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).

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