Thursday, May 31, 2012

Fowls at Malheur

Fowls by the dozens dipped up tasty tidbits in the grassy lakes, ponds and swamps along roadsides south of Burns, Or.

We saw ibises, avocets, black-necked stilts, curlews, grebes, egrets, herons, and pelicans.

And diving Caspian terns and swallows nipped bugs from the water’s surface and from the air.

Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I enjoyed the Malheur area during our trip to see the Alvord Desert. We spent three days (May 14-16) there during a spring bird migration.

Sure, we occasionally met someone who lamented missing the “white geese and the owls” of the spring’s earlier days. We, however, saw too many colorful critters to feel deprived.

We had left home on a Monday before 7 a.m. We arrived at the junction with Highway 26 from Vale, a mile from Burns, too early to check into the Best Western.

So, we crossed Highway 26 and continued south toward the refuge headquarters. Two miles after crossing a ridge called Wrights Point (see If You Go below), we saw about 30 antelope.

Darlene counted 27 or 31. I ogled them. Nora huffed and puffed at them.

Then, along roadside patches of weedy water, I huffed and puffed as I practiced wing-shooting with the big lens at egrets, brown Ibises and Caspian Terns. Of course I took potshots at the grubbers strutting on stilts at the edges of Malheur and Mud lakes near The Narrows on 205.

Then at the refuge headquarters we saw yellow-headed and red-winged blackbirds and the Belding ground squirrels, called sage rats and hunted big-time by guided shooters because of their costly damage to alfalfa fields (Google: Oregon sage rat hunting).

And a dozen intense hummingbirds sucked at a pair of feeders. Hooked, I spent an hour snapping shots of hovering hummers and posing rats.

Before we left for Burns, one perky bluebird, a lazuli bunting, posed on a wire cage around a tree near the headquarters building.

Then I acquired another ton of images on the way to check into the Burns-Hines Ryan and Rory Inn.

On the way Darlene spotted an antelope elder with trophy horns. I drove down a side road for a closer view of the elder relaxing with his cud.

Then I turned toward Burns on Hotchkiss Road, and its roadside wetlands seethed with ibises, avocets and black-necked stilts.

Caspian terns darted sharply over the grass and the road.

I found out why when I stepped from the truck to shoot at swirling, diving terns: Mosquitoes by the billions zipped through the truck’s open door.

Darlene called them “vulture-sized” as she swatted them against the inside windows. I called them mean and nasty.

Yet, I stood firm on the asphalt and snapped at the quick, elusive terns. That evening I perused my images of birds in flight.

“Dagnabbit!” I said.

Not a single good image of airborne avocets or black-necked stilts.

On Tuesday, of course, we spent all day touring the Alvord Desert.
On Wednesday I drove Hotchkiss Road and Highway 205 to the refuge headquarters again. Alas, I fared poorly at logging images of flying stilts and avocets.

I drove south onto the Refuge Auto Tour, which often passes roadside waters. Darlene stopped me to shoot a quail perched on a sage bush.

And twice I strolled the road where ibises, avocets and stilts strutted confidently. Busy eating, they never flew. We turned off at the Buena Vista Overlook and a view of the ponds below.

Finally, as the day and my hopes waned, we reached Hotchkiss Road again on our way to the inn.

The air had chilled and a breeze stirred the grass. Battling fewer mosquitoes, I strolled to the road’s edge where several stilts, avocets and ibises dined. They jumped around, flew a few feet and landed. Satisfactory. And some images turned out OK.

Early Thursday, as we headed toward the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, we drove along Hotchkiss Road one more time.

We faced the rising sun, however, so I pulled into a side road to turn around and get the sunlight on browsing ibises.

“There’s a skunk in the puddle,” Darlene whispered

I grabbed the camera from her lap, aimed it through her window as she rolled it down, and snapped four frames through the barred iron gate.

And, by golly, the skunk looked sharp in the LCD monitor.

Darlene said. “Well, we won’t be skunked today.”

Then we headed north to John Day.


If You Go

We spent three nights at Burns-Hines, a pleasant 240 mile drive from Walla Walla. From there we drove another wildlife-lined 40 miles to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters. We toured and watched wildlife in and around the refuge for many hours over the three days. For more information Google Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Wright’s Point is a lava-topped example of inverted topography and a one-time streambed about seven miles long that extends into the Harney Basin (Google: Wright’s Point Harney County).

Painted Hills

After an hour’s drive from the Sheep Rock Unit of the monument, I turned into the Painted Hills Unit at 3:19 p.m. on Thursday, May 18, 2012.

