2022-04-25 In Malheur

Yellow-Headed Blackbird - Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus
Malheur NWR has been one of my favorite Oregon birding destinations since I found my way there in December 2003. The refuge’s visitor center still provided some good meetings with birds such as Yellow-Headed Blackbirds.
Red-Winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus
The refuge’s visitor center provided some good meetings with birds such as Red-Winged Blackbirds.

The clear blue skies I enjoyed in Burns Oregon on Saturday and Sunday degraded to a gloomy gray on Monday. Still, the gloom was not so deep as to dampen the enjoyment during my tour of the Visitor Center at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I told myself after my last visit to Malheur that I would treat myself to a drive up to Steens Mountain. But I hadn’t allowed that my return would be so early in the year, and that snowpack would prevent passage. I’m told the road won’t be clear for travel until sometime in June.

The Visitor Center’s compound rests on the north slope of a small butte. Standing at the crest of the butte is a tall steel observation tower built by the CCC between 1935 and 1942. The tower is no longer in use, but its presence remains as a reminder of days past, when our country was locked in economic depression and jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corps helped us overcome the hardships of those times.

I found things quite dry when I arrived at the Malheur NWR Visitor Center. On past visits, Marshall Pond at the foot of the butte was filled to capacity. Now there were barely a few inches in it. I was told that the pond went completely dry last year, the first time it has been so in anyone’s memory. It certainly affected the visiting birds. Early migrant warblers were beginning to come through. Red-Winged and Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were present in good numbers.

While I was standing my watch from the viewing blind at Marshall Pond, I met Mike Denny, whose local knowledge of the area spanned decades. We spent the best part of an hour swapping stories, and he told me of some educational nature documentaries he’d produced. I really liked where he was coming from and saw in him a kindred spirit. But he has carried the torch of education further than most of us have.

The 42 mile Center Patrol Road explores the interior of the reserve. I didn’t feel I had the time to explore it on this visit. Doing so would be an all-day commitment. Had it been a little later, when the summer’s birds establish their residence for the season, I would not have missed an opportunity to spend time along the route. Today I confined my roaming to the grounds around the Visitor’s Center.

In years past, I stayed at the Narrows RV Park, just six miles west of the Visitor Center. I believe there were different owners there at the time, because I noticed a big improvement in the attitude of the current proprietors. It happened that my Monday stay coincided with the only day of the week the new owners could take off. So when I pulled in, and found no staff to book a night’s stay, I wasn’t sure how to proceed. The rate for dry-camping on the property was $16. I found a level place at a remote corner of the property and settled in for the night. The worst-case scenario was that I’d have to sort out payment at 8am before I hit the road, when the office opened. But, as I parked within view of the driveway, I knew if the proprietors came back, they’d see me, and I could settle up with them. This is just what happened, and I enjoyed the rest of the night with the peace of mind that comes with having my ducks in a row.

My next stop will be with good friends in Payette Idaho, where I planned to spend a few days before heading to Wyoming. I have a couple of upgrades for the RV in mind, and my stay in Payette should be perfect to sort them out. With three hours of drive time before I land in my friend’s yard, it should be an easy drive today. But before turning east towards Idaho, the road took me north, and back through the town of Burns. I couldn’t help myself from one more tour of the agricultural fields north of town.

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