The Joys of Birding Dry Landscapes


In otherwise arid landscapes, riverside parks, like the two that bracket the mouth of Oregon's Deschutes River–the big river is the Columbia–often provide some of the few stands of trees.

Back in the late-1980's David Fix, Phil Pickering, and I took a winter trip east from Portland up the Columbia Gorge. We spent the day birding–mostly along the river–in Sherman, Gilliam, Morrow, and Umatilla counties. At some point in conversation I referred to them as the "wheat states," of course meaning to say wheat counties. Fix immortalized the day and my misspeak with a wonderful piece of writing titled "Pounding the Wheat States." Nearly three decades later my affection for a foray to this part of Oregon remains intense. At heart, I am an open country birder who might be better suited to living and birding in Nevada, or Wyoming instead of one most forested corners of North America.

Perusal of the Oregon Forestry Department map reveals that seven of Oregon's 36 counties stand out as being predominantly non-forested. Of those, Sherman, Gilliam, and Malheur show the least amount of forest cover. If there are any forest lands in Sherman County, I have yet to find them, which has always made this county appealing to me. Sherman is the most proximal treeless county to Portland, so I make a point of feeding my open country birding yen with multiple trips there each year.

When trees are scarce, birds that want to land in one tend to collect in the oases where a few trees can be found. During spring and fall migrations and their associated vagrant seasons, you don't need to be Rhodes Scholar to figure out where to look for warblers, vireos, flycatchers and other tree-dependent species. More than anything else, trees need water, be it rainfall or irrigation. Trees in Sherman County are challenged on both counts. The county receives barely over eleven inches of precipitation in a typical year and has fewer than 1800 residents. There aren't a whole lot of people around to do the watering. Most of the county's residents are wheat farmers, so their irrigation efforts are crop focused and they may run a yard sprinkler enough sustain a few trees to shade the house. Aside from modest stands of trees around ranch and farmhouses, parks and small towns–there are just six of them in Sherman County–are about the only places where you can find what might be generously described as woodland.