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Malheur National Wildlife Refuge - part I
May 2011

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR
    Sheldon National Wildlife Refuge, NV
    Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, OR


Thursday, May 5
We were looking forward to our spring trip in May. Usually we take our desert trip earlier in April, but with the Master Birder class, we had to push it back to May. We were also looking forward to perhaps some escape from the endlessly cold and rainy "spring" we've been having. For more flexibility in planning and to study some of the birds I have been learning about, we decided to road trip down to Malheur NWR in SE Oregon.

After a long drive, we passed through Burns with several hours of daylight ahead. In the flooded fields, Willets and Long-billed Curlews probed the fields. A large flock of Double-crested Cormorants flew overhead as we crossed the Narrows. As we traveled down the highway through Malheur NWR, we saw many Sandhill Cranes, Canada Geese, and ducks in the field. A Forster's Tern traveled down the streams looking for a meal.

At the Page Springs campground, we set up camp. The American Robins and Red-winged Blackbirds chattered away noisily from the trees. And a Bullock's Oriole stopped in. Clouds of Cliff Swallows were competing for the best nesting spot in the cliffs. As night fell, a Western Screech Owl called some where above the campground.

Friday, May 6
The next morning we awoke early to the cacophony of robins and blackbirds. We hiked out from the campground down the road toward the P Ranch. Along the way, many Brewer's Blackbirds called from the sagebrush. Above us Wilson's Snipe continuously winnowed. From the bare cottonwoods, a pair of American Kestrels called loudly, upset a Red-tailed Hawk was a little too close. The sky was clouded in, but the air was pleasantly cool - the right combination for a hike.

At the P Ranch the Turkey Vultures were waking up in the tall cottonwoods. Soras called from the dense short sedge of the flooded fields. We remarked how it was odd how the Turkey Vultures were not roosting on the old watch tower as we've seen in the past. But we soon found out why - a Great Horned Owl was nesting in the tower and we could see the adults with two young chicks or branchers. Around the ranch, the birding was rather slow. Many Yellow Warblers sang from every willow. A pair of Evening Grosbeaks was a pleasant surprise. The delayed spring hadn't prompted them to migrate up to the forests yet. The landscape of Malheur was notably held back by the cool spring. The grass was short and none of the cattails had even begun to sprout. The willows were nothing but red and orange sticks and the trees were far from unfurling their leaves.

We hiked up the Central Patrol Road with the hopes to do a loop trail as marked on the Malheur NWR map and described in a hiking trail guide. The trail was supposed to go from the Central Patrol Road then cut over along the creek to the East Canal road. We had hiked the East Canal trail in the past, but weren't sure where the trail that cut over. When we asked a patrolling park ranger about the trail, he said it was a nice trail, but petered out in the end. At least we were given some assurance of it being a possibility. The walk up the Central Patrol road was slow and a bit monotonous. There were plenty of Willets and Long-billed Curlews flying and displaying in the air, but all the ducks would fly at the sight of an approaching car or person and very few passerines were active.

After a couple of miles of hiking up the road, we crossed the stream and went through the locked gate along the dike. The creek followed along side the dike and thickets of willows grew in between the road and the stream. Marsh Wrens sang loudly and spruced up their nests, Soras sang from the sedge, and a few Virginia Rails chucked from the cattails. Northern Shovelers, Cinnamon Teals, American Coots, and Mallards were all weary of our approach. One coot was so terrified it flapped and splashed running over the water straight into the barbed wire fence where it flipped over into the water. Then the coot only continued its antics by repeating the move into another barbed wire until it felt it was sufficiently far enough away from us. Along the dike were several automatic gates that controlled the water level of the fields. At the last gate, the road ended and the trail petered out into the very wet marshy sedge. There might have been a loop trail, but trying to hike it at this time of the year would require waders. We turned back, not really looking forward to going back the 8 miles instead of completely the loop in 5 miles. The supposed loop trail was probably only hikable during the driest part of the year and also probably the least interesting time to do so.

On our long hike back, we briefly stopped at the P Ranch to look at the young owls and to watch a pair of Wilson's Phalaropes feed in a pond along side the road. Back at camp, we shrugged off our backs and loaded into the car. We drove up to the visitor center in hopes to get information on the Greater Sage-Grouse lek. However, we arrive a few minutes too late. The center was closed, so we spent a few minutes birding around the headquarters. The wind had picked up in the evening and was quite blustery, making being outside uncomfortable. There was a diversity of birds around the center - several Lewis's Woodpeckers hunkered down in the tree. Yellow-headed Blackbirds, Pine Siskins, and American Goldfinches horded the seed feeders. Yellow-rumped Warblers gleaned the branches. A small flock of Lazuli Buntings were flycatching in the sage. And a Rufous Hummingbird drank from the feeder.

