Journal 210 - May 11 - 13 (Road Trip Report)

Bird Heaven - Part I Magical Malheur

No one knows what Bird heaven is like, but we can all imagine. There are even places on earth that we can imagine as similar to parts of Bird Heaven. Last year 50 miles off the coast of Tofino, I thought I had experienced a piece of Bird Heaven for 11 days as thousands of albatrosses, shearwaters, and other pelagic birds constantly swirled gracefully around the fishing vessel, Osprey I.

This week I found myself in the opposite extreme of the vast, cool Pacific Ocean. I was in the hot, high desert region of southeastern Oregon. The flat, featureless landscape of dry sagebrush meadows and hills bore no resemblance to the Pacific, but for me, it was another piece of Bird Heaven - Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. At first glance it seemed a lifeless wasteland, but a closer look revealed marshes, sloughs, ponds, flooded fields, lakes, and rivers. A quarter of the 187,000 acre refuge is covered with the elixir of life, water, creating a nutrient rich habitat for breeding and migrating birds and other wildlife. Within a few minutes of entering the refuge, I was photographing avocets, stilts, phalaropes, willets, ibis, and ducks. Moments later from the causeway between Malheaur and Mud Lake I was focussing on Western and Clark's Grebes, Great Egrets, American White Pelicans, shorebirds, Cliff Swallows, and Forster Terns.

As I frequently stopped the car on the narrow roads, I was cognizant of possibly incurring the wrath of passing motorists. But, we soon discovered another Malheur charm - motorists were few and far between and most of them were just as interested in the wildlife as we were. Our destination for the first night was Malheur Headquarters and then the Malheur Field Station where we had booked a fully furnished trailer for 2 nights. We had intended to arrive in the early afternoon as the grove of tall cottonwoods at Malheur Headquarters was renowned as a migrant trap for songbirds. But after many photo stops, it was late by the time we arrived, and the light was quickly fading. After a quick inspection of Headquarters, we headed for our humble abode at the Field Station for a good night's rest.

I became aware of Malheur about 2 years ago as I was browsing for bird information on the web. I was fascinated by the Malheur birding reports, and I was hooked immediately. I knew it was a place I had to visit, but I dared not tell a soul. I have a belief that if you ever want to do something, tell no one until you're committed, and it's in the works. Perhaps, talking about it is a good way to talk your way out of it. To borrow a cliche, "Lose lips sinks ships." I'm not sure, but that's how it was with my cameras, books, and past trips. Now that I was peacefully resting and checking my photo files in a comfortable trailer in Malheur, I had to pinch myself to see if it were real. It was real, and the chorus of coyotes filled the silent, chilly night air as if to affirm our presence.

Our stay in Malheur was 2 nights, which was at least 2 nights too short. There was much more to discover, more birds to find, and more photos to be taken. We had hardly made a dent in the checklist of over 320 birds and 58 mammals. However, I was grateful for the two days we had experienced. It is, indeed, a magical place - a place where nature is supreme, a place where humans are subservient to the environment, a place unspoiled by human development, and, perhaps, another piece of Bird Heaven.

Malheur is a long day's drive from the Canadian border or 2 shorter days which was our choice. We had planned to spend our first night in Walla Walla after visiting Tom Lamb's hummingbirds in Dixon (he has 30 feeders), but all the motel rooms were booked. No problem - Pendleton was was an hour further south and closer to Malheur. That would give us extra time to dawdle and explore the next day.

We made several rest stops along the way and also checked for birds. At a rest stop just north of Yakima I spotted my first new bird as White-throated Swifts sailed above the steep gorge with an assortment of swallows. At the Walla Walla River I was surprised to see Caspian Terns. I always thought they were coastal birds, but now I know differently.

My wife found another new bird across the river. As I was taking a few distant shots of a possible Sage Thrasher for the record, a male Bullock's Oriole landed in a nearby tree just as we were leaving.

The male Calliope Hummingbird was one of the many hummers at Tom's modest country home on the outskirts of Dixon. Tom has lived there all his life and and his hummingbirds have become a famous attraction for birders and tourists. He doesn't charge admission but appreciates a donation to help pay for the expenses. By the way, after years of experimenting, he has found the ideal mixture to be 5 (water) to 3 (sugar). The birds seem to prefer it over other proportions, and it prevents the mold from growing on the feeders.

The Black-chinned was another of the common hummers. He also has Rufous, and last year he had a Broad-tailed.

The Black-chinned was another new bird for me but very difficult to photograph as it was quicker and less predictable than the Calliope.

The female Black-chinned can be identified by its grayish crown.

Once we got into southern Washington, Mourning Doves became a common sight as well as a few birds I'll mention later.

Cliff Swallows on a real cliff! I've seen Cliff Swallows on barns, houses, and bridges, but this was the first on a cliff (just south of Pendleton). I'm glad some of the birds are clinging to the traditional methods. I suppose the ability to adapt to human building structures has helped the expansion of the Cliff Swallow's range as suitable cliffs are not always available. The Cliff Swallow was the most abundant swallow we saw in both Oregon and Utah. They seemed to be around every bridge, culvert, and human-built structure in the hight desert region simply because there were no cliffs.

Although many nest sites have gone hi-tech, the traditional mud-building technology still remains.

