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What Malheur, and all national wildlife refuges, mean to birders

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, May 2015. Photo by  Kim Nelson
Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, May 2015. Photo by Kim Nelson

If the recent occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has a silver lining, it’s that more people than usual came across the words “national wildlife refuge” in their newspapers and on the radio and TV.

Too rarely, however, did broadcasters and reporters explain adequately what Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is — that is, the 29th largest refuge in the entire national refuge system, and the second largest in Oregon (behind Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge), and one of America’s most productive waterfowl-breeding areas, not to mention a vital stopover for migratory birds.

Even rarer did we hear descriptions of the special meaning Malheur holds for countless birdwatchers. To learn about that, we reached out to our readers via our free biweekly e-newsletter and Twitter. We heard from educators, photographers, campers, artists, birders, and one famous world traveler — Noah Strycker, the new global Big Year record-holder. (He took the photo of the meadowlark below.) He and all the other respondents expressed very well, we think, just how precious our national wildlife refuges truly are. To all of us.

A selection of the replies follows.

At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a Western Meadowlark, Oregon's state bird, sings its flute-like song. Photo by Noah Strycker
At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, a Western Meadowlark, Oregon’s state bird, sings its flute-like song. Photo by Noah Strycker

On the bucket list

I am an avid birder, and Malhuer is extremely important to me — especially because I have not had the chance to visit it yet. I have read and heard of its beauty, not to mention its importance to migratory birds, like the huge percentage of Ross’s Geese it serves. It is on my bucket list of amazing places in this country that I want to visit.

The idea that it could be taken away by a few — at the expense of the majority — is heartbreaking. It also has historical value to me because Teddy Roosevelt designated the refuge and because it was a key battleground in the plume-hunting trade of ages past. I want it back. The American people deserve it back. The birds need it back. — Jason St. Sauver, education director, Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center, Denton, Nebraska

Good for the soul

Malheur NWR is a gem! There is no other place like it on Earth. We treasure our yearly visits to birdwatch, take in the beauty, and immerse ourselves in the history of the native peoples. We depend on our adventures there to get us through the year and rejuvenate our souls. — Kim Nelson and Will Wright, Corvallis, Oregon

Mind blowing

My wife and I have never been disappointed on our many deeply moving, 20-plus visits to Malheur. We relish experiencing the entire region’s ecosystem and feel it should be designated a World Heritage Site. This is an intact ecosystem with vast open solitude and immense geologic features of massive U-shaped (Yosemite-esque) glacial chasms. It has some of the darkest night skies, cleanest air, and amazing botanical diversity supporting multiple ecotones — from its marshes and cattails to subalpine tundra atop Steens Mountain. It blows my mind that my family has the good fortune to have this amazing place in our backyard. — Richard Rusnak, Nampa, Idaho

American Avocet and chicks at Malheur. Photo by Barbara Wheeler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
American Avocet and chicks at Malheur. Photo by Barbara Wheeler/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Another way to be

This past August, I spent six days birding in various parts of this sprawling refuge. For several happy hours at headquarters, I watched Long-billed Curlews, American Avocets, Willets, and yellowlegs on the little pond, and I sat on the steps of the main building to enjoy hummingbirds coming and going. I hung out at the end of Boat Launch Road with kingbirds, blackbirds, a harrier, a Golden Eagle, an American Kestrel, and a shrike.

I drove and walked miles and miles on the dirt auto routes, with Swainson’s Hawks and Sandhill Cranes in the agricultural fields and Ring-necked Pheasants ducking in and out of hedgerows. At Buena Vista, I watched scores of ducks, egrets, ibis, and coots. The nearby irrigation ditches were full of surprises: a Sora and a Virginia Rail within a few yards of each other, a Sharp-shinned Hawk erupting from the willows, a Black-crowned Night-Heron so intent on fishing that it didn’t seem to notice me.

Every minute that I was at Malheur, I was intensely aware of what was around me — the heat, the haze from wildfires, the plants and animals, the birds, the constant sense of space and openness. There’s a feeling of being stripped bare in such a place, and I recognized how privileged I was to be able to visit.

