love letters in the form of essays. In 1999, I moved to Puget Sound and joined the local birding group. People would ask me if I had been to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. It was an incredible birding destination, they said. To me, though, it was an amorphous place in an arid corner of the state. It held no allure.

A few years later I moved to Forest Grove, west of Portland and decided I would use some of my vacation to visit Malheur in late May. As I turned south onto 205 just east of Burns, still 30 miles north of the Refuge, I was surprised to see flooded farm fields with wading birds foraging. Yellow-headed Blackbirds dotted the same fields and wire fencing, scolding me with their screechy, territorial call. A flock of White-faced Ibis flew overhead. Cinnamon Teal, along with other ducks, swam in the ditches on either side of the road. Sandhill Crane pairs walked in the fields a little further south. I was intoxicated. As I drove over Wright’s point, I saw Steens Mountain, the largest fault block mountain in the Great Basin. While the flooded fields around Burns owed their temporary abundance of water to the Silvies River, the Refuge was an oasis in the high desert thanks to the snowmelt from Steens. It took me two hours to drive that 30 miles to the northern edge of the Refuge, simply because I had to stop so often to see birds and take in the varied landscape.

In the years to come, I would spend a week or more camping at Page Springs at the southern end of the refuge where I could wake up each morning ready to explore, slowly making my way to Refuge Headquarters.

On the last day of one trip, I woke up to the sound of Canyon Wrens, their sweet descending calls filling the air as they left their nests in the canyon wall just across a creek from the campground. Soon, I had walked the mile or so to the beginning of the North Steens Loop Road, still closed to cars because of snow even though it was late May. I sat on a large rock about knee high, looking out across the south end of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The sun hadn’t begun to peek above the mountain yet, but it was close, casting a pink glow to the desert hills to the southwest. The peace I felt was palpable. Here, I always remembered this land was the home of the Northern Paiutes, even if they’d been relegated to a small reservation north of Burns for over a century. The sun rose above the mountain behind me, and I lingered. Certainly I came here each spring to witness the migration of millions of birds. But it was more than that. Here, I felt the connection to the land so strongly.

Restored, I walked back down to the campground where other campers who had come to watch birds or to fish were stepping out of their tents or RVs. It didn’t take long to put my tent, duffle bag and small cooler in the car. I looked around, satisfied I’d left the site ready for the next visitor and got in my car. 

I drove slowly on the gravel road between Page Springs and the paved highway at Frenchglen. There were Western Tanagers, a Bullock’s Oriole, a Wilson’s Snipe. Once out of Frenchglen, the speed limit on 205 increased. Though I would still stop at a few places to see more birds on my way home, I was usually ready to return to the other side of the Cascade range where I lived and a hot shower awaited. This time, though, perhaps my seventh or eighth annual trip to the high desert since moving to Oregon in 2002, there was something welling up inside me just as I came to a pullout. I parked the car and looked out over the wetland. Suddenly I was sobbing. I didn’t know where all the tears and emotion came from. Surely I would be back again. I wiped away the tears and stayed a little longer before getting back on 205.

In the beginning, still working, my trips to Malheur were limited by vacation time that I portioned out with other birding destinations. Later, I would volunteer for weeks and months at a time.

The spring of 2018 was the first migration I missed since moving to Oregon. Instead, I drove to radiation treatments every day. By late July, the treatments were over, and my strength returned. I told my daughter I was going to Malheur. “But Mom, it’s July. There aren’t any birds there now.” But I knew it was as much about place that drew me. And of course there were birds, the ones that had nested, including Bobolinks and their happy song. That fall, I volunteered again, and the following spring as well.

Now I am in Hawaii, with its own magic. Yet I am confident my next trip to the mainland will include a trip to Malheur.

I wish I’d written multiple love essays about Malheur as Leopold had about Wisconsin. I invite you to write yours.

Species Spotlight: Ross’s Geese

Written by Teresa Wicks/Photos by Dan Streiffert

Ross’s Geese are the “stubby-billed” and smaller white geese that arrive in the Harney Basin in large numbers each spring. One of two species of ‘white geese’ that migrate through the Pacific Flyway, they regularly use the Harney Basin as a stopover during their flight from their winter grounds in CA to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. Ross’s Geese have expanded their breeding and wintering territories eastward in the past several decades, encroaching on Snow Goose breeding grounds, and in some cases creating hybrid Ross’s/Snow Geese. In areas where there are large nesting populations of Ross’s (and Snow) Geese, the tundra is sometimes so denuded of vegetation that the impact is visible from space!

In the Harney Basin, Snow Geese tend to arrive in the Basin a little earlier than the Ross’s Geese, the former peaking later in the spring. These large flocks of geese tend to congregate in the agricultural fields of the Silvies Floodplain. Historically, they would have been drawn to the myriad of desert wetlands throughout the intermountain west. However, as wetland habitat diminished across the intermountain west, the agricultural stubble (mowed fields) of the Harney Basin has become increasingly important for migrating waterfowl. This is, in part, because of the protein rich grass and forb shoots found in these fields that provide ample fuel for northward migration.

Like Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese sometimes come in a dark morph that gives them a blue appearance. However, in Ross’s Geese, these dark morph individuals tend to be less common than dark morph Snow Geese. Interestingly, Ross’s Goose goslings hatch with light down or gray down, though goslings with either shade of down grow into light-morph adults.

Despite being less common than a dark morph snow goose, it is likely that one or two dark morph Ross’s geese will appear in the Harney Basin each spring. This photo was taken in April 2019.

