Monday, April 21, 2014

The Silvies River Flood Plain

Irrigation Canal with a flooded field in the background
The Silvies River provides the irrigation water for the Burns area as it flows into Malheur Lake. Most of the fields are flooded providing great habitat for ducks, geese, and shorebirds. When I first saw all the flooded fields, I assume it was just a high water table after the spring rains. I was wrong. Their preferred method of irrigation here is to flood the fields in the spring which will hopefully provide enough moisture to last the season. A few farmers have put in pivot irrigation systems, but the wildlife experts are hoping that this does not become the norm as pivot systems do not provide habitat for water fowl.
No one was sure, but we assume the large size means goose eggs. This was right next to the highway.
This tour took us around the neighborhood, so to speak. We drove in all four directions from Burns never more than about ten miles from the city center. We saw many of the flooded fields, some for the second or third time. But since the birds move around every view is different.

We started the day with spectacular views of thousands of Ross’s geese along with a few late-leaving snow geese. While most of the snow geese had already headed for northern Alaska, the Ross’s geese were all headed to northern Canada. Those snow geese remaining may stay here all summer. At least two were injured and probably unable to make the flight. For them, the summer months will be difficult as they must evade the coyotes and raptors without the flock as protection.

Today, we did stop to see the owl and had some good looks at both Mom and Dad. Mom was lying across the nest while Dad was just sitting in the tree a few feet below waiting. Both were waiting for the night hours when the hunting would be better.

Look close to see Mom lying across the nest.
Today was the best day for shorebirds as we saw everything we expected to see including long-billed curlews, black-necked stilts, willets, white-faced ibis, long-billed dowitchers and even a few killdeer. Most of the good birds were too far away for good pictures, but I did get a few. The long-billed curlew is an amazing bird with a bill about 1/3 of its body length. Some of them reach ten inches as this is one of the larger shorebirds anyway.
Long-billed Dowitcher
Black-necked stilts in flight
We ended the day driving along some desert landscape where we were able to our first sage thrasher and a loggerhead shrike. Shrikes have a hooked beak giving them a sinister look. They are best known for storing their insect kills on thorns. We did not see any of this today, but I have seen it other places. It is a bit disconcerting to see this and think about the bird’s mind that came up with such a gruesome storage plan.

The tour ended at noon so I ventured back downtown for one last meal before heading on the back roads to Sun River where I would spend the night before returning home and getting Linda at the airport as she returned from her San Diego girls’ weekend. 
Fort Rock
I made one stop at Fort Rock to see what raptors might be visible there. I had passed a golden eagle nest a few miles earlier and managed to add three bald eagles and a pair of prairie falcons to my list for the day. I was surprised to see rock pigeons there too. These are the same birds that populate our city streets and were the subject of one beautiful song from Mary Poppins. London no longer allows their feeding in Trafalgar Square. Fort Rock looks like a huge fort from a distance but is really an extinct volcano that rises 325 feet above the plain. Prehistoric artifacts over 9000 years old have been found in some of the caves that were inhabited on the interior of the ‘fort’.

British Birding at the Malheur Field Station

On Saturday, I joined six others for a day of “Birding British Style.” I’m not exactly sure what this really means other than that Duncan Evered, our guide, was born and raised in Britain but has spent the last 17 years at the Malheur Field Station where he has honed his birding skills and knowledge. Then we stopped for lunch at his home at the Field Station where he served us tea and Marmite on toast. Marmite, a salty by-product of beer brewing, is a yeast extract spread used on toast and sandwiches. We agreed that while Marmite is edible, it is not going to be a part of our daily food intake.
View from the Malheur Field Station
The Field Station was built during the Kennedy-Johnson era for the Job Corps. Today, it is a non-profit that provides workshops on all aspects of the region’s geography and biology. In addition, Duncan offers a special workshop exploring the relationship between the landscape and the music it inspires. His wife Lyla offers an outdoor painting workshop. The walls of the building where we ate lunch are covered with many of her paintings. Several of these are triptychs where each panel is painting during a different part of the day creating a fascinating look at the changing light patterns in the high desert.

