Our focal point for Day 3 of the trip was to visit the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge, established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds, is based around Harney and Malheur lakes. This pair of large, swampy lakes in the otherwise dry desert of southeastern Oregon is a natural concentration point for hundreds of species of birds migrating through in the spring and fall, as well as a wide variety of year-round species. Although the area has been very dry for the past few years, this past winter was very snowy in the Steens Mountains and the lakes have filled again, attracting birds in numbers not seen quite some time.
Buoyed by the bird sightings in our campground, Perrie and I were eager to see some of the exotic birds that visit the refuge. After barreling down a dusty dirt road for about 20 miles, we pulled into the refuge headquarters. Near the south shore of Malheur Lake, the basic greenery of the facility—willow trees, grass and wildflowers—seemed positively lush after hours of driving through sagebrush.
We acquired a map of the refuge and recommendations from the volunteer there, which started with a visit to their museum. The George Benson Memorial Museum is in a small, windowless building, maybe 400 sq. ft., on the headquarters property. Inside, the walls are covered in glass display cases featuring mounted specimens of nearly 200 species of bird, ranging in size from a junco to a golden eagle. There were also drawers of taxidermized rodents, bats, and other small critters native to the area. Interpretation is minimal in this early-20th-century-style museum, but I found it a refreshing change from the banal “Here’s a picture of a barn swallow. Do you know what he eats? (lift panel to find out)” that permeates such facilities today.
Around the headquarters, we saw several hummingbirds visiting the feeders, and there were several small brown birds flitting among the trees (I think this was the moment when we realized we’d left our Roger Tory Peterson at home). But with a lot of driving ahead of us, we decided to head out into the field.
The first stop recommended by the volunteer at the headquarters was at the Sodhouse Ranch, just a couple of miles down the road. (We were fortunate in the timing of our trip, as the ranch is only open to the public from mid-August through October.) There, we hopped out of the car and were enthusiastically greeted by a volunteer who seemed happy to have some company. She gave us a detailed tour of the ranch and its fascinating history of big business, greed, marriage, divorce, mystery and murder. (It’s too long to relate here, but you can read a somewhat sanitized version of the story here, and here’s more about Peter French and the P Ranch.)
As we toured the horse barn (with mangers to feed hundreds of horses), Perrie noticed some movement in the back of the barn. On further inspection, it turns out there were a pair of young bucks back there! We later found three more behind the barn. Bird-wise, the most notable feature at Sodhouse Ranch was a pair of tall cottonwoods, which are jam-packed with nests of great blue herons, snowy egrets and, most of all, double-crested cormorants.
Eventually, we managed to break away from the ranch to continue our tour, with a high priority on finding a place to eat lunch. We settled on the Buena Vista Ponds Overlook. There (having purchased cheese and tomatoes the day before) we scarfed-down some sandwiches in the brisk wind, and admired the view. There were various waterfowl on the pond but none we could identify, thanks partly to our lack of a book, but mostly to the fact that none were bigger than a pinhead in the field of our binoculars. So we moved on.
The next stop was the Krumbo Reservoir, a man-made lake some 8 miles up a gravel road from the highway. There we saw a couple of fishermen, a couple of waterfowl too far away to identify, and not much else. So we moved on.
Our final stop in the reserve was at Benson Pond. There, we found a hiking trail that accessed the shoreline among the reeds and rushes. Finally, a chance to see (and identify) some of the birds the reserve is known for. We parked by the trail head, next to a dusty Suburban whose owners were just returning from the trail.
“Did you see anything interesting?” we asked.
“Nah, not much out at this time of day.”
Duh. Only mad dogs and Englishmen, as they say. We walked the trail anyway, and got close enough to see a selection of waterfowl still too far away to identify, save for one that was clearly some kind of loon. We did see a kingfisher, and plenty of evidence of beavers nearby, but nothing else of note. So we moved on.
After a refreshment stop in the hamlet of Frenchglen, we headed south along a thin ribbon of blacktop that traverses the otherwise desolate terrain, past the Jackass Mountains through miles of country that is at once stunning and monotonous, and into Winnemucca, Nev.
In Winnemucca, we checked into our hotel, showered, had dinner at a good Mexican restaurant, went back to the hotel and passed out.
Click here for the interactive map (worth viewing in “terrain” mode).