After reading the tourist literature, and learning that we were lucky to find a room to stay because they just finished their three-day spring birding festival, we decided to hang around Harney County a bit. We wanted to visit Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, founded by Teddy Roosevelt in 1908, second oldest in the nation. It was a long day's drive, but definitely worth it.
This part of the West may have more cows than people, but it has more birds than cows, especially during the spring and fall migrations. Spring, of course, is better, because the birds are performing their mating rituals. We watched dozens of sandhill cranes dancing and flapping their enormous wings, and saw no fewer than four pairs of trumpeter swans, including one pair on a nest. Many trumpeters raise their cygnets here in Eastern Oregon. The Blitzen River
The people in Burns have put together a long scenic trail, featuring parts of the Wildlife Refuge, Alvord Lake and Desert, and the high and beautiful Steens Mountain, the top of which is only accessible in summer (and winter, by snowmobile). There's a dirt road to the summit (the western slope is gentle, but the eastern slope is steep (see photo). They say you can see California, Nevada and Idaho from the summit. Steens gathers so much winter snow that it feeds about a dozen rivers that flow down into the surrounding valleys. Two of them, which flow through the Malheur refuge, are named the Donner and Blitzen.
Burns and Hines are in a flat valley, filled with hay fields which flood pretty well during the spring melt. Actually the enterprising citizens, realizing the attraction of wetlands to birds, have made quite a few ponds in the valley, which attract the birds. So there are plenty of nearby places for visitors to go bird watching, rather than driving 30 to 60 miles south to the Refuge. Sandhill crane mating dance
We took the loop road, and soon were passing hay fields filled with sandhill cranes, doing their Spring courting dance, bowing, stretching their wings, and tossing dirt clods into the air. We spotted flocks of cranes off and on throughout the day.
Our first unusual sight was a pair of long-billed curlews, which look kind of strange, as their bill is about as long as their body, and digs deep into the soft mud for food.
Each pond had a different population, and besides the common pintails and mallards we saw cinammon teal and quite a variety of geese. We saw one flock of snow geese, and wondered if some of them might be the smaller Ross geese -- the two are hard to differentiate -- and a large collection of Canada geese in various subspecies. The most interesting goose spotting was a Canada goose x Snow goose hybrid, with the unmistakeable black head with the white neck stripe of a Canada goose, and an all-white body. There were two of these together, probably the result of the same mismating. We also identified a bufflehead duck, another check mark in our book. Long-billed curlew
Along the road were several groups of ring-necked pheasants -- the brilliant plumage of the males attracts the eye from a great distance.
Another uncommon (for us) sighting was the long-billed dowitcher. We studied this pair for a long time with the binoculars, and then drove up next to another car, where the (obviously more experienced) birdwatchers with the telephoto lens on their camera confirmed our identification.
The ring-billed gull has an unmistakeable black ring near the tip of the bill; we saw a flock of these.
And there were dozens more birds all day. If we had stayed through the night we would have seen more eagles and owls, but we did catch one immature golden eagle, along with great blue herons, hawks and ravens, magpies and vultures, and a bunch of smaller birds. This is a must-do trip for a devoted bird watcher -- but should be done in the spring. We were here at the best time of the year. Snow geese stop to feed
We continue to be devoted to our Sibley as the best North American bird guide. We're not "official" birdwatchers, but we do put a check next to the name of every species we have positively identified (to our own personal satisfaction). Today there were five new check marks. The booklet we picked up at the Refuge Headquarters lists more than 320 species of birds and other wildlife. The pelicans haven't arrived yet; the weather has been too cold, and they're staying further south!
Eastern Oregon has been on our "want to see" list for a long time. One of the reasons we haven't been here before is that it isn't on the road to anywhere. The population centers of the Pacific Northwest are on the coast, and the main tourist attractions of the mountain west are further east, where many famous National Parks are found. But we can wholeheartedly recommend a visit to Burns, with time to explore the surrounding country.