I had lofty plans to walk all four of the trails in the unit, Including the 1.5-mile round trip on Carroll Rim Trail that a pamphlet said “ascends a few hundred feet in elevation to an overlook of the entire region, with a bird’s-eye view of the Painted Hills and a bench at the end to relax and enjoy the view.”

On previous trips to the Unit, I never took the time to climb the CRT. I would do it this trip.

First, however, we visited the Painted Cove Trail and parked between two other vehicles.

A boardwalk trail winds around the colorful mounds to keep visitors off of the red and gold claystone. So, Nora stayed in the car with Darlene and drew ear rubs from the visitors in the other two vehicles.

Anyway, I strolled the boardwalk and read the interpretive posts that explain the geologic nature of the hills. Marks across one deep-red slope looked like prints left by a deer that didn’t understand the “keep off” signs and the purpose of the boardwalk.

From there we followed a really dusty toad to the quarter-mile Leaf Hill Trail, a site of important studies in the 1920s and 1990s.

The trove of leaf fossils found at the site provide information about the ecosystem of the area 33 million years ago.

As the time closed in on 4:30 p.m., we drove parking at the foot of Carroll Rim Trail. I packed a wide-angle lens and a zoom lens, left Nora with Darlene again, and headed up the hill.

A strong wind whipped down the steep slope. The trail slanted toward the ridge at an angle across the sage-dotted slope and through stone-mottled outcroppings with a stunning view of the red-stripped Painted Hills all the way to still snow-dotted mountains to the east.

Despite the smooth and easy slant of the trail to the northeast, I walked slow with frequent pauses to study and to enjoy the view, especially to the southeast.

The altitude gave me a that promised bird’s-eye perspective, and the zoom lens pulled the hills up close.

When I reached the pass, the trail switched directly back and climbed for another 200-300 yards.

And the wind hit me full force. I fastened the chin strap on my wide-brimmed had, but it still flopped loosely. The gusts rippled and flattened the thick bunch grass.

By the time I reached the trail’s end, with benches on a narrow point, the southwest wind nearly toppled me. I cast a 180-degree view, and turned back.

I stumbled for the first view steps, with the strong wind gusts at my back, and moved more quickly down slope.

At the pass, a lizard or a horned toad crossed the trail. I kneeled and aimed the camera through the sage branches. I spent several minutes getting a focused photo.

I couldn’t resist a few pauses on the way, and each one proved well worth the stop.

“Well, did you have a good hike?” Darlene asked when I reached the truck.

I assured her that I did, and we set out for the nearly two hour drive to the John Day Best Western motel.

And to dinner.

Well, we had spent a long day on the road and having fun at the fossil beds.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeing the Oregon Desert

