High Desert Adventure Part III: A Grand Tour of SE Oregon

After a full day that focused entirely on the Santa Rosa Mountains in northwest Nevada, we decided to make the last two days of our trip more of a potpourri of birding experiences. Following our descent out of the Santa Rosas, we made the nearly three hour drive to Jordan Valley, Oregon, arriving at 10:30 local time, having lost an hour to time change. It seems strange, but the easternmost edge of Oregon is in the Mountain Time Zone.

Jordan Valley (pop. 180) is Oregon's most southeasterly town. It abuts the Idaho border and is roughly 50 miles north of Oregon's southeastern corner. It is a place rich in Basque culture. The Basque people emigrated to the Great Basin in part because the landscape reminded them of their native lands in the Pyrenees Mountains. The Basques were well adapted to the rigors of a nomadic herding lifestyle, which made them well suited to tending cattle and sheep on the vast ranches in this remote corner of North America. Basque surnames are common in and around Jordan Valley and the surrounding region. They brought with them a unique language–Euskara– that seems to have no close connection or similarity to any other European language or dialect. They also imported a rich food culture and their favorite game "pelota" which is played in a multi-walled court. Oregon's only pelota court has a place of prominence right in the middle of town. 

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This traditional Basque pelota court (above and below) is the only one of its kind in Oregon. Initial construction of the court was completed in 1917. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972 and then fully restored in 1997.

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When we Googled places to stay in Jordan Valley from McDermitt, there were only two...the Basque Station Inn–a somewhat modern no frills motel–and the Old Basque Inn, which is a step back in time sort of bed and breakfast inn. We opted for the latter. Knowing that we would be arriving a bit late, we called ahead to arrange for a room and after hours entrance. We made it just before they were done cleaning and locking up the restaurant downstairs. There are several upstairs rooms, a la the Frenchglen Hotel, with multiple shared bathrooms at the end of the hall. For about $65 per night, you get a room, use of a small sitting room that has a TV and refrigerator (the individual rooms don't) and any breakfast you choose off the restaurant menu the next morning. The rooms are small, but clean and comfortable, especially if all you need is a good bed. They are pet friendly, which is good because we had our dog Rozi along.

Since our "free" breakfast wouldn't be available until 8AM, we were unmotivated to get up at an unreasonable hour, so we started our day in leisurely fashion, not getting up until 7:30. It was Father's Day after all. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast of traditional chorizo, eggs, sourdough pancakes and several cups of coffee before departing.

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This Lesser Goldfinch nest was found right next to the parking area at the Old Basque Inn in Jordan Valley, Oregon on 15 June 2014.

We found one of our more interesting birds of the day before we left the Old Basque Inn parking lot. As we loaded up our gear into back of the pickup, we heard and saw quite a few species, including a Willow Flycatcher that was calling from a yard across the street. Then Shawneen and I both heard a familiar call...it was a Lesser Goldfinch. Lesser Goldfinches are in the midst of a major range expansion, with coastal populations pushing east and north into the Columbia Basin and the Great Basin being colonized by birds that are presumably coming from the south. This may explain the recent report of a mostly black-backed male coming to a feeder in northeast Oregon. Still, I was surprised to find one here. Comparing the range maps for Lesser Goldfinch found in the second edition of the big Sibley Guide to the map in the first edition, perhaps I shouldn't have been so surprised, but twenty years ago Lesser Goldfinch would have been considered a real rarity here. Having only heard the rising teeeer call note, we were determined to see the bird and make sure were weren't being fooled. I noticed a female fly into the lower branches of a large poplar at the edge of the inn's parking area. I could tell by the way it flew in and disappeared that it was probably going to a nest, which I quickly found.

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Wilson's Snipe seemed to be on about every tenth fencepost as we drove east out of Jordan Valley towards the Idaho border.

Since we were only a couple of miles from the Idaho border, we decided to take a brief jaunt across the stateline into Owyhee County, Idaho, our prime motivation being to create an eBird footprint for ourselves in that state. Ridiculous of course, but we cannot resist the temptation to start a new eBird state or county list.

Driving east out of Jordan Valley on Yturri Blvd, we first passed through an area with wet pastures bracketing the road. We had a number of Wilson's Snipe, Wilson's Phalaropes, Willets and hordes of blackbirds. A bit further along we went around a curve and crossed a small bridge, where we flushed two Black-crowned Night-Herons. We covered about a mile once we crossed into Idaho, quickly building a list of 27 species that included two more night-herons, plus a couple of Bobolinks. Enough of this foolishness, back to Malheur County.

