Big Trip, Ch 3, Malheur

Malheur

6 June 1962

The night at Lake Abert and the nearly 120 miles drive to Burns, Oregon, were both uneventful, although I did worry through the night that some crazed traveler would attack me. The miles between Lake Abert and Burns seemed long and were barren with the exception of an occasional unidentified bird whisking across the empty highway. I sped on, or as speedy as a seven-year old abused VW can speed. Arrival at Burns meant just a few more miles to famous Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and some potentially great birding.

At Burns, I picked up mail from home. When I arranged to have my first general delivery, I thought Burns was a greater distance from home than it is. The 300 miles is actually further away than I had usually soloed from home. There was a nice letter from a school buddy wishing me good birding, and mention of my best friend Linda. As I drove south from town and topped a hill, the green of Malheur was not far away. This would be my new home, at least for a night or two.

Malheur, meaning misfortune, sits on the arid 4000-foot plateau of eastern Oregon, much of which is in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountains. The surrounding territory is unforgiving, with its dry and hot summers, powdery alkaline and miles of sagebrush and juniper. Malheur is actually an oasis. The source of water for this parched land is the Steins Mountains to the south and the Blue Mountains to the north that reach up to 9700 feet to catch the annual snowfall that feed the streams flowing to the Malheur basin. Two lakes, Harney and Malheur, collect the spring run-off. Malheur Lake is about 45,000 acres of lush, deep marsh interspersed with occasional areas of open water. Harney Lake, its bed being the lowest point in the basin, has no outlet and consequently, its 30,000 acres are very saline and devoid of most vegetation.

The regions’ history is long and exciting, with Indian wars, pioneers, settlement, and cattle. Capitan Charles Bendire, who collected and observed birds at Ft. Klamath, also had done the same at Ft. Harney, a historic site north of the refuge. He visited Malheur Lake before the slaughter of the regions’ swans, grebes, egrets, and other species by trappers, plume hunters, and other settlers. The indiscriminate practice of killing birds did not stop until egrets were near extermination, and tern and grebe breeding colonies were greatly reduced. Finally, in 1908, 81,786 acres of the region became the Lake Malheur Reservation. In 1935, the name of the region changed to the Malheur Migratory Refuge with an additional 64,717 acres added to the preserve. The present name, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, went into the annals of officialdom in 1940. Since then parcels of acres added to the refuge, include about 3000 acres after 1962, thus bringing the total area to 187,000 acres. This may not be uninteresting to many but it does demonstrate positive efforts of some governmental agencies. Without the perseverance of the refuge system, birds needing wetlands would have no place to breed or migrate, and we would lose the opportunity to study and enjoy such valuable habitat.

The refuge had a reputation of being a great birding area, and I was anxious to see as many species as possible. Following a discussion of birding spots in the refuge, Gene Kridler, the refuge biologist, took me nearby to the old CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) barracks where I would spend the next two nights. We walked up to a building that stood straight but worn by icy winters and hot baking summers. The outside walls of sun and snow weathered boards guarded the former mess hall of the CCC crew. We entered an expansive room; the mess tables and benches crowded the floor on a wall away from the creaky door. I looked over the long wooden mess hall where occasional overnight visitors stayed. Benches lined the walls, and a couple of these side by side made a perfect place for the sleeping bag. There are electric lights, running water, and on old broken down but serviceable electric range for cooking. After unloading bedding, cookware, ice chest, and can goods, I hurried back to refuge headquarters.

It was afternoon. A Veery, a not too common species in this part of Oregon, flew from a cottonwood but not before a good view of it salient field marks. I climbed a nearby observation tower that loomed even higher than the one at the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. The tower sat on a hilltop behind headquarters, and seemingly caught ever bit of wind that whistled through its steely spindle legs. At the top, I eased myself slowly inside the sun warmed enclosed room at the top of the tower, just avoiding being stung by a big red wasp circling the ceiling. Big Red was not alone. Things really began to buzz when I climbed up into the bright windowed room. There were hundreds of Big Reds, and they were all mad at my bare armed intrusion. I stayed long enough to take a couple of quick pictures of the scene below.