Now, about that name. Ross’s Geese are named after the first white guy to shoot and preserve a specimen that was sent back east to the Smithsonian. Some readers may know about the #BirdNamesForBirds effort that started in earnest in 2020. The purpose of this project is to remove honorific patronyms from birds and give them names that actually tell us something about the bird we are observing. For example, a new name could be an onomatopoeia. That is, their name could be what they say. This is a common naming practice in many Indigenous cultures around the world and can be pretty effective. Ross’s Geese could transform from a patronymed bird to the Woo’woo [Goose], as I hear them, or as described by Cornell, the Keek-keek Goose. Or perhaps a physical descriptor would be more popular in Western culture. They could become the Short-billed Goose. Or the Dower Goose, since they lack the grin-patch of the Snow Goose. The possibilities are fairly endless.

Coming to the Crane’s Nest Nature Store

The Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is eager for the Spring to spring and are cautiously preparing for the possibility of reopening the Crane’s Nest Nature Store. When the store does open we will have a special treat for our visitors.

In April 2006 Linda Whiting opened Designs By Linda Art Studio & Gift Shop on her family ranch just east of Burns. She has been painting and creating for over 40 years and will now be selling custom Malheur designs at the Crane’s Nest Nature Store.

Working with Friends Director, Janelle, for content topics and ideas Linda is curating a collection of hand sewn wall hanging tapestries and hand painted and beaded ornaments. These wall hangings will come in a variety of square and landscape layouts and sizes to fit any space! Linda’s ornaments are a great gift or memento for any occasion. Each piece is created with Linda’s personal touch and attention to detail.

Faux leather painted and beaded ornaments: $20.00 – $22.00
Hanging tapestries will vary in price from $45.00 – $98.00 depending on size and detail.

Malheur & Me: A Photographer’s Playground

Written by Rich Bergeman/Photos by Rich Bergeman

The Malheur Refuge and surrounding territory are a photographer’s playground. My first visit was back in 1985 on a University of Oregon workshop, when we bunked in the Malheur Field Station and took turns using the tiny darkroom there at the time (I still remember the shock of turning on the light and seeing my new box of 4×5 film sheet lying open on the table!). Since then I’ve returned to the Malheur Country every few years in the company of a handful of fellow photographers from my hometown in Corvallis.

Originally a large-format black-and-white photographer, I tend to be more interested in relics of human habitation on the land than in the wildlife and the scenery. Over the years I’ve enjoyed prowling inside the old Pete French era barns–the famous Round Barn and the Long Barn near Frenchglen–as well as other historic structures near the refuge, like the now disappearing ghost town of Blitzen and the BLM-preserved Riddle Ranch on the slope of Steens Mountain.

It wasn’t until a couple of years ago, in the fall of 2019, that I discovered the Pete French Sod House Ranch, which I was surprised to see had a long barn of its own, surrounded by an impressive stockade of 100-year-old juniper posts. Even though this complex of historic buildings is not far from the Refuge Headquarters and Visitors’ Center, I had never been there when it was accessible. For most of the spring and summer it is off limits to visitors because the huge century-old cottonwood trees there provide a nesting area for herons, cormorants and other big birds. What a find! With nearly a dozen well-preserved old structures to explore–including a bunkhouse, carriage shed, small cabin, stone cellar, and long barn–we spent an entire afternoon there (under the helpful and watchful eye of the attendant).

By the time of my 2019 visit, I had moved on from the big film cameras and was exploring the world of infrared photography with a couple of converted digital cameras. This accounts for the shift of tones in the images shown here–where greenery is rendered as a highlight and bright blue skies turn dark, dramatically setting off the clouds. While I still am habitually drawn to structural relics, I have discovered that the IR camera is a marvelous tool for seeing the high desert landscape, such as the trio of snags against the wide horizon that I captured just outside the Crane’s Nest gift shop at the Refuge Headquarters.

As the Arnold used to say, “I’ll be back.”

Swan Saga Pt. 2

Written by Alexa Martinez/Photos by Dan Streiffert and Alexa Martinez

Throughout the months of January and February, Malheur NWR staff conduct surveys for Trumpeter swans that may be utilizing the refuge during the winter months. Most survey sites are located at the south end of the refuge where there tends to be more water, as well as the Diamond Swamp area. On a weekly basis, biologist, volunteers, and staff report any sightings of swans on the refuge. Visitors are also more than welcome to send in their swan sightings during this time. Information that is collected include the date, time(s), location(s), and whether the individual was able to distinguish between the two species of swans found on refuge: trumpeter and tundra swans.

In the month of February, Malheur NWR collaborates with Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to have an overall count of swans in Oregon. We try to coordinate with biologist from Summer Lake Wildlife Area in Summer Lake, OR on a time and date when this will occur. For this year we had conducted our survey on the 4th of February. Malheur had 177 swan sightings: 46 Trumpeter swans, 89 Tundra swans, and 42 unidentified. At Summer Lake Wildlife Area they had a total of 422 swan sightings.

Throughout the survey conducted at Malheur NWR, two collared swans were recorded, which include our native female from Benson Pond, θ64 and 2@1 female that was tagged at Boca Lake back in 2018. Both female swans have been hanging around each other at Benson Pond for majority of the winter. It is thought that 2@1 may be the daughter of θ64. As was mentioned in last month’s article by Gary Ivey, the other female, θ76, who would typically be seen with 2@1 has been observed with a male at Summer Lake Wildlife Area.

Like most of the misfortune brought to the world in 2020, it also brought misfortune to θ64, since she had lost her mate last year. Reasons are unknown. With that said, hopefully, 2021 will bring θ64 some luck, and who knows, luck might have brought her a surprise for this Valentine’s Day. We are all anxiously awaiting the next chapter of this Swan Saga.