Harney Lake - part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
View from the Malheur Refuge Headquarters

One of the more interesting things Duncan shared with us is that the biologists now at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are fish experts, not bird experts. Most people who visit the Refuge come to see the birds and not to catch the fish, but there are some endangered fish in the system and the introduction of carp years ago threatens most of the native fish. Carp are so voracious and breed so rapidly that eliminating them may be impossible. Yet they do need to do what they can to keep them under control. A couple of the vendors at the festival were all about ways to reduce carp. One sells ground up carp as a fertilizer. There are efforts to create an industry around this. Duncan’s concern is that if they are successful at developing this industry, and then figure out a way to eliminate the carp, we will have a situation where the original goal of reducing the carp is at odds with a local industry that provides jobs.

Another interesting story is that when the Refuge was created in 1908 as a bird refuge for migrating water fowl, it only included the basin, but not any of the water sources. The farmers who opposed the refuge decided that their best response was to use up all the water before it reached the refuge. Fortunately for the birds, during the Great Depression, the land to the south, owned by Swift, was offered for sale and the government was able to purchase the land that controls the Donner und Blitzen River as it flows out of Steens Mountain thus providing the Refuge with a secure water source. It was only at this time that the Refuge began to flourish and have need for real biologists.

Ross's Geese Feeding in a field near Burns
Ross's Geese Taking Flight
The birding tour itself was rather low-key with long stops where Duncan would tell us all about the birds we were viewing. We did have one interesting moment while Duncan drove past a tree with a Great Horned Owl nest. While we sped past, Duncan explained that he does not like these owls because they feed on everything else in the neighborhood, even other smaller owls and hawks.

The Owl Tree
We did get some great views of the thousands of Ross’s Gulls on several fields and a few sandhill cranes that have moved into the area. At the Field Station, we watched large flocks of redwing and yellow-headed blackbirds. Duncan told us that they will find him in other parts of the station when they are out of food. They will also interrupt any conversations and body slam the windows to get his attention. Just like cats and dogs, wild birds can do a good job of training us if we let them. 

Sandhill Cranes

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Alvord Lakes

Today was what bird festivals are all about. It started with Great horned owls zooming across the parking lot as the gold and orange hues welcomed the dawn and ended with conversations about South Africa with a fellow birder in a local tavern over dinner.
One of the dry lakes with Steens Mountain in the background
My tour was to visit the Alvord lakes. We are in the Great Basin here which extends into California, Nevada and Idaho. The key element is that none of the water that enters the basin leaves except through evaporation or through underground caverns. And I’m not sure about the caverns. Interestingly, not all of the lakes are salty or alkaline. The lakes that we saw today are alkaline and most are intermittent. They do not always have water, but when they do, they are an important part of the avian flyway as the birds migrate from points south to points north. That is why this is the John Scharff MIGRATORY Bird Festival. Today we saw 73 of those mostly migratory birds.

Sagebrush Sparrow
 While we saw many water birds, the best bird for me was the Sagebrush Sparrow we found on a side trip to Mickey Hot Spring. Mickey Hot Spring was not on the agenda, but since it is a little known and rarely visited spot we decided to spend the time. I had a quick look at this little guy so we stopped hoping he would reappear. Thanks to our patience and some careful soundbites from a smart phone we were able to see several of these birds and have enough time to get some good pictures. Mickey Hot Spring is a special place even without the birds as it is comparable to Yellowstone. We visited potholes hot enough to burn Jonathan and to warrant warnings that one might break through the crust and fall into that ultra-hot water.

While there we also say one endemic pigmy short-horned toad and another lizard like creature.

The other great birding stop was Mann Lake where we saw Great White Pelicans among the other typical water birds among the fishermen. An extra added attraction was watching one of the fishermen pull in an 18 inch trout from this alkaline lake.