The author Ursula K. LeGuin has written a beautiful book called Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. She taught several times at the Malheur Field Station, and she and her husband spend time each summer at the wonderful Hotel Diamond. In the book’s introduction, she writes, “For the last twenty years or so, I’ve spent about a week a year being out here, and fifty-one weeks dreaming about it.” The first poem starts “Out here, there is another way to be.” I didn’t read the poem until I got home, and I hadn’t verbalized my emotions that clearly, but that’s exactly what I felt at Malheur: that I was experiencing another way to be. — Maeve Kim, Jericho Center, Vermont

All-time favorite

Bobolink at Malheur, May 2015. Photo by Kim Nelson
Bobolink at Malheur, May 2015. Photo by Kim Nelson

My husband, Malcolm, and I first visited Malheur in May 1998 as part of a field trip with the Oregon Field Ornithologists. We were thrilled to find such an amazing place! I got 11 lifers that day, including a pair of Bobolinks so close we could have reached out and touched them. We also saw coyotes, Belding’s ground squirrels, marmots, rabbits, pronghorn, and mule deer. We liked it so much we returned in spring and fall every year until we moved to North Carolina. One time we saw Western Grebes doing their courtship display — a thrill!

One of the added bonuses was the adjacent BLM Paige Spring Campground, where we stayed in our small RV. On our first visit, I was going to transfer notes from a 3×5 card to my bird book, to record the lifers I had seen. I sat at the picnic table and couldn’t concentrate on my task because of the orioles that were removing materials from one nest to take to another, the Mallards that were swimming in the stream behind our campsite, the Common Nighthawk resting on the tree limb in our site, and an active starling nest in the same tree. We also saw and heard a Virginia Rail that evening.

Malheur remains our all-time favorite national wildlife refuge — and we have visited about 48 others! — Joan Macdonald, Brevard, North Carolina

The anchor

One of our memorable family stories is when my then-girlfriend asked me more about my hobbies. I sheepishly responded that I enjoyed birdwatching. She rolled her eyes, escorted me into their kitchen, opened a cabinet near a window… and there was a set of binoculars and her father’s yard list taped to the inside of the door. My eventual marriage to his daughter rekindled a spirit of adventure and birding in both my father-in-law and me.

Our first birding trip together was when he accidentally found out about the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival at Malheur (now known as the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival). Neither of us had been there before, we didn’t know what to expect, but we thought it looked fun. In short, we were amazed — and hooked. That weekend trip was the beginning of dozens of birding trips together around the U.S. and the world. Of all the places we have been, Malheur is unique in our hearts because it is the anchor of our birding memories.

It is where both of us realized that birding doesn’t have to be done alone or as a secondary activity. We discovered that you can plan a trip just for birding and just to be outside and appreciate the beauty of this world. We have returned to Malheur several times together and never get tired of the beauty of the area.

Our wives may complain about how much time the two of us spend together birding, but deep down they recognize and appreciate the bond between a father and son-in-law that would be the envy of any family. It all began at Malheur! — Paul Jaussi, Sherwood, Oregon

Painting of Buena Vista Ponds at Malheur. © Rakar West. Used by permission.
Painting of Buena Vista Ponds at Malheur. © Rakar West. Used by permission.

Unassuming and amazing

On my first visit to Malheur a few years ago, I found the area to be remote and, at first glimpse, rather unspectacular. High desert flatlands, a few mountains, and a lot of sagebrush were all the eye could see. Malheur Lake was shallow and hardly accessible. Then I found the headquarters — a small group of buildings with a few trees and a little pond out front. I walked around the lawn and, to my amazement, found that the tiny unassuming patch was truly an oasis for a huge number of migrants.

The birds were so numerous that I could pick a tree and wait for the next revelation to arrive. Brilliant Western Tanagers perched in blossoming trees — an overload of color. Townsend’s Warblers and Bullocks Orioles fed in the nearby brush. Calls from Lazuli Buntings were never far away. Right off the deck of the visitors’ building, a rare sighting: A Rose-breasted Grosbeak joined Yellow-headed Blackbirds at the feeders only feet away.

And then there was the rest of the refuge. It has a sprawling 30-mile auto tour of riparian habitats filled with birds taking a rest along this inland piece of the Pacific Flyway. Eared Grebes flashed their stunning black and gold plumage. White-faced Ibis flocks littered puddles along the road, the sheen of their wings glistening with every iridescent color. Bobolinks chimed unreal songs in a distant meadow.

Since then, I’ve had a chance to get back a few times. When I near the headquarters, I always feel a tingle of excitement, knowing I’m about to enter one of those special areas where humans are allowed to witness wildlife on a scale that is becoming more and more scarce.

In May 2015 I took a telephoto lens and was fortunate to get shots of a family of Great Horned Owls that had found an excellent nesting site: an abandoned fire lookout tower located just uphill from the headquarters. I’m sad to read that this is now being used as a sniper tower. My understanding is that the owls would have returned by now, so these birds will have to find a new home. — Darren Frost, Boise Idaho

Rich rewards

White-faced Ibis at Malheur. Photo by Rainer Wieland
White-faced Ibis at Malheur. Photo by Rainer Wieland

I had the privilege of visiting Malheur for five consecutive years in the late 1980s. It is a nine-hour drive from my home south of Seattle to the refuge. Every year, driving east out of Bend on Hwy. 20 and dropping down to the semi-desert from Horse Ridge, facing many miles of straight road, I asked myself — what in the world was I doing there? Going to look for birds? It seemed a bit crazy at the time. After reaching my destination though, I was richly rewarded and never regretted having made the trip.

