Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Hummers at the MNWR Headquarters


No Belding Ground Squirrels at MNWR

BURNS-HINES, Ore. -- Silence shrouded the sun-spotted, tree-lined sidewalk as we shuffled from the parking area to the visitor center at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters.

Say what?

No squirrels?

Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I had motored 240 miles from Walla Walla to Rory and Ryan’s in Hines, stored our gear and turned south for another 35 miles. I lugged a camera with 4.2-pound lens to shoot hummingbirds as they sucked sugar water from a red plastic container.

Last spring I also had enjoyed shooting the Belding ground squirrels that swarmed over the lawns.

Some stood on hind legs while wringing their forepaws and chastised us, especially Nora, as intruders.

Darlene called them “cute.”

“I haven’t seen any squirrels, and neither has Nora.” I said to Darlene.

She (Nora, not Darlene) strolled ahead, casually sniffing the ground. No stretching the leash.

Darlene pulled the glass door open and went inside to shop for fuzzy animal toys and nature inclined coloring books for children.

Nora and I stood on the sunny deck. It overlooked a bird-feeding area, a wide expanse of lawn, tall shade trees, the stone museum with hundreds of stuffed birds and the sun-bright Marshall Pond.

Hummers fluttered to the feeders. Two California golden-mantel squirrels ate fallen seeds.

I fired at the masked squirrels, at Brewer’s, song and white-crowned sparrows; at Brewer’s and red-winged blackbirds, yellow warblers, California quail; and at Rufus or calliope hummers (female).

Nora stretched the leash.

Minding her manners, though, she didn’t bark. She saves that for the mailman.

Then local birder Tim Blount ( stepped onto the deck. He knows birds, and he called one hummer a “calliope.”

I nodded.

When Darlene returned, she carried no toys or coloring books. She could, however, answer where all the squirrels had gone.

“She said they hibernated already,” Darlene said, nodding toward the volunteer at the visitor center.

Maybe she rolled her eyes.

I rolled mine at the blue sky.

I turned to ask Blount, but he had moved on.

We headed back at dusk to dine in Burns and rest in at R and R’s.

During that Sept. 10-13 stay in Burns-Hines, we visited the refuge headquarters five times.

Nora and I visited the free, one-room George M. Benson Memorial Museum, with tall class cases offering views of about 200 moth-ball-scented local bird specimens, as well as wings and eggs, for a close-up study.
Display drawers also contain many stuffed rodents native to the area.

We walked to the viewing blind at Marshall Pond and passed 10 feet from a buck lying in the shade.

Mainly, I haunted the bird feeders and shot hummers somewhat redundantly.

Once, when leaving the headquarters on the Auto Tour Road, we counted 27 sand hill cranes in a field.

Then, on the nearby road to the historic Sod House, a coyote stood 30 yards from the road with cows in the background. We saw 14 coyotes on the trip

Finally, Wednesday evening a different volunteer at the center petted Nora on the deck.

She said the Belding ground squirrels, often called “sage rats,”

“were removed” because the overran the area.

An internet stories says the sage rats swarm agriculture lands in Eastern Oregon and people shoot them for recreation and target practice. Big time guided sage rat hunts, with meals and mobile shooting platforms, contribute significantly to the area’s economy (Google: Oregon Sage Rat Hunts).

Anyway, I didn’t ask how the squirrels were removed. Later Darlene said they may have been sucked out of the ground with big vacuum cleaners.

Anyway, that cleared up the mystery of the missing squirrels.