Morrow County 2020 Blitz: Meet the County

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This Google Maps satellite image of Morrow County helps understand the distribution habitat types from north to south. At the top, near the Columbia River, center-pivot irrigation circles dominate the view. The large, roughly rectangular area between the two islands of green is the now mothballed Naval Bombing Range and the really dark green areas in the righthand island of green is the poplar farm. The pale tan areas below the southern edge of the bombing range and "A" pin are indicative of dryland wheat farming.The more greenish beige areas are for the most part untilled plateaus and minor drainages and the green forested areas at the bottom of the map mark the edge of the Blue Mountains. Our primary hotspot squares were in green area at the southeast corner of this map.

Morrow County lies on the Columbia Plateau just west and south of where the Columbia River turns north and winds across eastern Washington. It is sparsely populated with about 12,000 residents, most of whom live within a few miles of the Columbia River. The lands in the northern quarter of the county are dominated by center-pivot agriculture, an abandoned naval bombing range, and a massive farm of fast-growing hybrid poplars that are grown and harvested for a variety of uses by the wood products industry.

Driving south, away from ready access to a stable water supply, there is a broad band of open country that is sparsely populated and devoted almost entirely to dryland wheat farming. It is a mostly treeless expanse of rolling hills that are somewhat uniform in appearance. Some fields are green with waving knee-deep wheat, while many other parcels are plowed yet unplanted. Bare dirt is rarely out of sight. Untilled fragments are typically blanketed by non-native cheat grass, with occasional patches of native and non-native grasses and rare remnant stands of tall sagebrush.

Continuing south at about the midpoint in the county, you drop into the comparatively lush Willow Creek valley, which cuts diagonally from southeast to northwest across the county's midsection. It supports the only Morrow County towns away from the immediacy of the Columbia River.

Heppner is by far the largest of the three main towns along Willow Creek, with approximately 1300 residents. Morrow's county seat is famous for a flash flood that occurred on June 14 1903. That flood nearly destroyed the town and took the lives of roughly a quarter of its residents–at least 238 perished. An understated kiosk just as you hit the main drag into town describes the flood in mostly matter of fact language. Heppner strikes me, as most eastern Oregon towns do, as a common sense sort of place where hard work and civic pride are expected. Tolerance for hyperbole or anything that screams "look at me," seems to be negligible. The downstream towns of Lexington (pop. 239) and Ione (pop. 330) are more modest outposts, but these charming little farming communities do have gas, groceries, and other amenities that you may need as you pass through. As we walked about birding the fringes of Lexington, no one seemed too curious about our presence. A few folks smiled and said hello, but mostly they went about their business.

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This photo, taken by Shawneen through a bug-splattered windshield, is the way we typically experience Oregon's wheat country. It is a mostly featureless landscape, devoid of trees, native vegetation, and avian diversity. Horned Larks abound, but finding more than a handful of additional species when stopped in this habitat will present a stiff challenge.

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In between the flatter tillable sections, there are occasional steeper-sloped areas and rocky washes, like this section of Juniper Canyon, that apparently proved unplowable. As seen in this shot, you may find some remnant tall sagebrush, but cheat grass–the brown stuff–is the dominant ground cover. Here, Jim and Shawneen are patiently (maybe) waiting for me to come back from trying to photograph some juvenile Loggerhead Shrikes.
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Here's a closer look at the narrow strip of green that cuts diagonally across the middle of the county in the map above. This is the Willow Creek Valley, which supports Morrow County's only significant islands of human settlement away from the Columbia River. Heppner (pop. 1289) at the bottom right corner of this map is the county seat. The chevron-shaped dark area below Heppner is Willow Creek Reservoir, aside from the Columbia River, the county's largest water body. In the middle of this map, where Hwy  207 intersects with Hwy 74 is Lexington(pop. 239). At the top left corner of the map is Ione (pop 330).

Climbing up out of the Willow Creek basin south of Heppner, Hwy 207–listed as Heppner-Spray Rd. on many maps–passes through a grassland ecosystem the evokes notions of what this corner of Oregon might have looked like before the plow. The footprint of agricultural that has marked the last 30 miles is mostly gone. Instead, there are vast expanses of native bunch grasses, with wetter slopes and plateaus splashed with the color of lupines and indian paintbrush. Horned Larks still easily outnumber all other birds combined, but Western Meadowlarks and lesser numbers of Vesper Sparrows are more expected in this habitat.