I’d see Yellow-breasted Chat, Pine Siskin, Evening Grosbeak, a large Cliff Swallow colony, shorebirds, owls, Trumpeter Swan, American White Pelican, and nesting Northern Harriers. In a small canyon leading up to a ridge, a Long-eared Owl nested in an old magpie nest. Once, I saw a Turkey Vulture exit one of several caves along the ridge. I climbed up and was rewarded with smelly marmot droppings. A young vulture may have been farther back in the cave.

For two years in a row, I watched Greater Sage-Grouse displaying on a lek — one of the most fascinating experiences a birder can have. I will always cherish the memory. — Hans Feddern, Federal Way, Washington

Where it all began

I have great romantic memories of visiting Malheur over 35 years ago. My now-husband and I were newly engaged then, and I was not a birdwatcher at the time. My fiancé wanted to introduce me to birdwatching, and we took a camping trip to the refuge. (We were both graduate students in Corvallis, Oregon, so the refuge wasn’t too far from home.)

Malheur was the location where I began my life list, and we must have added more than 50 birds over that long weekend. I still remember waking up early one morning to the calls of waterfowl, unzipping our tent, grabbing the binoculars, and sneaking out to identify the callers. I even have a picture in my scrapbook of my fiancé watching birds in his pajamas!

My favorite birds that weekend were the avocets and stilts — their black and white markings were easy to remember. I was hooked! All these years later, when we travel worldwide, we always include time in the itinerary for birdwatching. And for me, it all began at Malheur. — Joyce DeHaan, Rigby, Idaho

Wide-open country

Along with my husband and my parents, I attended a weeklong session at Malheur in September 2012. We stayed at the Malheur Field Station, enjoying the warm hospitality of directors Lyla Messick and Duncan Evered. They were great hosts and knowledgeable trip leaders, and the birding was terrific, but what has stayed with me the most was the beautiful, stark, wide-open country. At night, the sky was filled with stars; we had never seen so many. — Carol Jordan, Redwood City, California

Greater Sage-Grouse at Malheur. Photo by Peter J. Thiemann
Greater Sage-Grouse at Malheur. Photo by Peter J. Thiemann

Delicate, fragile, and critical

It was at Malheur National Wildlife refuge where I first saw sage-grouse dancing — more than a hundred strong in a wondrous display on a cold, sagebrush-scented dawn. Little did I know that the University of Oregon field trip would be so meaningful. Later in life I drew again and again upon that memory as I wrote professionally about sage-grouse first for the National Wildlife Federation and then for the Sage Grouse Initiative.

And it’s there in Harney County where ranchers came together so very recently to demonstrate cooperation and care for sage-grouse and for good ranching practices. It is their model that our nation needs to heed and follow — cooperation over conflict and ranching that conserves, not destroys, our heritage.

Read Malheur’s Comprehensive Conservation Plan, completed in 2013.

It was also at Malheur where I first watched the antics of courting Ruddy Ducks, fell in love with Cinnamon Teal, and gasped at flights of White-faced Ibis overhead. And it was at Malheur where I fell in love — literally, and have my own personal memories of a place where birds and wildlife and visitors find a safe haven.

This refuge is a national treasure, an international wonder, and critical to the future of birds both on wetlands and on the sagebrush uplands. It’s delicate, fragile, and not up for grabs by lawless gun-wielding pseudo-ranchers from out of state. — Marina (Deborah) Richie, Missoula, Montana

Full of surprises

Although the birds bring me to Malheur, I am also drawn by the place itself, the crisp scent of sage on the air, the crack of a late summer lightning bolt, the golden beauty of slanting sun on rimrock. I have been delighted by chance encounters with a family of coyotes, a badger, a porcupine, and a scorpion. The birds are just one part of the magic. One of my most vivid experiences at Malheur came after a long day of birding, as I contentedly made my way home into the setting sun. I spied a couple of Short-eared Owls some distance from the car. I stopped to watch. One owl left the group and glided silently in front of me, turning its head and fixing me with a steady gaze. That’s Malheur for you. Even when you think you’ve seen it all, there is always one more surprise waiting around the bend. — Noah Strycker, Creswell, Oregon


Thanks to everyone who sent us a story about Malheur. If you would like to share a memory about the refuge or another birding location that is important to you, please do so in the comments below. — the editors


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