MALHEUR LIVES: Nature’s Inevitable Renewal

Silvies Flood Plain, Harney County, Oregon. Steve Shunk.

Snow on the Silvies Flood Plain, seen from the south side of Wright’s Point. Harney County, Oregon. By Steve Shunk.

Post updated Feb 12, 2016

I visited Malheur recently with again friends. The Silvies flood plain was sleeping under a thick white blanket of snow, and the Rough-legged Hawks were out in force. The giant bluebird sky glowed brightly over Oregon’s Great Basin desert. The 10,000-foot high, 35-mile long Steens Mountain holds the magical key to the spring runoff, and it’s going to be a wet season in the Blitzen Valley and greater Harney Basin. Even the Blue Mountains to the north hold more snow than normal for early February. Rest assured, Malheur, the true Malheur, has been and was not taken over by no one. Once the Steens awakens—as it has done for eons—it will produce a banner year for birds and wildflowers. Malheur has just begun to whisper its familiar story of seasonal renewal.

Ice; Malheur, Oregon. Steve Shunk.

Ice art on a frozen pond, Malheur Refuge, Oregon. By Steve Shunk.

It’s still a little frigid in the basin, and more snow will fall. Frenchglen and other remote outposts will be quiet for several more weeks, and in the next few months, the refuge will reopen to birders, hikers, and nature lovers. And when it re-opens, we highly recommend you visit, one of our nation’s greatest natural gems.

One way you can show your support for public lands is to visit the Malheur region and contribute to the local economy. When you stop at The Pastime for a rib-eye sandwich and a Shiner Bock (YES, there is a Santa Claus), be nice, and tell the folks you appreciate them. Remind the folks of Harney County that there is an empathetic community of people out there called “birders.” Show them that we like to travel to see birds and their habitats, and that we are hungry and tired and we need their local amenities. I heard yesterday that Fields is now sporting a bold selection of craft beers.

There are many reasons to visit Malheur:

  • Rough-legged Hawk, Malheur, Oregon. Steve Shunk.

    Adult female Rough-legged Hawk, Malheur Refuge. Harney County, Oregon. By Steve Shunk.

    Rough-legged Hawk, Malheur, Oregon. Steve Shunk.

    Adult male Rough-legged Hawk, Malheur Refuge. Harney County, Oregon. By Steve Shunk.

    Malheur is one of the best places on the continent to study plumage diversity in Rough-legged Hawks;

  • Northern Shrikes far outnumber Loggerheads in winter, but you could easily encounter both—for excellent practice;
  • Resident Trumpeter Swans can often be found out at the Double-O spring or Potter Swamp near town;
  • The south CPR (central patrol road) typically hosts several wintering American Tree Sparrows;
  • Dozens of wintering Hooded Mergansers can be found along the east canal; and,
  • You could easily run into a flock of Bohemian Waxwings between P Ranch and Page Springs.

But the birding at Malheur is never just about the birds. It’s about the birding experience. It’s birding in the shadow of the majestic Steens Mountain. It’s birding with wild horses, pronghorn, and some unbelievably huge mule deer. It’s birding beneath an endless night sky that showers you with ineffable starlight. It’s birding in a place that oozes with cultural history, some tragic, some heroic, and all of it helping to create the magic of Malheur.

Trumpeter Swans, Harney County, Oregon. Steve Shunk.

Trumpeter Swans, Benson Pond, Malheur Refuge. Harney County, Oregon. By Steve Shunk.

Malheur is alive and well. Nothing can just stop nature in its tracks. Whether you go in winter for the Rough-legged Hawks or in spring for the migration spectacle, at some point, you need to go see for yourself.

Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association suggestsJoin or donate toFriends of Malheur and the High Desert Partnership  — two non-profit organizations that are directly involved with Malheur and the surrounding area that would welcome your support.