Back down on earth, a few birds put on good shows. Brewer’s Sparrows were breezing out of almost every bush. Great, a new life bird. A flycatcher perched on an electric line. Unfortunately, the bird never let out a peep. It was an Empidonax and was in habitat that might be suitable for two species, Dusky and Gray flycatchers. The plumage had a faint touch of olive above and an ever so slight yellowish wash below. I was not sure. Maybe this is one that was going to get away. Just as I was about to give up I heard a soft wit emanating from the mystery bird. Still, I hesitated calling it. One more minute of staring and I heard an almost sad deehic followed by a crisp sillit. This was nothing like the very audible wit or the lively chi-bit of a Gray Flycatcher. This was the trip’s first Dusky Flycatcher although I almost wish it had been a Gray Flycatcher because I would soon be leaving its breeding range.

Back at the CCC mess hall, a Poor-will struck up a loud and repeated poor-will. My stomach also began to call. The hot temperature had thawed the ice in the ice chest. I had to discard a half pound of hamburger I had been saving for tonight. Most of the bacon I had on ice was spoiled. I kept the remaining slices of bacon cool that night and had the surviving hamburger with eggs and fried potatoes for my evening meal. The fried diet was balanced, so I thought, with a can of green beans and a glass of grape juice. Although my hamburger patty had an odd taste, it had no ill effect later.

Thirty minutes later, I was ready to spend the rest of the daylight hours birding. Eugene Kridler had suggested a short drive down Cole Island Dike Road where I might see Burrowing Owls. There was still plenty of daylight. Several Long-billed Curlews called loudly, perhaps startled by a Marsh Hawk [now Northern Harrier] coursing low over the marsh grass. Savannah Sparrows flew up from the dusty dike road as I drove. I did find a Burrowing Owl, a species I knew well from a colony that lived near home during my early years. The lone Burrowing Owl standing on its long legs outside its nesting burrow was not nearly as exciting as five Short-eared Owls coursing back and forth over the cattails. Their round faces were constantly searching for some careless prey. The sun began to set their flashing wings with reflections of reddish-gold that bathed the west horizon. Soon only black silhouettes revealed them stalking the marsh. On the way back to the barracks, something large flew across the dike road and then back to reveal its identity. Night was falling and the Great Horned Owl owned it.

*****

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, in northern Harney County, Oregon, is the largest refuge in the National Wildlife Refuge system. It is a T-shaped region, with the western top from the Double O Unit west of Harney Lake for about 40 miles to the east at the eastern shore of Malheur Lake. The narrow stem (about 5 miles wide) of the T runs 35 miles south along the Donner und Blitzen Valley. The number of plant communities in the refuge range from submergent vegetation to alkali playa, salt grass and greasewood, dunes, meadow, various kinds of sagebrush communities including juniper-sagebrush, and riparian.

Lake levels are dependent on the amount of primarily winter precipitation, rate of evaporation, and the amount of water that is diverted for agriculture and other non-wildlife reasons. The lake was completely dry in 1934. During the early 1980s, many of the lakes in the Great Basin, including Great Salt Lake, became engorged with unusual amounts of rain. In 1982, Malheur Lake covered 64,000 acres when Harney Lake and the Narrows merged. In 1962, Malheur Lake was 11% of its normal acreage. During the 1980s Cole Island Dike was inundated, and was eventually destroyed by water and ice erosion. There are no plans to rebuild the dike; I was told that reconstruction was estimated to cost $7 million.

The checklist of birds of the refuge that I used in 1962, listed 213 species that were recorded since 1908. A wonderful 1990 monograph, “Birds of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon” by Carroll D. Littlefield, listed 312 species recorded in the refuge since the late 1800s. Those first records were by Charles Bendire in 1874, a few years before he was stationed at Ft. Klamath. The reputation of the refuge as a great birding area has grown since 1962. The CCC mess hall and other adjacent buildings have been used since the 1970s as an educational facility by a consortium of colleges. The field station is replete with 250 beds, and has rental trailers and campsites for the general public. In 1962, the only people I recall seeing were refuge staff members; there was no one at the CCC area day or night. Now, reservations are suggested for spring visitors. The CCC, who were at Malheur from 1936 to 1942 and who built the future field station, also built other structures, including the Sodhouse (near Refuge headquarters), constructed several canals and dikes, miles of fences, and the lookout tower.

