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. 

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