Shortly after passing back through Jordan Valley we spotted the town's sewage ponds along the north side of the road. They were modernized with fresh rip-rap and no muddy edge, which generally translates to minimal birdlife. There were about ten Wilson's Phalaropes spinning about, a couple of broods of Mallards, a Gadwall and two Lesser Scaup. A Rock Wren sounded off from the maintenance yard to the east, but that was it.

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Willets were exceptionally abundant around Jordan Valley. Like most that we saw, this bird was already starting its prebasic molt. Note the newer plain gray feathers on the back and scapulars and the patchiness of the barring on the underparts. Western Willets, which may soon be split off as a separate species, undergo much, if not all of their prebasic molt before arriving on wintering grounds along the Atlantic, Pacific, and Gulf coasts. Eastern Willets (highly unlikely to ever make it to Oregon) are shorter-legged, plus they have shorter and stouter bills. The Eastern birds come to North America just long enough to breed and then vacate the East Coast by early August. They undergo most of their prebasic molt after arriving on wintering grounds outside of North America.

Our target destination this morning was Antelope Reservoir, about 12 miles east of Jordan Valley, but there were several wet pastures that delayed our progress. About a mile past the sewage ponds we found a good mix of marsh birds on both sides of the road. We had both American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts here, along with a flock of 25 White-faced Ibis, plus more Willets, phalaropes and a Long-billed Curlew. A pair of American Wigeon were along a little flooded-out section of Jordan Creek was slightly surprising. About a mile farther along there is expansive wet pasture on both sides of Hwy 95. More ducks, shorebirds, blackbirds, and another night-heron were tallied. Willets are absolutely abundant through this stretch and at this stop we counted ten.

We finally made it Antelope Reservoir just before 11AM. Nearly an hour of scoping from various vantage points yielded a list of 37 species, most of which were water birds. The pool was at maybe two-thirds capacity. There was no shortage of birds to sift through along the broad mudflats. Canada Geese, about 700 in all, were the most numerous. We had ten other species of waterfowl, three species of grebes (Western, Clark's and Eared) and about 100 American White Pelicans. There was a good mix of gulls and shorebirds, including two Bonaparte's Gulls, 28 Franklin's Gulls–plus a single Caspian Tern. A lone Sandhill Crane was in the grass on the far side of the reservoir. From late June through early October this site is surely worth checking for shorebirds and stray inland migrant jaegers and Sabine's Gulls (Aug-September). It should have water year around, although water levels across much of southeastern seem to be well below the norm this Summer. 

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The "you are here" sign in Rome, Oregon is more specific than most. These latitude and longitude coordinates, on the roof of an outbuilding behind the restaurant and store, have likely helped a small plane pilot or two figure out where they were.

After Antelope Reservoir, we made only a couple stops as we headed west and then south from Burns Junction on Hwy 95. Looking at satellite images, we had been intrigued by the vegetation along Whitehorse Rd., which runs west from U.S. Hwy 95, past the Whitehorse Ranch and several other ranches, eventually connects to Oregon Hwy 205 a few miles south of Fields. Along the way we made a brief stop at Rome, where the birdlife is dominated by House Sparrows and you can get your bearings if you happen to be lost (see photo above).

Our next stop was the Oregon Dept. of Transportation (ODOT) maintenance station at the sprawling metropolis of Basque (pop. ???). Over the years, other Oregon birders have speculated about the vagrant trap potential of this place. The wispy trees around the station are the only ones for many miles in any direction and like all of these facilities, the sprinklers seem to run incessantly during the summer months. Unfortunately, there is zip for understory or meaningful shrubbery, so its hard to imagine that there is enough food or cover to hold insectivorous Passerines for very long. We noticed a couple of hummingbird feeders behind one of the residences, but saw no birds going to either of them. One of station's denizens came out to say hi and he told Shawneen that they had last seen hummingbirds several days earlier. The wind was howling, so we lingered just long enough to rack up a list of nine species, highlighted by...oh, that's right there weren't any highlights. I took advantage of this postage-stamp island of cell coverage to call and wish my own dad a happy Father's Day. Of course he laughed when I told him where I was calling from.

We made lots of brief stops as we made our way across Whitehorse Rd., mostly in places down in canyons and out of the wind. We focused on pockets of dense riparia, so our eBird checklists from this stretch were populated by good counts of swallows, blackbirds, Yellow Warblers and the occasional Yellow-breasted Chat. Right at the confluence of two creeks–part of the Trout Creek network–we heard a singing Bewick's Wren. This species is quite uncommon in Harney County, but a few scattered pairs can be found along creeks with dense understory. We also had three Western Tanagers, which were in habitat where we wouldn't expect them to breed.