I was surprised to learn that Horned Larks are year-round residents over most of the U.S. They were quite common in the high desert region of Oregon. Stopping for birds stretched our 4 hour drive from Pendleton to Burns into a 7 hour marathon.

Before heading for Malheur we decided to check out Riley's Pond 20 miles to the west of Burns. I'm glad we did. Riley's Pond was a bust but the flooded fields to the north were busy with shorebirds, ducks, and Franklin's Gulls. Most were too far for photos, but it did give us a preview of things to come.

While trying to photograph the Franklin's on the north, several Wilson's Phalaropes worked their way towards me in a ditch on the south. This would be my best photo opportunity of the trip.

The Phalaropes were very skittish. I was motionless, but the loud clicking of the camera was enough to spook the birds.

The last time I saw an Avocet was 2 years ago at Alki Lake in Kelowna. I had to stop when I spotted one in a field near the Malheur entrance. To my delight it flew across the road to a flooded field right beside me.

While we were enjoying the Avocet, a Long-billed Curlew flew in to enjoy the party.

Not to be left out, a Black-necked Stilt also joined in. Other birds in the field included a very shy Willet, a pair of bashful Gadwall, and two bathing Wilson's Phalaropes.

The causeway between Malheur and Mud Lakes was a great place to stop with birds on both sides. In the distance I could see a flock of birds approaching. I was thinking geese until they got a little closer. Pelicans! They banked and headed north just in front of us for a gorgeous sight in the evening sun.

Caspians? I thought we were seeing Caspians again, but when I focussed in, I was delighted to see my first Forster Terns.

The Franklin's Gulls reminded me of our Bonapartes. The Franklin's is just a bit larger and has very distinctive wide eye-arcs.

One of the shyest birds has to be the Great Egret. I tried several times to sneak up to them, but even the slightest sign of an intruder was their signal to fly.

The closest we ever got was over 100 feet which was too far for a good photo.

We only saw three Wilson's Snipes. They were all on fence posts.

Malheur is a breeding habitat for Sandhills. Like the Great Egrets, they were also difficult to approach.

Pronghorn Antelopes were a common sight as were Mule Deer. (Note: Janna has informed me that Pronghorn Antelopes are more correctly name "Pronghorns" as they are not a member of the antelope family. They are the fastest land animal over a sustained distance. Cheetahs are good for a quick burst of speed but can't handle any distances.)

We were awakened after our first night by the beautiful voice of the Say's Phoebe. It seems she had a nest in the vicinity.

Our whole trip was serenaded by Western Meadowlarks. Malheur was no exception.

Before my wife got out of bed, I had already photographed the Say's Phoebe and a Western Meadowlark. The female Bullock's Oriole was another pre-breakfast bird.

On the way out of camp I spotted a shrike. Wishfully, I shouted, "Loggerhead!" My wish came true although I wished I could have gotten a little closer.

As the Loggerhead departed, a bird circled and hovered above us like an Osprey. I was surprised to zoom into a Willet. I was even more surprised when it landed on some sagebrush in the distance. I didn't think shorebirds did that.

My first day's attempts at the White-faced Ibis were a failure. They were too wary, and I was never close enough. Today was redemption time. Slowly inching the car towards the flock close to headquarters worked. I was as close as I wanted.

Large flocks of Ibis were present in the flooded fields. They were one of the most abundant birds at Malheur.

Headquarters was fairly busy with visitors and photographers, but there was room for all. My first find was a familiar face, the Warbling Vireo.

I had trouble getting a clear picture of the vireo, but later when I was looking for the Wilson's Warbler, the vireo wouldn't stay away.

Western tanagers were abundant. I think they might nest in the nearby sagebrush.

I had never seen so many Western Tangers in one place. They seemed to be everywhere around Headquarters.

Flycatchers were scarce. The only one I found was a Willow at Headquarters.

A pair of Black-chinned Hummers frequented the feeder at hadquarters. (Headquarters is the information centre. During business hours there are volunteers on duty to answer questions, and there is an excellent museum and gift shop.)

I've always had a tough time getting decent photos of the Wilson's Warbler on Vancouver Island. They were abundant at Headquarters.

One of the most common ducks was the Cinamon Teal. It was also the easiest to photograph as it was the last to fly. Sometimes it would just try to hide in the grass.

Most of the teal seemed to be paired up. Here's the female. (By the way, we finally made it to breakfast at the nearby Narrows Cafe. It is a full-service RV park, restaurant, store, and gas station. The food and service was first class and the prices reasonable.)

Turkey Vultures were a common sight. We found several roosting in the trees near Buena Vista. Apparently, the metal towers at P-ranch is a favorite roosting site.

Most of the roosting swallows on Vancouver Island seem to be on hydro lines or barbed wire fences. It was more picturesque to see them on trees and snags.

Many of the roosting Barn Swallows were juveniles.

Northern Rough-winged Swallows were also commonly seen on low bushes or trees. The only swallows I didn't see were Violet-greens.

I couldn't turn down a picture of my signature duck, the Northern Shoveler.

Almost a double - We were enjoying the Lazuli Bunting at Paige Springs so much that we missed the Yellow-breasted Chat that was in the same bush. Oh well, one new bird at a time is okay with me. Other misses were the Bobolinks which usually arive in late May, Black Terns which breed locally, and the White-headed Woodpeckers that nest just north of Malheur.











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