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This photo was taken from Hwy 207 just to the north of Ruggs. These rolling hills are mostly untilled. Native bunch grasses account for much of the ground cover. The single Gray Flycatcher that we encountered during the weekend was found in patch of tall sagebrush seen in the foreground.(Photo by Shawneen Finnegan)

After a few miles of crossing the plateau, Hwy 207 drops into the Rhea Creek drainage and then bears south at the split with Hwy 206 in the hamlet of Ruggs. As we came down the grade just above Ruggs, we passed through a nice patch of tall sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata), which caused me to say aloud, "this looks like a good spot for Gray Flycatcher." We stopped, got out of the truck, and the first bird we heard was a Gray Flycatcher, our only one of the weekend. These days, Ruggs is little more than a three-way intersection, a grain elevator, and an upscale private hunting ranch. From there, Hwy 207 snakes along McKinney Creek as it gradually climbs back up onto the plateau and passes through Hardman a few miles south. Along McKinney Creek we saw multiple Eastern Kingbirds, several Lazuli Buntings, and Morning Doves appeared on a fenceline or utility wire every mile or so. When we stopped to look at the first Eastern Kingbird, a Yellow-breasted Chat conveniently began singing about 100 yards upstream.

Hardman is aptly named, as it clearly would have taken a hard man or woman to survive here when the town was first settled nearly 150 years ago. Unlike most of the county's towns, it sits exposed to incessant winds on top of the plateau. At 3600' elevation, the winter windchill factors must range from wholly unpleasant to downright intolerable. Even when bathed in the glorious early June sunshine, it is a stark looking place, with no apparent local economy and no recently constructed permanent structures. The population of Hardman, now designated as a "ghost town," peaked at nearly 200 residents in the 1930s, but has declined steadily since. Weather-beaten wood houses, barns, and out buildings, many of which appear to be over 100 years old, are sprinkled all through what is left. It appears that most of the current inhabitants–the 1990 census listed 20–live in single and double-wide mobile homes that were likely deposited here because rent or land prices were cheap. Broken-down, rusted-out vehicles far outnumber those that appear to be in working order. The era when this was still a viable settlement must seem long ago and far away to the few surviving former and current residents who are old enough to recall the best days of Hardman.

Shortly south of Hardman is one of the most sudden changes in landscape that I've seen. Dropping off the grassy, treeless plateau, Hwy 207 descends abruptly into the heavily-wooded Rock Creek drainage and within about two miles the road is winding through virtually unbroken conifer forest. Unlike the rest of the county, the extreme southern tier has trees, with forests dominated by ponderosa pine. Mixed in are various true firs, Douglas-fir, and even some western larch. Streamside areas feature at times lush riparia, aspens and cottonwoods. There are lots of grassy openings and semi-wet meadows. Some are carpeted in wildflowers, while many of the drier sites have all the earmarks of a place where one expects to find a Great Gray Owl coming out to feed at dusk.

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This open area along Sunflower Flat Rd. was carpeted with lupines and balsamroots.

Southern Morrow County reaches into western edge of the Blue Mountains, with the highest points above 5000 feet. We had asked for montane habitats when queried about our assignment preferences. We couldn't have been happier with the landscape that we encountered when we reached the area that included our hotspot squares. In the next installment I will share tales of us wallowing in our good fortune.

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Nice “almost like being there” report of what sounds like a very enjoyable weekend in one of Oregon’s least birded regions (not exactly Malheur HQ or Basket Slough). Here, the challenge is less about numbers but the sheer enjoyment of experiencing the whole region, it’s tiny hidden gems, and feeling good about giving the county it’s due. I enjoy these eastern Oregon routes when criss crossing the state for work, but very regrettably, not at the pace your group enjoyed on this weekend. Thanks for the report!

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Thank you for the great introduction to Morrow County. I echo Roger Freeman’s comment that reading this was “almost like being there”.

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