Two barn swallows grip a barbed wire perch by the wide open blue waters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. There’s something about the juxtaposition of wire and wild that gives me pause. Last winter, these swallows missed the armed militants taking over the refuge headquarters and field station. The birds had migrated as far as South America. Now, they’re back to join the cliff, violet green, and tree swallows in aerial ballets low over the canals by the center patrol road. They catch insects in midair, performing an age-old ritual without pause, without knowledge that their home had come close to being lost forever.
What if the Bundys and the rest of the vandals had done what they wanted? A takeover would have meant locking our refuge away from the American people, letting cattle run rampant over the meadows where sandhill cranes, white-faced ibis, and long-billed curlews feed in spring. Barbed wire would not have been a perch for birds, but a “Keep Out” for all of us, and for birds and animals too. If they’d had their way, the careful orchestration of water flowing through the refuge to provide birds the right depths of water, of flooded fields and uplands would have ended.
This refuge dates to 1908 when President Theodore Roosevelt set aside “unclaimed government lands encompassed by Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes” (see refuge history here). By then, plume hunters had decimated almost the entire population of white egrets on the lakes. It’s both false and ironic that Bundys claimed the land had been seized from ranchers, when in 1879 the U.S. Government basically stole 1.5 million acres from the Paiute Tribe, only doling out compensation checks 90 years later to tribal members at $743 each (see this OPB piece). Today, the refuge totals 187,757 acres of vital bird habitat on the Pacific Flyway, a minuscule amount in the Great Basin that represents critical resting and breeding grounds for hundreds of species of migratory birds.
I birded the refuge with my son Ian and birders extraordinaire-Mike and Sue Daugherty-over three days. Their list exceeded ours, but we tallied 78 species and witnessed remarkable behaviors from slow drives, slow walks, listening, and observing. The other people we saw along the way were universally polite, and as respectful as if entering a church. Each step by people who cared felt as if it were mending and repairing the angry incursions of the past winter’s rage that left the headquarters and field station in shambles.
This trip to the refuge marked a return for me after decades away. When Birdwatching Magazine had sent out a request in January, asking readers to send in brief responses answering “What Malheur Means to Me,” I wrote mine in five minutes, the words tumbling out without any further prompting. The senior editor, Matt Mendenhall, published my letter among a selection of others at Birdwatching Daily:
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.
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
Today, I return with the greatest gift of all – the companionship of my son Ian who has spent the year away as a freshman at University of New Mexico. He’s not a birder, yet through his 19-year-old eyes he shared fresh perspectives and an infectious humor that was just what I needed. Okay, sometimes he felt it was hilarious to pop up in front of my camera or binoculars and grin. He picked grass stems and blew whistling sounds through them. He juggled three rocks at a time. He posed by a beaver-cut tree with mock surprise. He also looked and learned, especially from Mike and Sue who model the way to see and hear the tiny songbirds in the willows beyond the ubiquitous yellow warblers and song sparrows to the more elusive western wood pewees.
One sighting during our full first day with the Daughertys caught Ian’s attention more than anything else. We’d glimpsed the shape of an American bittern crouched in tawny reeds far away in a field. We could barely tell it was this strange heron and master of camouflage. That night at dinner, Ian announced he would spend as long as it took the next day to find another bittern. I was up for the challenge. The weather had turned cold and gray, and in the morning, snow flakes fell on our camp. The Daughertys planned to head back, but we could do whatever we wanted. If the bittern were to be the quest, I was on board.
We drove north of Page Springs campground at crawl speed, following the patrol road from the P Ranch. The leaden skies and chill seemed to dampen the bird life until the insects emerged and the swallows flew by the hundreds, swooping and veering on slender wings above the canals
Then it happened. We’d only been out 10 minutes. There, in the same green meadow where we’d seen bobolinks the day before, the American bittern stalked through the middle of the emerald plants with nonchalance, as if camouflage was irrelevant.
We waited. We watched. To our astonishment, the bittern stalked through the grass toward the canal road. My green pickup truck proved to be an ideal blind. By the time the bird arrived within 20 feet of us, we might have forgotten to breathe. It was then, the bittern realized our presence and swiftly pointed his head and bill skyward, eying us with piercing yellow eyes.
The lesson of the bittern? For Ian, it took a certain bird and a quest for him to rise early and eager to go birding. If he hadn’t seen it, we might still be out there. I’ve often wondered if that’s the way into wildlife for most people. You focus on a charismatic species and stalk it, and then while in pursuit, the rest of the complex, connected and mysterious world emerges. The sage grouse is that bird for the sagebrush ecosystem. For me, the belted kingfisher is my guide to the waterways. Yes, we did see kingfishers on the trip, and it was Ian who brought my attention to its flight in a new way. As the male belted kingfisher winged by us at eye level above the canal at dusk near Page Springs, he did not fly in a steady powered beat.
“It’s like he sometimes forgets to flap his wings and he’s just suspended in the air as if he could fly without them,” Ian points out. I see what he means. There was this hesitation when the whole body of the kingfisher extended horizontal in the air, while his wings dropped low below him, as if he was trying out levitation. Then, he’d flap as his body began to drop.
“What would birds do if there was no gravity?” Ian’s mind works like this. I enjoy his leaps and “what ifs” and conversations that can shift from birds to galaxies and the meaning of infinity.
On that same walk at dusk, we also encountered three young mule deer that strolled toward us, until one stopped within five feet, as we stood stock still like bitterns. In a rush, the deer sped by within arm’s reach. The other two chose to leap the canal and race around, one falling in briefly with a splash. By the time, we returned to camp, we’d witnessed a beaver gliding through its pond, cinnamon teals, and a flock of a hundred or so cedar waxwings that shook off from a tree in synchronous flight like a school of fish.
As our trip came to an end, I felt the renewal, the recharge and the mingling of memories from when I first visited Malheur not much older than Ian is now. Malheur proved a rite of passage for me as a young woman, and indeed, where I fell in love.
For my son Ian, I believe he has gained ta richer perspective that only he can articulate well, after our three day trip. By being present and paying attention, we participated in unforgettable moments, like a coyote catching a garter snake and flinging it into the air over and over, before finally eating it. By being funny, curious and always affectionate, Ian reminded me (as he always does) that I am gifted with an incredible son.
Thank you to all who took action to keep Malheur National Wildlife Refuge intact, open to the public, and still resonating with birds and beauty for Ian and for generations to come. We are so very fortunate. Never ever take our public lands for granted. Stand up to all bullies and brutes. To give ourselves fortitude? Go outside. Immerse deeply in what’s wild. Choose a bird or wild animal to follow. Take deep gulps of sage-scented air and all that ‘s blooming and blossoming. Never forget the words of Rachel Carson when it comes to introducing young people of all ages to nature, because it is Ian’s generation and younger kids who will carry the torch:
“If a child is to keep his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” – Rachel Carson
A few more scenes from the trip: