Memories Of Malheur

Wilson's Phalarope - Phalaropus tricolorMy first visit to Malheur National Wildlife Reserve was in December 2003. The only images from that visit were some mediocre shots of my first meeting with a Rough-Legged Hawk. More memorable for me was an encounter with a herd of Bighorn Sheep in Catlow Valley as I was driving to Malheur that morning. Almost two years later, on 2005-05-20, I paid my second visit as I was heading to Alaska. More than a decade passed before I managed my third visit. In June of 2015 I was on my Big Intermountain West trip of 53 days and 5300 miles in my Samurai.  I spent two days exploring the area that trip. My most recent stay was 2017-08-30.  Having barely survived my 2015 marathon in the Samurai, I purchased my current mini-home-on-wheels, the Winnebago Travato. I re-traced some of my 2015 journey with a few adjustments to include visits with old friends in Montana and Idaho. The call of Malheur was not to be ignored, and I paid a late August call on this amazing place.

Killdeer - Charadrius vociferusMalheur is a French word for Bad Hour, Bad Time or Misfortune. The reserve carries the same name as the river which earned its moniker in 1818 and again in 1826 when trappers had their pelts stolen by some crafty native Americans. In 1845 an experienced trapper led a group of pioneering citizens up the Malheur River looking for a shorter route to Oregon, but the party ran short of water after leaving the river and 23 people died. The “misfortunes” that gave the area its name, center on the river, and not the valley we’ve come to love.

The checkered history of this valley has more to do with displacing native Americans and with ruthless cattle barons than with any bad luck. Water rights were often the cause of conflict between competing cattle barons and homesteaders. The biggest cattle baron of his era, Peter French, was shot in the back and killed by a homesteader, probably over some questionable ethics in dealing with such matters.

The abundance of birds and wildlife in the Donner und Blitzen valley, as it’s sometimes called, was unrivaled in western USA prior to the European invasions of the early 1800s. Only the Klamath basin could claim the abundance of life supported here. Water diversions and the killing birds for their feathers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries devastated the avifauna, until visionary conservationists like William Finley convinced Theodore Roosevelt to establish a wildlife reserve here. 

As many as 342 bird species have been sighted here in recent years. According to eBird, 237 species have been claimed in 2019, and we still have a month and a half left this year. Whether it is raptors, waders, shorebirds, passerines or waterfowl, there is something for all bird lovers to look forward to encountering during a visit to this amazing place. As with any destination, the season can influence these meetings. I don’t claim to be the know-all guide to birds in this area, but the locations on the reserve I’ve explored with happy results have been:

  • The wooded grounds around the visitor center
    • Owls, and other raptors,
    • Blackbirds and other passerines attracted to feeders
    • Migrant species in season
  • The pond to the north of the visitor center
    • Shorebirds
    • Terns
    • Swallows
    • Waterfowl
    • Osprey, Harriers and other raptors
    • Sparrows and wrens
  • The Narrows
    • Waterfowl
    • Ibis
    • Shorebirds
    • Tall waders
    • Terns
    • Gulls
  • Benson Pond
    • Swans, geese and other waterfowl
    • Raptors
    • Gulls
    • Swallows
  • The Center Patrol Road
    • Thrashers
    • Buntings
    • Wrens
    • Flycatchers
    • Waterfowl
    • Shorebirds
    • Blackbirds
    • Pretty much anything might be seen on this route

The above list is intentionally vague and by-no-means complete, but is offered as an example of some of the possibilities here. I hope to visit Malheur NWR in the future. If I do, I will attempt to explore Steen’s Mountain and experience life at its highest elevations. The gallery below displays some of the encounters I’ve had during my limited time here.

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