We took refuge from the cold and wind in the car and drove down the Central Patrol Road. White-faced Ibis fed in the marshes among the dried up cattails. A small flock of Black-crowned Nightherons was flushed from the reeds. And a Short-eared Owl circled low over the marsh. Along the road, many Ring-necked Pheasant cocks (and sometimes a hen) stood sentinel only walking off at the last minute as the car approached. On Benson Pond, a flock of American White Pelicans fed in a circle, scooping up prey in their pouches as they swam together. A pair of Trumpeter Swans tended their dome nest above the marsh. As we traveled south down the road, flocks of White-faced Ibis flew northward toward the visitor center.

Back at camp, the clouds thickened and a system felt like it was well on its way. Throughout the night I awoke several times to the splatter of fat raindrops hitting the tent. It fell in a steady pattern. Maybe it was time to move on to somewhere hopefully warmer...

Saturday, May 7
By the morning the rain had slowed to a drizzle. We crawled out from underneath the soaking rainfly to assess how the day might turn out. The sky was heavy with clouds and it didn't look like it was going to get much warmer than it already was. We packed up our gear, leaving the tent for last, with the hope that it might dry a little. We realized it was pointless and stuffed the soaking rainfly into the car. We drove back up the Central Patrol Road. A Spotted Sandpiper was bobbing away in the small pond next to the road. Another Short-eared Owl zoomed over the road and disappeared behind the sagebrush. A stop at Benson Pond revealed many swallows (mostly Tree) resting on a fallen tree. A pale Great Horned Owl was sitting on a nest above the old building at the end of the road. And a Pronghorn stag watched us from a distance.

After driving up the lower half of the patrol road, we headed south to Sheldon. It was drier and warmer last time we had visited a couple of years back in late May. We had hopes to find some more signs of spring there. As we drove along the mountains, the clouds broke up into large white puffs. But they still dominated the sky and blocked out most of the sun, but we had hopes of perhaps a warmer climate farther south. We stopped in Denio Junction for fuel and quickly headed on to Sheldon.

At the refuge, we attempted to stop at the subheadquarters, which was nothing more than a locked up portable - not much going on there. We next stopped at the Big Spring Reservoir to find that it was completely dried up. It was nothing more than a depression of cracked clay among the sagebrush. Even though Sheldon was big and there was still a lot of it we have yet to see, we went back to Badger Camp - the place we first camped in Sheldon. We knew it was an interesting place. We bumped along the graded gravel road only seeing a few cars go by and probably just ones passing through the refuge to get to their farms and ranches. A few wild horses and pronghorn were seen from the road as we drove through. We pulled into the empty Badger Camp. The tops of the hills around us were marked with a wide band of white - snow that refused to loosen its grip to a late spring. A southerly wind came over the mountain down into the camp. We set up and in no time the tent was dry again. No thanks to the sun (which still hide behind a thick wall of clouds), but to the gusts that swept the sagebrush and grasslands.

Three horse grazed on the hilltops above us and the Belding's Ground Squirrels chirped loudly as we walked by. We took a walk up along side the fenced-in pasture toward the ponds near the road entrance. At the pond, a lone White-faced Ibis prodded the sedge marsh, a pair of Gadwalls, a pair of Mallards, and a bachelor Cinnamon Teal dabbled in the water. We climbed up the hill as the wind gusts turned into steady streams of air. We found our first signs of spring hidden among the trodden turned up dry earth. Sand Lilies and Dwarf Onions bloomed on the hillside. As we poked further along the hillside we found Sagebrush Buttercups and Prairie Star. A few birds braved the wind - a small flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a pair of Mountain Bluebirds flitted between the rocky canyons and the sagebrush. A Rock Wren gave its repetitious call and a pair of American Kestrels consummated during a brief amorous moment. The ground squirrels chirped as we hiked along. A Yellow-bellied Marmot braved the cold to take a quick peek from its rocky den before vanishing among the rocks.

By evening the wind was steady and the clouds seems to hang lower in the sky. I opted to hunker down in the tent as the wind whipped over the nylon. A tick check revealed several unwanted passengers on our clothes and our bodies. These critters always gave me the willies and the paranoia to check every little tickle on my skin. During the night, I awoke to my feet freezing and to the familiar sound of splatter on the tent. But it sounded a bit different. As I put socks on, I wondered aloud if it was snowing.

