Malheur National Wildlife Refuge - part II
Wednesday May 11
Back at camp, we noticed how much the grass around our tent had grown and the flowers in the grass had started to bloom. It was amazing how only a couple of days of sun coxed spring out. We ate our lunch and packed up to try the Blitzen River trail. We had tried the trail in the past, but had found it impassable after only 1/2 mile at a flooded area. We were happy to see a group working hard on the trail, so we were able to travel down into the canyon farther. The canyon was beautiful. The willows were just starting to leaf out. The Blitzen River, though narrow, ran strong and quickly through the grassy canyon bottom. Clumps of Sagebrush Buttercup grew along the rocky canyon slope. Bird activity was fairly quiet - a Bullock's Oriole and more Yellow Warblers in the willows. A Spotted Sandpiper bobbed along the banks of the river. And a pair of Common Mergansers took flight at our approach. The trail petered out at about 2.5 miles. The trail crew didn't get that far, though they had already done a lot of work on the trail. I'm looking forward to going back to the trail when the work is complete.
Thursday May 12
The next morning we set out toward Krumbo Reservoir. The refuge map and trail guide said it was possible to hike around the reservoir. But then again the loop trail from the Central Patrol Road to the East Canal trail was there as well... We stopped at P Ranch once more. The parent and the fledgling Great Horned Owl were out on the steps of the watch tower. Whenever a Turkey Vulture approached to land on the tower, the parent hissed and puffed up. The Turkey Vultures had to make do with the sticks and logs in the field to warm up on.
We traveled up the Central Patrol Road and stopped at the very flooded fields across the river. Forster's Terns cruised over and dipped down to pick up prey. The Black Terns had arrived and were following suit - picking up insects from the air and water. The waterfowl were spread out over the new abundance of water, but there were many Cinnamon Teals, Northern Shovelers, Greater Scaup, and American Coots. A few Wilson's Phalaropes were also paddling around in the water.
Farther up the road, we stopped at the Sandhill Crane Pond overlook. We didn't see much in the flooded field below, but a Loggerhead Shrike was perched up on the juniper as we hiked back to the car.
At Krumbo Reservior a few trucks were parked as their owners were paddling around and fishing in the reservoir. A Chukar called loudly from high above the reservoir, while one right in front of us posed and called back. We geared up and headed north first to hike around the reservoir. The ground was similar to Sheldon in that it was badly damaged with trampling. A lot of fishermen walked around the banks of the reservoir to find a fishing spot on the shore. I wasn't sure why Malheur didn't just put in a real trail. It would cut down on the amount of damage to the landscape around the shore. Despite the turned up loose dirt, there were still wildflowers (Sand Lilies, Dwarf Onion, and Larkspur) growing among the sagebrush. We crossed over a dike where the water was controlled to spill from the reservoir into a small stream below. In the reservoir, a pair of Clark's Grebes and a pair of Western Grebes dove and swam around. I was hoping for a pair bonding display, but maybe it was too early for that. A Canyon Wren sang from the rock wall. We rounded the reservoir and the sagebrush gave way to mostly grassland.
We suddenly realized our next challenge. An eight foot wide stream laid in front of us with no bridge to cross. Going back would mean Sandhill Crane harassment and a 3.5 mile hike back (we were almost at the parking lot). The stream was also very deep and fast moving. We walked up and down the stream looking for a place to cross, but it flowed steady. Looking up the stream there was a canyon, where the situation probably wouldn't improve. We finally took our chances and built a make shift log-hop bridge to a sandbar. From the sandbar it was a jump over the swiftly moving four foot crossing. We made it across, but do we start celebrating?
No sooner than crossing the stream did we come across the second stream and canyon above it. This stream was slow moving, shallower, but also a lot wider. Cattails grew in some areas and a thick layer of muck and algae matted the bottom. We repeated the pace both up and down the stream and finally decided to create a rock-hop bridge across a 15 foot section of stream. We clambered up the hillside, dislodged rocks, and threw them down. Tor found a scorpion under one of the rocks, but we didn't find any snakes. We threw the rocks into the stream, hoping they'd both be stable and stay above water. Some rocks sank into the muck immediately, but with enough rocks we were ready to try the crossing. We both made it across with dry socks and that was thankfully the last of the trail drama. I had to wonder why the refuge suggested this trail, when clearly no one would want to face such stream crossing adversities.
Back at the car, we had lunch as the day began to heat up more. We picked up and stopped at the Frenchglen Mercantile, which was a sad little store with stale ice cream bars. Back at the campsite, we walked up the closed road to the Steens. We didn't hike far on the road, only enough to spoke the grazing cattle and to get a view of the Blitzen Valley below. A mixed flock of sparrows hung out near the road. In with two Vesper Sparrows and two Lark Sparrows was a surprise for me - a male Black-throated Sparrow. This was the farthest north of their range that I've seen them. I'm used to seeing them in the Mojave so it was an unexpected sight. He even belted out his trilling song before disappearing.
Friday May 13
In Burns, we stopped for gas and for lunch at JB's Drive In, where we actually got a pretty decent burger. If it weren't for the thousand island like stuff they dump on it, it would have been a great burger. After lunch, we made the long haul back home. Going over Umtanum Ridge, we noticed how the Arrowleaf Balsamroot and Lupine were blooming in full force. Eastern Washington probably also got a good dose of sunshine and the plants finally exploded into action. We ended the trip on a positive note in good weather for seeing wildlife, hiking, and being outside. I suppose things could have been worse as I read in this Tweeters post a few day after returning:
I drove down to Malheur on 5/13 and back on 5/16. The major feature to report was the weather which in a major way affected the birding. As I was tent camping (at the Narrows RV campground) I was quite aware of the weather. First the water levels are very high, which not only disperses the water birds but also closes a lot of birding access. There has been major snowmelt from Steens Mountain which had water levels higher than I had ever seen in the four to five years I have been going there. There was a thunderstorm on the night of 5/13 and it rained off and on for 5/14 and 5/15. New records were set for rain on 5/14 and 5/15 with wind gusts on 5/13 to 45 mph and slightly less on 5/15. Reportedly the Page Springs Campground was evacuated at 2 a.m. on 5/14 due to flash flood concerns. A flash flood warning was issued for all of Harney County at about that time as well. Parts of the Center Patrol Road were closed due to water flowing over the road. On 5/14 I met fellow birders Kathy and Ed Volz at the Diamond Hotel for dinner, water is flowing over the road in several places on the road into Diamond and while I drove through it very slowly, I must admit I kept wondering what was happening to the road under me in terms of softening and erosion. I was at the P-Ranch about 6:30 a.m. or so on 5/15. The Blitzen River was running very close to the top of the dike - maybe a foot or so from over-flowing the dike, and for those who don't remember, the ranch itself sits below the dike. It snowed most of the night on 5/15, accumulations probably about two inches on Wright's Point (the ridge that one crosses going from Burns to Malheur) and there was a state snow plow heading south toward Malheur when I got to Burns about 6:30 a.m. As a side note there was flooding at John Day (in case anyone is planning to drive down that route) which was making the news in the area regularly when I was leaving.
Notwithstanding the weather (I am getting too old for tent camping in that stuff), lots of Western and at least two Clark's Grebes at the Narrows, lots of Great Horned Owls (I saw 12-13 without trying in two days), a flock of Lazuli Buntings was hanging out at the Visitor Center, otherwise mostly what one would expect.
In spite of all the weather drama, I had a great time and the Clark's Grebes were a new life bird for me.
Yeah, we got out while the going was good. And had a great trip.