Throughout the Twentieth Century history, the ownership and value of water ranked high on the minds of men and birds. Not too unlike the present water rights battles of the Upper Klamath Lake, the importance of water for agriculture and wildlife are in conflict. Fortunately, the lakes and adjacent marshes today enjoy the protection the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Gene Kridler later became the biologist at Hawaii National Wildlife Refuge, and well-known as a master bird bander. He and I crossed paths a couple of times during my career at Smithsonian. A friend of Gene‘s, and his predecessor as biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is David B. Marshall who, with Gene, contributed considerably about the birds of the refuge. Both Gene and Dave sent specimens to museum where I, often with Richard C. Banks, verified species identifications and compared them to other specimens to identify the birds to subspecies. Most of the specimens Dave and Gene sent to the museum are now in the Division of Birds collection at Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. Dick and I worked in the Division for the Biological Survey. Back then, the Survey was under the Fish and Wildlife Service, as is the National Wildlife Refuges presently. Just after I retired, my old outfit was placed under the Geological Survey. I thought when that happened topographical maps would at least be free. They weren‘t.

During my work at the museum, I had occasion to publish a review of Carroll D. Littlefield’s 1984 “Birds of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon.” My review was mostly from the standpoint of a taxonomist; I was not an expert on Malheur birds. Almost immediately at the beginning of my early retirement I began working the next five years as the taxonomic editor under the senior editorship of Dave Marshall on the book “Birds of Oregon: A General Reference.” Although Gene did not directly contribute to the book, he is listed in the literature cited. His active banding and collecting documented many new records that were included in the book. Carroll Littlefield wrote the species account for Sandhill Crane, a species he studied extensively at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. So many aspects of life bring old acquaintances full circle so that we can compare stories, how much or little we have learned and see how badly or how well we have aged.

The Empidonax flycatcher I observed would have been much easier to identify if I was accompanied by Alan R. Phillips or Ned K Johnson. By 6 June, with their help, I would probably have added Gray and Hammonds to the trip list. Western Flycatcher would be another their keen ears and eyes would have snapped up faster than a flycatcher catches flies. Years later Ned would discover that the so-called Western Flycatcher represented two distinct species, the Cordilleran and Pacific-slope flycatchers. Never mind that Alan held considerable disdain toward Ned, and that, although he was too kind to say so, Ned may have felt the same toward Alan. The reasons are petty and unimportant, and unreasonable that they would be in the field together, especially coaching a wet behind the ears, Danny McSkunk teenager stirring up Malheur dust in his little VW beetle. Regrettably, I never had the pleasure to be in the field with either of my late lamented friends. ARP, as many called him and not always affectionately by all, was a regular correspondent and museum visitor. I put him up at my home during many of his long visits to the museum. I spent hours poring over his shoulder while he examined specimens. ARP was for me the equivalent of being at a top-notch university. Ned was more introspective and more deliberate in his research and conversation. They had so much to do, and from them, there was so much to learn. If an Empidonax flycatcher is a reincarnation, it surely has to be ARP or Ned.

*****

7 June

Gene couldn’t get away from work on grasshopper control, but he took time to mark a refuge map with my route to the southern boundary at Frenchglen. The small settlement of Frenchglen was named after Pete French and Dr. Hugh Glenn, Pete French’s father-in-law. A ranch, named the “P” Ranch was established in 1872 as the headquarters for the French-Glenn Livestock Company. Pete French owned 150,000 acres of what is now known as the Frenchglen Valley at the base of the Steens Mountains. My route would take me into some of the best birding regions of the refuge, Gene remarked. He told me that the tall grass in the marsh and edges would hinder birding to some extent; April, before the vegetation grows, seems to be the best spring month at Malheur. For reasons explained beyond, I did not make it to Frenchglen. I traversed part of the route which was up Donner und Blitzen Valley (I am not making that up) south of refuge headquarters, passed Rattlesnake Butte and Diamond Craters to a small lake near Buena Vista Station and back north passed Saddle Butte, west of Coyote Buttes and back to headquarters.

