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Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and SE Oregon - part I
April-May 2021

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, OR
    Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge, OR
    Owyhee Canyon (Birch Creek Ranch, Succor Creek State Recreation Area), OR
    Toppenish NWR, WA


In our first long vacation since all hell broke loose with the pandemic, we took a long road trip down to SE Oregon at the end of April. Our goals were to camp and bird in familiar places such as Page Springs Campground next to Malheur NWR and Hart Mountain as well as explore new ones like the Owyhee Canyon.

Malheur NWR

After the long 9 hour drive down to the BLM's Page Springs Campground on the southern end of Malheur NWR, we pulled in to claim one of the remaining 3 campsites open. The familiar and comforting sounds of the Blitzen River rushing by, Red-winged Blackbirds chipping from the birch trees, and Cliff Swallows squeaking on the wing greeted me in the arid desert air.

We camped at Page Springs and explored Malheur and the surrounding areas over the next 4 days. We woke up early to a brisk dawn filled with the chorus of returning Yellow Warblers, Cedar Waxwings, and ubiquitous American Robins. In the evenings around the campfire, we listened to the Great Horned Owl hoot softly from the mesas while we swatted away the persistent mosquitoes.

Hiking and birding around the refuge, we spotted American Bitterns and Black-crowned Night-herons in the reedy marshs. Along the East Canal trail, three bitterns blended in with the dried cattails. One performed its glump-glump-glump call. A long-tailed weasel surprised both of us along the trail before diving back into the bushes. On the Bridge Creek trail, we flushed a Great Horned Owl from the dense willow thicket. Three Northern Harriers were immediately there, and began dive bombing the owl. Long-billed Curlews, Wilson's Snipe, and Willets called from great heights over wet meadows. Along the Barnes Spring trail, Garter Snakes and Racers basked in the afternoon sun. Everywhere, bumble and digger bees, Cabbage Butterflies and Mourning Cloaks feasted on the nectar of the blooming golden gooseberry.

Driving around the refuge, the southern section of the Center Patrol Road was more productive than the northern end. They had just begun flooding the meadows on the southern end, while the northern sections still remained dry. Cinnamon Teal, Mallards, Northern Shovelers, American Coots, and Canada Goose were the most abundant waterfowl found dabbling in the wet meadows. Black-necked Stilt and American Avocets waded in the shallow waters. Two Wilson's Phalaropes paddled and picked along the water surface. Large flocks of White-face Ibis flew over the meadows only to disappear into the dense green grass as soon as they landed. American White Pelicans, Great Egrets, Trumpeter Swans, and one lone Snow Goose comprised the large white water birds found on Knox Pond. At Benson Pond, the Great Horned Owl family returned to the same crook in the cottonwood tree to rear up their next brood. Mom sat on the white fluff of her nestlings, while Dad stood watch from a nearby tree. The Bald Eagles continued to take up residence in their nest next to the P ranch. A pair of Red-tailed Hawks were nesting high above the visitor's center again. Pairs and single Sandhill Cranes probed the muddy wet meadows for seeds, earthworms, and other tasty morsels.

The refuge headquarters continued to be a haven for birds not easily spotted in other parts of the refuge. A large flock of Long-billed Dowitchers probed the muddy shallows of the pond. An unexpected Band-tailed Pigeon joined the Yellow-head and Brewer's Blackbirds to feast on the fallen seeds under the feeders. Along the stick wall that led to the blind, hordes of Yellow-rumped Warblers sallied back and forth, flycatching in the large swarm of midges. In the snag, next to the pond were three Lewis's Woodpeckers.

One blustery morning we drove out to Diamond Craters to peer down into the remnants of the volcanic activity. Rock Wrens sang from the rim of the crater, Northern Rough-winged Swallows glided by at eye level, and a Western Fence Lizard attempted to warm itself in the weak sun. At the Pete French Round Barn, we were surprised by the lack of water in the usually bird-productive neighboring meadow. During previous visits the pond was full if not flooding the barn itself. This year the meadow was encased in dry brown grass without a drop of open water or much bird activity.

