I'd been talking with my birder friends Maureen and Debbie for more than a year about taking a trip to Malheur Wildlife Refuge in eastern Oregon for some springtime birding. The three of us met on an Audubon outing to Sauvie Island in late 2007, bonded instantly, and have managed to get together for day excursions every few months since then. We finally set a date for about three weeks after the annual Migratory Bird Festival in Burns. The tourists were gone and the birding, along with the company, was excellent.
Maureen and her husband Tony own a ranch outside of Burns, adjacent to the Refuge. Her part-time resident status meant that we had a built-in tour guide as well as insider access to local folks, legends and lore. The ranch house, which sits on a rise in the midst of 120 high-desert acres, is comfy and -- luxury! -- we each had our own room. We spent the daylight hours tooling around Harney County, looking at birds familiar and un-, checking out various geological, historical and retail sites of interest, and talking-story with various residents. Each evening, we poured wine and threw together a simple dinner, then yakked until far past our usual bedtimes. Each morning (some earlier than others), we grabbed our binoculars and field guides and headed out for another day of birding.
Part of the reason why the area's such a birding hotspot each spring is that snowmelt from the mountains is channeled for agricultural irrigation. From the road we saw field after flooded field that will come under cultivation later in the season. But at this time of year it's all marshland, prime habitat for hundreds of species.
Deb has just put together a comprehensive list of the birds we saw. She counted 55 species. I won't bore you with the full edition, since this isn't a birding blog. But the new ones on my life list, if I kept one -- I'm not that formal a birder -- would be Wilson's phalarope, American avocet, white-faced ibis (so weird; who came up with that bill?), Loggerhead shrike, Say's phoebe, lazuli bunting, and chukar. I just like saying some of those names. We also saw bald and golden eagles, harriers and kestrels, redtail hawks, turkey vultures, ravens and crows (of course), sandhill cranes (above, on the wetlands; so lovely), egrets and herons, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, magpies, western meadowlarks, and a partridge in... no, a pheasant on the ranch house deck, who called out to us every morning (woot woot, like an Andean flute) and seemed to think he owned the place.
Harney County is Oregon's largest and, we were told, most sparsely-populated county. I was struck by the austere beauty of the sagebrush-dotted desert, with its classic "western" rim rock formations and distinctive peaks, most notably Steens Mountain, as a backdrop. The sky seems lower there; the horizon all around.
It wasn't all about birding. We also visited Diamond Craters and had lunch at the funky, charming Hotel Diamond, shown here with one of its surreally-irrelevant parking meters. We chatted with Dick Jenkins, a local historian, about the 19th century Round Barn that he looks after. We had breakfast (one of the best veggie omelettes I've eaten) at The Narrows, a restaurant, saloon and RV park down the road from Maureen and Tony's ranch, jawed a while with the proprietors, and bottle-fed the motherless calves -- a bull and a cow -- they're caring for on the property. Ron told us that kids staying at the RV park love to feed the calves. This kid did.
Socially, the entire county felt to this outsider like a small town; despite the distance between towns, the locals, with their deep roots, shared history and strong sense of place, all seem to know, or at least know of, each other. This is cattle country; ranchers rule. People dress like cowboys because they are. The Obama sticker on Deb's car was the only one I saw in four days in Harney County. I wouldn't want to live there, but I'm deeply grateful for the opportunity to have spent a few days, in just about perfect circumstances, on a planet far from Portland.