Birder Paul T. Sullivan shares his memories of experiencing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the first time on Oregon Birders Online:
In October 1977, at age 33, I hitchhiked from Pullman WA to Stockton CA. The guy who gave me a ride across Oregon from Ontario to Bend mentioned a refuge south of Burns.
On my birthday in 1978 I stopped at the hardware store (selling hunting gear) in Burns and asked about the refuge. Local attitudes about new management at the refuge were not warm at that time. He told me, “It used to be good, but now there’s nothing out there.” I went out anyway and thought I’d gone to heaven. I worked in the area that fall and went back each weekend. I was a new birder and saw many “firsts” at Malheur NWR. I made repeated visits to the museum to study the specimens, noting the difference in size between yellowlegs and phalaropes, etc.
I returned each year, but I didn’t come in the spring until 1985. Refuge managers and Field Station directors have come and gone during these years, the layout of headquarters and the distribution of water has changed. The Frenchglen store and Page Springs campground have evolved.
I remember the housing that was NE of the manager’s house and the old stone photographer’s blind on the east side of the headquarters display pond. I drove out to the boat launch and out on the old dike several miles east of headquarters.
I remember when there was no rail fence below the lawn, and you could walk down to the display pond. I remember camping with several parties in the parking lot. I remember the flood years, when Malheur Lake included the display pond, and you had to drive to headquarters by way of Crane. The Narrows was 7 miles wide.
I discovered a human skull uncovered by the flood at the edge of the display pond. I drove around the south side of Harney Lake from the Narrows to OO Ranch. Camping in the parking lot in the crisp fall air, reading until it was time to go to bed, walking through the rutting deer herd on the lawn for a last visit to the restroom, and sleeping until the 100 geese on the display pond began to wake and take off at dawn — these are the best of memories. There is nothing like sunrise over that pond. Nothing.
I also remember camping at Page Springs to the serenade of W. Screech Owls, waking to the many Townsend’s Solitaires in the junipers in the fall, and the calls of Canyon Wrens and Chukars from the rimrock. I remember the drive into Krumbo Reservoir, the ramble around Benson Pond, the tiny old parking spot at the top of Buena Vista overlook.
Through the years my bird list grew. I remember the Cape May Warbler in the spruce trees behind the office at headquarters and the Bay-breasted Warbler in the cottonwood near the manager’s house. I remember the Sharp-tailed Sandpiper out the boat launch road, the Yellow-throated Warbler in Frenchglen, and the Yellow-billed Cuckoo north of the P Ranch. I remember visits alone, with friends, and leading groups. I remember the warm hospitality of the Field Station at the end of a chilly Christmas Bird Count day.
So this past week, Carol Karlen and I spent 3 days at the refuge, enjoying the Bobolinks just west of headquarters, the many Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, the young Great-horned Owl and the legion of Yellow Warblers, the sight of a half-empty Benson Pond, and the vast spread of water everywhere.
It was like a visit home. We played tourist and visited Pete French’s round barn for the first time in many, many years. We did the Diamond Craters tour. We took phone calls from Alan Contreras and chased to Fields for the Black-throated Green Warbler and to Page Springs for the beautiful male Orchard Oriole. We ended our visit with 120 species in Harney county.
A measure of the allure of a birding spot is how often it produces new things. It’s been 34 years; I’ve tallied 253 species at Malheur NWR. This was my 72nd visit to “my” Malheur and the 47th time it has produced a new bird for me. What a place!
Good birding, everyone,
Paul T. Sullivan