Fields Station - Well worth the visit
We stopped for lunch at Fields Station. Without question this is one of the best places in the world for lunch. But don’t bother if you don’t have a big appetite. Or just indulge in one of the only true milk shakes still available anywhere. These milk shakes are made with real ice cream with a traditional blender and served in frozen metal ‘glasses’. Back in the day we used to pour the milk shake out of these metal mixers into fancy glasses. The shakes are so thick that you must eat it with a spoon. Yes, you must eat it. Meanwhile the burgers are among the better ones you will ever eat. They are remodeling the kitchen so our burgers were specially BBQ’d for the festival and did not include the usual extra tray of fries. Actually the packaged chips were enough. A few years ago Linda and I stopped here about 4:00 in the afternoon to try the shakes. We were on our way to Winnemucca where we knew we had to try a traditional Basque dinner. We do recommend the Basque dinner, but since that also requires a good appetite, the combination is NOT recommended. Traditional Basque dinners are served family style and include salad, soup, main course, after course and dessert and all the wine you can drink for a set price that is much less than you would spend for a medium level dinner at a typical city restaurant.
The Fields Oasis
Fields also happens to be one of the premier spots in Oregon for unusual migrants. Because of permanent spring there is a small grove of trees that must seem tremendously attractive to a bird that has lost its way over this desert area. We did add a couple of birds to our trip list around the cafe, but the trees in the oasis were almost barren of bird life. 
A not unusual sight in Eastern Oregon
 I finished the evening at the Central Pastime Bar and Grill, the place I wanted last night but did not find. I had wings and tots which were good and the burgers and pizza that I saw looked very tasty. I was also impressed that the IPA did NOT come in a frosted glass. I continue to be shocked and dismayed that there are brewpubs in Portland that don’t understand the cold cuts the flavor. No one serves wine in a frosted glass, but flavorful beer is served in a frosted glass on a regular basis. Go figure.

As a last note before you fall asleep reading this, our guide today was Tim Blount who hosts a Harney County birding web site at Check it out for some great bird pictures and more. 

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Malheur - Arrival in Burns

Linda is off to San Diego where she will spend the next three days with friends from the days when she was part of the executive board of Financial Women International. These women have maintained contact and now get together once a year in the nation’s beautiful cities. Since I am not really welcome on these trips I am in Burns, Oregon for the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival. Linda and I have been here several times over the past few years on our travels and I spent the night here last September the Cycle Oregon ride. So I am somewhat familiar with the field trips I have signed up for. Unfortunately, I was a bit tardy (by only a matter of hours) in registering so I will miss the early morning tour to see the sage grouse strutting at their lek tomorrow morning. That would have been exciting – even more than seeing the cock-of-the-rock in Ecuador.
One of several old farm machines in the area
The weather is beautiful today. I drove over Oregon Hiway 26 which provides great views of the mountains. Some of the views of Mt. Hood are absolutely spectacular. I took no pictures as I was in a bit of a hurry to get here before 5:00 to take care of the registration. Along the way we also have great views of Mt. Jefferson and the Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor. Oregon is lucky to have so many beautiful volcanoes. When they are covered with snow and have the blue sky behind them it is like a fantasy worthy of a Peter Jackson movie.
Many of the fields are flooded like this one
Once here I decided to take a short drive around the area to see what I could find here. I was shocked at how much water is here in the fields. It is almost up to road level giving the birds plenty of places to hang out. As I drove around on the nearby farm roads, I saw long-billed curlew, avocets, sandhill cranes, along with thousands of snow geese and hundreds of red-winged and Brewer’s blackbirds. Others, too, but I won’t bore you with the list.
Even if you count the ones in the distance, this is just a few of those I saw this evening
Burns is a very small town, larger than any of its neighbors, but still two hours from Bend, the nearest large city. There used to be a lumber mill here, but it has been closed for several years. The upside is that it does not completely close the shutters at 8:00, but it is close. The Safeway does close at 8 and I’m not sure but it seemed that the gas stations were preparing to close down, too.
Canada geese usually dominate the landscape, not here
Last September when CycleOregon passed through the town seemed to be very lively and I was looking forward to revisiting the bar I spent a couple of hours in for dinner. It was closed and the other bar and grill that looked interesting turned out to be a bar with little hope for a decent dinner. Not wanting to eat at the Apple Peddler chain, I opted for the one other place that looked like a restaurant. The Pine Room Bar and Restaurant is right next to the Days Inn where I am staying. I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of food and service. I ordered the chicken fried steak which I assume is bad for me, but I like it and is a fun meal to try in a small western town. This one was ok and not much more, but the rest of the food was quite good. When I sat down the table had four forks, a knife and an soup spoon. I used them all to eat the shrimp cocktail, soup, salad, and bread that came with the meal. The house red from Volcano Winery in Bend was a bit more fruity than I really like, but still tasty and a good match for the steak. The blue cheese dressing had several large chunks of real cheese, something that doesn’t always happen in the best restaurants.

Tomorrow I head out for eleven hours of visiting the Alvord lakes. This should result in some good pictures.