At last, the Alvord Desert in Southeastern Oregon, south of Burns lay directly ahead. It looked like a lake. The Alvord Desert averages seven inches of rainfall a year, so I did not expect so much water on May 15. By mid-summer the water vanishes, of course, leaving a dry, flat lake bed. So dry that in 1976 Kitty O’Neil established an unofficial women’s world land-speed record there: 512 miles per hour. The desert stretches about 12 miles north and south and about seven miles across (some say 11 by 6 miles). At an altitude of about 4,000 feet, it parallels the craggy cliffs of the 70-mile long, nearly 10,000 foot high Steens Mountains to the west. The smaller Sheepshead Mountains lay to the east. We started the desert-bound trip on Monday (May 14), when I drove from Walla Walla to Burns-Hines. Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I spent that afternoon watching antelope, ibises, avocets, stilts, egrets, ground squirrels, hummingbirds and so on (more about that here next Wednesday). On Tuesday we left the Hines Best Western Ryan and Rory Inn and set sail for the Alvord Desert at 6:47 a.m. We anticipated a full day that included breakfast at the Frenchglen Hotel, 60 miles south, and a lunch of renowned burgers and shakes at Fields Station, 60 miles south of Frenchglen. We reached Frenchglen at 8:32 a.m., dined on scrumptious French toast and bacon alongside a dozen other breakfast connoisseurs. We climbed to the high plateau that stretches south to silhouettes of the Pueblo Mountains and west to Hart Mountain. Twenty miles from Frenchglen three turkey vultures dined on fresh snake, a high-desert Highway 205 specialty. Nora and I walked to within 30 yards of the diners. Nary a vehicle passed in either direction until we turned east near Fields. My odometer said 114 miles at Fields. At 10:39 a.m. we passed on burgers and shakes. We would lunch later at the Diamond Hotel. Then, fewer than 20 miles from Fields, the paved road turned to dusty gravel that reduced our speed to 20 knots. Sometimes 10. This continued for 45 miles or so to the Juniper Lake Ranch. Soon after we passed Andrews, however, we crested a knoll and the Alvord Desert shimmered directly ahead, fringed by the blue Sheepsheads. “Look at that,” Darlene said. “Impressive,” I said. “Finally.” Nora and I strolled among the sage to soak up the scene. A few miles later I took a dusty trail through the sage to the desert’s edge. Nora and I strolled for 100 yards or so on the hard lake bed beneath a bright sky. Fresh vehicle tracks faded from sight across the wide playa. Darlene preferred not to test it with the truck, but I followed vehicle tracks out a few yards toward the Sheepshead Mountains’ silhouette and turned around. Then we reached Alvord Hot Springs where 174-degree water cools significantly after bubbling to the surface. I stopped near the only vehicle we had seen since Fields. A man reading a book reclined on a wooden platform. As Nora and I approached, he sat up, leaned against a bench and called to Nora. She obliged. The friendly man’s car had California plates, yet he came originally from Wales. He worked in several states (I didn’t ask at what) and visited the springs often. He said the desert had more water this spring than he had seen before. Nora sniffed the warm mineral water but didn’t drink it. I drove on, stopping occasionally to savor scenery and take photos. One address sign said “Alvord Ranch Tom and Jemima Davis” near a stream that burbled down from Steen’s snow fields. We stopped to use the one-holer at Mann Lake and reached pavement again near the Juniper Lake Ranch. Three antelope clustered near a long private drive to the ranch. “That antelope is dropping a baby,” Darlene said. “You’re right,” I said as I looked through the long lens. They were two far away for a good photo, so I inched slowly down the private drive as Darlene scowled at me. So, I drifted to a stop, snapped a three photos, backed to the main road and headed north. We passed pelicans on Juniper Lake and antelope crossed the road in front of us near Highway 78 where we turned toward Burns. I took the turnoff to the west and south toward Diamond. We passed the Peter French Round Barn, the Diamond Craters and reached the Diamond Hotel for that late lunch. Too late, actually. We arrived at 3:17 p.m. Lunch service ended at 2 p.m. We knew that, of course, but time flies when you’re having fun. So we drove on to Burns and took Subway sandwiches back to the Best Western. “A fun trip,” Darlene said. “Good to see the Alvord Desert at last,” I mumbled with my mouth full and handed Nora a tiny bite.

Depressed Mumbles

May 30,2012
Well, I’ve been retired since April 1, 2010.
Yet, I haven’t found opportunities to visit this site very often. Of course I’ve felt the impulse to vent, or simply ponder, here. Today’s news from around the world, transmitted by a gaggle of electronic methods, depresses me nearly every day. The rampant violence, of course, along with widespread poverty, heartbreak and prejudice has been too much for me to wrap words around. Especially prejudice.
This morning, in a typical retirement scene, Darlene and I played a decade-old Heat of the Night TV rerun as background. She leafed through magazines while I surfed the web. Vaguely I followed the plot, which took little effort because we had seen the program before, more than once.
As I said, watching TV can be depressing, but we have spent 70 years with it at least in the periphery of our lives. So, today, until the French Open came on, we watched reruns.
Alas, even as background noise, these old programs set in Mississippi usually dealt with prejudice, especially racial and religious, in the South. And, of course, they brought a scowl to my face. Overall, however, the programs dealt in a surprising way with Southern attitudes. Not of course, that those attitudes exist only in the South or in the United States. Anyway, the program involved a decades-old murder of a black man by a white racist, with most of the perpetrators being very old, dying or dead.
One perpetrator, feeling belated guilt, turned to the Bible. One of his comments indicated a quote from the book that gave him comfort. To paraphrase: If you want forgiveness, all you have to do is ask for it, believing in Him who can give it.
Although I paid less-than-full attention to the program, my hackles rose a bit with this scene. These bigots find in their religions a justification for committing murder. Then, if that eventually wears thin, they find in their religions a forgiveness that gives them comport. And, ironically, the loved ones of the victims also turn to religion for solace or even for revenge.
So, this depresses me. I cannot imagine murdering a man because he acts “uppity” or above the place dictated by his race, religion or class, which the TV program explored and which took place many times in the South.
 In Syria this week, for example, a slaughter of 100 people in a village, including about 50 women and children, took place. To show their disapproval over the episode, several countries expelled Syrian diplomats. Religious beliefs and prejudice, along with politics, lurk behind the slaughter as wells as the expulsion of the diplomats.