Sunday May 8
We awoke to the continuous sound of splatter against the tent. On peaking out, we realized it was indeed snow and the hilltops above us were covered in a dusting of white. We decided being in the back country in the snow probably wasn't a good place to be, especially since all the places we were interested in were higher up. After packing up camp once more, we were on the road heading out of Sheldon. Along the way, a Prairie Falcon sailed over the sagebrush. The snow increased as we neared the pass. Soon we were driving in a steady snow shower. The road and sagebrush around us was coated in a thin layer of snow. As we descended out of the mountains, the snow tapered off and we were back on the main road heading to Oregon. We knew Hart Mountain to the north would be equally affected by the storm, but the Warner Wetlands below might be a less snowy and perhaps warmer place to take refuge.

As we neared the wetlands, we could see the Hart Mountain range standing tall and snow covered. Dark clouds clung to the tops of the mountains. To the west, the wind pushed in more clouds. Cracks in the clouds allowed us glimpses of the sun and blue sky. We were surprised by the lack of water in the wetlands. What we remembered as lakes and wetlands were now dry, parched, and cracked clay. Tufts of yellow grass dotted the ground. Given all the rain the northwest had received this was quite unexpected.

We drove up one of the BLM dirt roads. A pond spread across half of the road causing us to traverse the banks. We continued to drive on. After passing the third or four road pond and coming upon a pond that expanded the entire road, we decided things were not going to get any better and turned around. According to a posted old (and shot up) map of the area, there were several trails in the area. We looked for the Mugswamp trailhead, which turned out to be an unmarked gate in the barbed wire fence. We hiked an old road down past several dried ponds. A Sage Thrasher sang from the top of a sagebrush and Franklin's Gulls cried from above the river to the west. The signs of the old road came to an end and we cut through the dry grass to find the river. So much for a designated trail.

Hiking through the dry grass and sagebrush, there was the occasional stiff breeze and break in the clouds that let the sunshine through. On Hart Mountain, the dark snow clouds clung stubbornly to the mountain side. We eventually came upon a water-filled pond. Many Red-wing Blackbirds flew back and forth from the marsh to the sagebrush. The males were trying hard to impress the ladies. Several Brewer's Sparrows flitted about the brush and a single Willet displayed above the pond.

We returned to the car and decided to brave whatever Hart Mountain had to offer us. As we drove up the gravel road, a hot spring goer raced past us. Guess the hot springs waits for no one. The Hot Springs Campground was the only campground open on the refuge and quite a few of the sites were closed because of flooding. All other roads that lead to the south part of the refuge were closed, limited access to the majority of the area. The campground was free of snow, although the hillsides not too far above were not. There were several people using the hot springs, but we chose a camp across from the springs.

After setting up camp, we hiked from the muddy campground road back to the main road. Along the main road, things were relatively quite. The male Northern Harriers showing off their fancy flight skills with their dives, glides, and rolls. The female Northern Harriers seemed interested in finding a nest site. A Cassin's Finch warbled loudly from the bare aspen, a Warbling Vireo flitted in the branches below, and a Red-napped Sapsucker made a brief appearance.

After stretching on legs on the hike, we returned to the car and decided to try going to Petroglyph Lake - on a road that was theoretically still open. On the small dirt road in, we paused and contemplated a large pond that covered the road. After crossing the first two road ponds, we turned back and parked the car. We hiked the flooded road (which would be impassible without a 4WD high clearance vehicle - even then it looked like you could easily get stuck) across the surrounding low sagebrush out to the lake. Along the hike, we spotted two pronghorn (who also spotted us) and several more in the distance. It was good to see they were still around. As we neared the lake, the wind really began to pick up and it was howling as we reached the edge of the lake. We didn't see any petroglyphs as we didn't get close enough to the rock ledges, which were covered with snow. We headed back just as the first snow flakes began to fall. Thankfully as we hiked the wind was to our backs, but the snow quickly coated our backpacks. The falling snow quickly enveloped the horizon. We reached the car, shook off the snow, and drove back to camp, which was not as intensely hit by snow.

Compared to the day, the evening was rather pleasant and marked with only an intermittent gust of wind.

Monday May 9
We awoke with a thin blanket of snow on the ground and the tent. It was cold enough that tiny perfectly formed snowflakes sprinkled the surface of everything. But the snow continued to come down. We weren't worried about being at Hart Mountain in the snow. Unlike Sheldon, the gravel road out was both well-graded and gently sloped down toward the east. However, after hiking a short distance in the snow and wind, it was apparent that it would be neither pleasant or worth it to stay. We packed up camp once more and headed back down the road to Malheur.

On the way out of the refuge, we came across many herds of pronghorn that were spread across the horizon. There could have easily been 70-100 pronghorn. We were happy to see them, though they were wary of us. It was entertaining to see the male of one group turn and run while the females stayed put. The females of the group continued to watch us approach before turning and trotting off as we passed. Along the route, there was a pond that held about 10 Wilson's Phalaropes all busily swimming and picking up food completely ignoring the strong winds and cold temperatures.