One of the species I needed for the trip list and for my life list was Sandhill Crane. Gene had circled a couple of areas on the map for cranes. I drove to the closest area hoping to find one soon in order to conserve time and gasoline; 30 cents a gallon adds up. I reached the spot where a long-necked, stilt-legged bird was striding through a marshy green meadow bordered by sagebrush. I will never forget that exciting feeling of my first sight of a Sandhill Crane. Even birds that I had seen other times were thrilling to see and hear again. Long-billed Curlews whistled a mellow plea in their seeming despair as I neared their nest. I retreated several yards and soon found several Franklin’s Gulls, with crisp black hoods sticking to the pure white bodies. They looked very different from my first Franklin’s Gull, an immature straying to my familiar Rogue Valley in southwestern Oregon.

Of course, there were Red-winged Blackbirds clacking about in the cattails. Several bright yellow-headed Yellow-headed Blackbirds called raspy territorial “songs.” Two males came to territorial arms at a border dispute. Another yellowish bird, the ubiquitous Yellowthroat stayed mostly out of sight but would dart into the open when I spished. Cliff, Barn, and Violet-green swallows zipped over the dikes and marsh. Fewer Rough-winged Swallows joined the mix, as each species seemed to forage at slightly different elevations. Several new ducks were added to the trip list, including Blue-winged and Cinnamon teals.

Willets flashed black and white wings across the marsh expanse as I followed the map indicating only reindeers Donner und Blitzen. At rest, Willets almost fade into the background. Only when one occasionally stretched a wing could they be spotted easily. Of course, their voice also gave them away. I was surprised when I heard a sweet pill-will-willet as a bird softly repeated its song on a fencepost about 30 feet from me.

Willets were by no means common in the refuge. In fact, the refuge checklist considered the species as uncommon during spring, summer and fall. Words such as common, uncommon, abundant are confusing. Words denoting abundance could mean, as they do to the average person, how many species might be observed. Granted, the idea of an average person may be debatable; I did observe many Avocets, which are listed as common on the refuge checklist. Western Sandpipers are listed as abundant but I saw none. Willets, listed as uncommon, were, in the course of five hours of birding, observed more often than the “common” Avocet. About equal time was spent searching what is probably favorable habitat for the two species. I appreciate the availability of a checklist when coming to a new region. I like to think of them as informal guides to an area, not statements of actual populations.

As noon arrived, I discovered that I had left lunch I packed back at the CCC mess hall. Only one species was left on the list of what I call needed species. And what could be harder to find at such a season than the Sage Grouse [since 1962 the species became bigger, better, or smarter, and has gained a hyphen so it is now known as the Greater Sage-Grouse]. Gene confirmed my thoughts about the mating dances. The dancing activity had begun to slack off about a month ago. Not only was I too late seasonally, the early morning, the best time to find these birds, was well behind me. Not even a languid waltzing bird. My stomach began to knot as the day passed lunchtime, and the hot sun beamed down to add to the discomfort. About three miles south, I would have a very remote chance of seeing a grouse., After about an hour of searching I gave up, and turned back north to complete a loop back to my waiting sandwich.

Nourished, I drove from the mess hall to the artificial body of water called the Display Pond. The pond hosted several species of ducks, coots, and the newly transplanted Trumpeter Swan, a species I hoped to see in wilder conditions at Red Rock Lakes National Wildlife Refuge in western Montana. A photographers’ blind at the edge of Display Pond tempted me even though I lacked a telephoto lens. However, the hot dry air outside the blind had driven all the mosquitoes within a mile radius into the cooler and more humid blind. I stayed inside just long enough to peak out a hole facing the water, and long enough to feed several of the mosquito sisters.