At the Page Springs Campground, we attempted the Blitzen River trail, not expecting to get very far. Previous attempts had dead-end at an overgrown red-twig dogwood patch. However, during this attempt we were pleasantly surprised by the well-worn and maintained trail along the Blitzen River. The trail followed the northern side of the river, turning bend after bend with the river, over loose shale, open meadows scattered with juniper trees, and across small bogs and streams. It was a pleasant stroll along the banks of the Blitzen River. Vaux's Swift and Violet-green Swallows buzzed overhead. Bushtits gleaned on the brush and Canyon Wrens rang out their beautiful descending songs from the balsamroot flecked mesas.

Hart Mountain NWR

After spending 4 wonderful nights based at the Page Springs Campground and enjoying the refuge, we headed down to the nearby Hart Mountain NWR, which was just a short 1.5 hour drive away through sagebrush and rangeland. We were greeted near the headquarters by a small herd of pronghorn that were grazing and resting in the shrub-steppe. At the hot springs campground, almost all of the sites were occupied, but we claimed a recently vacated site. Well, it was vacant except for the many ground squirrels that were peeking out from their burrows.

We set up camp in the blustery gusts of cold wind. It was much cooler at Hart Mountain. After bundling up, we hiked up the Barnhardy Road, which was closed to vehicular traffic until June likely to protect sensitive species like the Sage Grouse during the breeding season. It had been 10 year since our last visit to Hart Mountain, and it looked like the refuge was taking active measures such as seasonal road closures for the protection of wildlife. We also noticed the removal/destruction of the junipers on the northern end of the refuge for the benefit of the Sage Grouse. Juniper removal eliminates perches for raptors (predators) and lessens competition for sageland habitat. It was nice seeing these conservation measures.

Barnhardy Road traversed the foothills of the Hart Mountains, including the taller Warner Peak. The one-track dirt road crossed over sagebrush, wet grassy meadows, small groves of quaking aspen, and small streams. Remnant patches of snow clung to the wind whipped northern slopes. Fluorescent blue Mountain Bluebirds starkly contrasted against the brown and yellows of dried grasses and slowly awakening shrubs. Small pockets of desert parsley and spiny phlox brightened the ground with splashes of color. We hiked over to the Guano Creek campground, which was only open in the fall presumably for hunters. The dispersed campground was nestled in a grove of aspen, still barren of any foliage. A Red-naped Sapsucker investigated the hollows of the aspen. On our hike back to camp, we flushed three adult Greater-Sage Grouse on the slopes of Barnhardy Road. It was a treat to see them and a good indicator that the management works.

After a very cold night, we woke to frozen water bottles and billows of steam vaporizing from the hot springs. We hiked down Rock Creek toward the refuge headquarters, following an old jeep trail. When the road petered out, we hiked along the creek through thick mats of dead grass in wet meadows that haven't awoken to spring yet. Upon cresting a small hill, we spotted two pronghorn males grazing peacefully and not minding us as we watched. One of the pronghorn suddenly became alert with its mane raised and white rear-end fluffed out. The pronghorn noticed a coyote hunting nearby - hunting not the pronghorn. The coyote was fully focused on hunting rodents in the thick grasses. Still both pronghorns became alert and were suddenly alarmed at our presence as well. After much snorting and hair raising, the two males walked then trotted off from both us and the coyote. Sandhill Cranes croaked at us upon our approach through the dry meadows. Savannah and Vesper Sparrows sang from the dry grass and Least Chipmunks ran across the beams of an old corral.

After our stay at Hart Mountain, we decided to explore the back side of the Steen Mountains. After a long drive down through Sheldon NWR and back up, we stopped at the Alvord Desert - a dry flat playa created by the shadow of the Steen Mountains. To say there wasn't much out there is an understatement. The flat dry clay bed spread out as far as the eye could see. Many people venture onto the playa to drive high speeds - a good place to do it without much concern about hitting something.

continue onto part II


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page updated: 5/30/21