As we descended back into the Blitzen Valley, I noticed the wetlands below seemed a lot wetter. Back at Page Springs Campground, we took up our old campsite (which wasn't used in our brief absence). After setting up camp, we drove up to the headquarters to finally get information on the lek. Along the way, we noticed how the marshes were now large ponds. The water level was considerably higher since we were first there. The sun finally began to come out from hiding as we pulled into headquarters. As usual the headquarters was hopping with life, this time it included birders. With the reemergence of the sun, the birders seemed to have come out of the woodwork. After getting information about the lek, we stayed around the headquarters to see if the sun would also bring in some birds. A Dusky Flycatcher sallied from the tall elms and a pair of Nashville Warblers gleaned the leaves along with the hordes of Yellow-rumped Warblers. Most of them there Audubon's, but I managed to find at least one Myrtle's in the mix. We stopped in the museum to look at the stuffed birds and preserved eggs. They had an impressive number of samples that were all centered on what was found in the refuge. Reenergized by the appearance of the sun, we drove down the Central Patrol Road once more. The White-faced Ibises were busy foraging in the cattail marsh. They would flush in mass when we drove by. The Ring-necked Pheasants were still standing watch along side the road.

At the campground, we took advantage of the change in weather and went on an evening stroll on the nature trail that lead up to a ridge overlooking the campground and down through a small canyon. In the small canyon, a Great Horned Owl flew from the pines and perched on top of a juniper tree. It look around intently, probably leaving its roost to search for its next meal. A thin layer of clouds hung over the sky, but we were pleased in the break in weather.

Tuesday May 10
The alarm woke us up at 3:40AM, it was time to see the Sage-Grouse lek. We quickly got dressed and drove toward the site. The night sky was clear and illuminated with the stars - the first time we got to see a clear view of the night sky. On the road only a few rodents scurried in front of us. Thankfully it was still too cold for the masses to come out at night. We turned on to Foster Flat Road and drove at a steady speed along the deeply rutted road. It looked like the road could get pretty muddy, but it was dry so avoiding the ruts was fairly easy. We reached the site well before sunrise, with the glow of the sun on the horizon. We rolled down the windows and turned off the car. And we could hear them. Faint at first, but then the distinct popping noise of the grouse. We listened in silence for a few moments then the sunlight began to filter in and we could see the males dancing.

It was a magical sight. Even though many people have seen it before and I'd seen it in videos, seeing it in person was amazing. Two other cars eventually pulled up to watch the spectacle. In the light of day, we could see at least 15 grouse at once all performing. But there were more than 15, as they moved around and were hidden in the brush. The males inflated themselves and strutted. A few disputes broke out among the males, and the loud slapping of feathers rang over the lek. Then an hour later the first group of males flew off over the road and into the sage. A half an hour later, the rest of the grouse left. And that was that. I still left there in the afterglow of witnessing the lek.

We drove back down in full sun - yes full sun for the first time. We decided to check out the Diamond Crater area and take the auto tour. I didn't have much in the way of expectations for the place. The pamphlet wasn't exactly a selling point. But we were pleasantly surprised at how interesting the craters and lava flows were. We stopped on the side of the road and explored the broken up lava chunks. It looked like an asphalt road after an earthquake - large slabs of flat rock cracked, buckled, and stacked up creating small chasms in the earth. Sagebrush, yellow currant, and ferns grew in the cracks. As the day began to heat up, Western Fence Lizards crawled out to sun themselves. A Rock Wren called from a juniper (of all places). We also found a couple of Pacific Tree Frogs while walking around. We spent the rest of the morning exploring the crater area and enjoying its unique beauty.

Our next stop was the French Round Barn - a restoration of one of the original round barns built and owned by the Cattle King, Peter French back in the early 1900s. The barn was flooded by the nearby lake so we weren't able to enter, but only see it from the muddy shoreline. I had to wonder how much of the barn was original, since it obviously deals with harsh climates and conditions. But it was a round barn and it had its own fairly impressive gift shop (which may have been bigger than the barn). It was an impressive gift shop in that it probably outstocked most stores in all of Harney County. Not saying the stuff inside was great, but if you need a (overpriced) horse bit or cowboy jacket that seemed like the place to get it.

After getting our fill of the barn and gift shop, we went back to the headquarters to see if anything else had shown up during the spell of good weather. More birders was one of the things that had shown up. But I also managed to find a Cassin's Vireo and a MacGillivary's Warbler.

We went into Burns for a gas and food stop. And also treated ourselves to some DQ to celebrate a sunny day. On the way back to camp, we stopped at the P Ranch to take a look at the fuzz ball of an owlet.

continue onto part II


Pictures (click on thumbnail)


Greater Sage Grouse preforms shortly after dawn. 5/10/11.


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