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Photographing Chukars is never easy, as this species rarely stops in the open after spotting humans. They mostly avoid taking flight. They are runners. I don't know what their top end speed is, but they usually disappear in a hurry. This remarkably cooperative bird was along Whitehorse Road southeast of Fields, Oregon on 15 June 2014.

A lengthy encounter with two Chukars highlighted our passage of Whitehorse Road. As is typical, they started running when they saw the truck. Unlike most Chukars, they stayed on the road running out ahead of us for nearly a half a mile, never turning abruptly and evaporating into the sagebrush like they normally do. They would pause occasionally and we would catch up slightly before they took off again. We paced along slowly behind them hoping that they would eventually stop to get their pictures taken. Finally, they seemed to tucker out. One turned up a steep slope right next to the road on my side of the car. It only went about 20 yards before stopping right out in the open. My previous efforts to get photos of this species have always ended with bird LONG GONE, so it was nice to finally get some usable images.

As we neared Fields it occurred to us that the cafe closes down their grill fairly early in the day–usually about 4:30PM at the latest. It was already after 3:00. If we were going to partake of another burger, about the only opportunity for hot food between here and Burns, we better make tracks. We got into Fields about 3:30 and bee-lined to the cafe. On Sundays they shut the grill down at 4:ooPM, so ours were the last burgers off the grill on this day. We lingered in the cafe chatting up the staff about past owners, long-time local residents like "Cactus" Smith and "Ralph" who have been gone from the area and likely this Earth for some time. The twenty-something son of one of women who run the cafe told a story of a guy who stopped in recently hoping to get a steak because he and his dad would come here for steaks years ago. It's been more than a decade since the cafe has had steak on the menu.

The Fields Cafe quickly becomes a tradition for almost everyone who regularly visits this place. Two of my three kids have developed a bit of their own annual tradition for visiting this quiet corner of Oregon. In 1985, a year before we got married, I introduced their mother to Oregon's high desert. About a decade later she brought our three kids to Malheur when they were all under seven years old. They loved it from the start and have come back to what we affectionately refer to as "the big country" many, many times since. My daughters are now in their twenties and they have introduced their own friends to the joys of this seemingly stark landscape. As parents, we made plenty of mistakes, but turning our kids on to the desert, a different pace, and a place where television, electronic games, and connections to the rest of the world are mostly absent, was not one of them. Every time I see photos of their high desert adventures my heart soars. 

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Male Bobolink along the Central Patrol Road through Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

With burger-sated bellies we continued north towards Burns. The drive through the Catlow Valley is one of my favorites in all of Oregon, especially in the light of late afternoon/early evening sunlight. We dropped down the hill into Frenchglen and decided on a whim to drive up the southern section of the Central Patrol Road CPR), which bisects the upper end of the Blitzen Valley through the heart of the southernmost section of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Driving the CPR was a given when I first visited this refuge nearly 40 years ago, but it had been a long time since last poked my way along this mosquito-infested byway. The willows along the Blitzen River have really grown up over the years, which has only served to increase the number of breeding Yellow Warblers. They have always been ridiculously abundant along the stretch between the P Ranch and Benson Pond.

The area just north of the P Ranch is still a good place to see Bobolinks and we were treated to a fantastic encounter with a male that teed up and sang from a willow top right next to the road. Normally, Bobolinks are way out in the middle of grassy fields and not particularly approachable. Shawneen got some wonderful video and audio of this bird as it repeatedly sang its unique song. Driving slowly, we scoured the dense willow clumps hoping to catch sight of a Long-eared Owl, but no luck. Flocks of White-faced Ibis, which now breed by the tens of thousands on the refuge, were seemingly always in view as they commuted back and forth from feeding sites to nesting colonies. When I first came to the refuge in May 1977, only about 250 pairs nested in the Blitzen Valley.

Mule deer are always thick in this part of the refuge, which features lots of lush vegetation to browse even in a dry year like this one. We saw a couple of bucks with trophy-worthy velvety racks. Then we encountered another buck that had a major antler deformity. Instead of the normal set of antlers, the crown of its head was covered with at least 20 little nobs that looked like the start of antlers. It was rather creepy to look at. Once we got to Benson Pond, we bailed off the CPR and back to Hwy 205. We made it to Burns about dark. One last night in the desert and tomorrow we begrudgingly head for home.

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