After considerable cursing and even more scratching, I carried my bug-bitten body to the headquarters where Gene was examining a caged bird he captured yesterday using a complex system of mist nets. The bird was one of many that had snared themselves in mist nets set up at headquarters. Migrants were especially lured to the only tall trees that were around headquarters and several species caught in the nets might have otherwise gone unnoticed. We both eyed the bird for a while and studied plates of different species of thrushes in an open reference book. I knew I had seen this bird earlier. Of course. It looked identical to the Veery that I observed yesterday. We went outside to the nets, which, Gene explained must be checked regularly to prevent birds from possibly injuring themselves, suffering from exposure or from being so tangled in the netting that extricating them is next to impossible. All but one of the nets was empty. Snared, and head dangling down was another migrant that I had observed yesterday, a Western Tanager. The bird’s red face really fit its apparent mood when he demonstrated his temper by biting the hand that firmly held him. Once weighed, banded and released, this bird would soon forget its ordeal as it wings its way to some montane coniferous forest nesting ground.

A different wire cage in Gene’s office held a bird completely unfamiliar to me. It was a Flammulated Owl snared in a mist net early today. I was told that the last previous record for this small dark-eyed owl was in 1940. The owl’s angry eyes flashed when I approached the cage for a better look. I couldn’t count this diminutive and rare owl; my self-imposed rule that I could not count captive birds was hard to follow. If I had seen the owl earlier, it would have been a keeper, even a bird snared in a mist net, because by my standards it was not quite captive, yet.

*****

My concern about checklists and the terms for abundance grew as I traveled in National Wildlife Refuges, until, sometime before crossing the Rockies, I realized that most the checklists were using terms that suggest how easy it might be to see a given species. Perhaps that was what a checklist compiler meant but those early checklists were misleading. The Willets at Malheur were noticeable because of their repeated flights and flashing black and white wing patterns. According to Littlefield’s book on Malheur birds, the status of Willets is common, not uncommon as the 1962 checklist indicated. Avocets were less vocal than Willets and didn’t fly around a lot. The tall grass probably prevented seeing any Western Sandpipers, but, more than likely, the species is not abundant contrary to the checklist because these migrants are mostly gone by early June. Most checklists of birds from refuges today make an effort to list the status (common, uncommon, etc.) of each species with greater accuracy. Littlefield attempted to make status designations less qualitative but omitted actual numbers of birds seen in any one-time period. Because I was especially concerned about avoiding nebulous terms for the status of birds in lists, I followed Arbib’s, who perhaps was worried about communication, published a list of standards defining the terms common, uncommon, rare and more. These easy to use standards put a number with a term so that it was no longer necessary to guess the numerical status and ease of detecting a given species. Gene’s old friend and colleague, Dave Marshall, along with yours truly, used Arbib’s standards in the 2003 “Birds of Oregon.”

I enjoyed ticking off 67 species during my two days at Malheur. Clearly, if I had worked harder or not forgotten my lunch, maybe gotten up earlier in the morning, I would have observed more species. Maybe that funny tasting hamburger blurred my vision. Maybe I should have counted the Flammulated Owl, a species not seen or heard during the 60s part of the trip. A truly rare species, the next Flammulated Owl in the refuge appeared in May 1976, thirteen years after the one I saw in the cage at headquarters. Regardless of the number of species, I found, meeting Gene Kridler, seeing Sandhill Cranes and sleeping on mess hall benches in the old CCC building was my first visit to Malheur. There didn’t seem to be anything misfortune about Malheur.

As for worrying about my safety, it didn’t take more than two nights before I stopped, and found it easy to sleep through the sound of traffic rushing by. I was probably in more danger from coming to grips with E. coli or some milder or less lethal kind of food poisoning than having trouble with humans. I’d like to think that I kept my food clean and fresh and that I slept with one ear open, but who knows how many, if any, close calls I had. Perhaps an iron stomach and that the sight of the stuff in my car was not rob- worthy saved me from peril. Today, the inside of the VW would have been interpreted by many as that of a homeless person. Maybe it did then.

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