Posted by: atowhee | June 18, 2019


There are five species of owl that are present at Malheur and the nearby open space every year.  We found three of them on our June trip.  We missed Long-eared and Barn.  Here are some images of Great Horned, Short-eared and Burrowing.
This burrower is nesting along Potter Swamp Lane.  His nest is just below the bush whereon he perched, and we saw him fly-catch and then deliver prey to the nest.buro-swamp2
buro-swamp1There were a trio of Great Horned Owlets at Malheur Headquarters, and they were often perched near one another in daylight.  Sometimes we could find one or both adults as well.ghowlets (2)ghowlet-one

Posted by: atowhee | June 18, 2019


There are several shorebird species that breed in the Malheur Basin: Long-billed Curlew, Willet, Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Wilson’s Snipe and Wilson’s Phalarope.  Ironic as Alexander Wilson himself never got further west than the Mississippi River Valley.  The snipe name is fairly new after it was made a separate species from the Old World’s Common Snipe.  Wilson did draw some species discovered for science by the Lewis & Clark Expedition, but then had died before Thomas Say went across the Great Plains with the Long Expedition.CURL CURVE (2)avo float (2).JPG



Posted by: atowhee | June 18, 2019


Here are three images of “Specks”, the leucistic robin.  He was worming one of the lawns in front of the congresswoman’s office in one of the old homes on the campus of Fort Vancouver, town of same name, Washington.

Earlier we found this leucistic Eurasian Collared-Dove at the headquarters at Malheur NWR:leuc ecd (2)

Posted by: atowhee | June 18, 2019


There is a natural fact that becomes evident on the dry western slopes of the Cascades.  From there the fact pertains across thousands of miles eastward and southward.  Across grasslands, sagebrush steppe, arid brushlands and unforested valleys that fact is the alpha predator, the Golden Eagle.
Many are the creatures that fear the eagle and some of those will take the chance to harass or mob the bird.  The Golden Eagle can soar easily on sunny days when the hot air rises to produce thermals.  His eyes can see for miles, his large wings carry him across open miles in search of prey.  I often wonder: does he ever bother to savor the view from up there? Does he enjoy the feel of soft warm air riffling across his stiff feathers, perhaps tickling a bit the taut muscles that control flight and tail feathers so adeptly, so precisely?

One thing I know for sure, he often soars with others.  Maybe other eagles, often some buteos and a scad of hopeful ravens, around to see what is killed and what is left behind. And it is not rare to find another raptor or even a swallow that decides to dive onto the back of the eagle in flight.  Yet I have not seen actual contact by the attacker.  There is a perfectly good explanation.  No bird whose training or instinct is intact could be ignorant of two corollary facts.  1) The eagle is neither swift in changing flight direction, thus easy to attack, or is it very fast in a straight line unless diving; 2) The talons of this bird can and do bring agony and death to those they crush.

I once watched a testosterone-crazed male Osprey attack a Golden Eagle that soared too near the Ospreys’ nest, according to the attacking male.  He made three dives, accompanied by his high-p;itc screams.  Each time as he neared the eagle’s back, the eagle simply rolled over, his talons raised toward, sky, osprey and a certain osprey death.  Three times the Osprey had to veer away at the last instant to avoid those talons.  Last week at Malheur, near the Princeton Bluff, we saw the same pattern.  Attack by smaller raptor, eagle flipping over to offer a pair of ready talons to the oncoming attacker.  This time it was a Swainson’s Hawk. It is the third image below that shows the eagle flying belly up:

Below, a Golden Eagle peacefully perched on a utility pole:

Posted by: atowhee | June 15, 2019



There is no clear way to determine ownership of the air.  Possession or passage en route can often be nearly the same as ownership.  Surely profit-mongering corporations want the air to be free, so they can dump their chemicals and discharge without charge—legal or financial.  Airplanes use the air like fish use water.  Clouds, weather, wind, storms—the air is their current and currency.  When we come to zoology it gets even more complex.  All plants and animals depend on the oxygen and CO2 in the air; many also need the nitrogen.  Without it there could be no proteins…and it is inconceivable that earth would have much life without proteins, certainly no creatures that can move of their own volition.

In the avian world ownership of the air takes many forms, mostly ephemeral, none uncontested.  Sometimes it is breeding territory at issue.  Sometimes it is competitive hunting, maybe not even for the same potential prey. Like kestrel angry at red-tail. This season it can often seem to be simply testosterone poisoning–Brewer’s Blackbird versus the mail person walking down the sidewalk, or junco attacking an image in the car mirror.

The most possessive of small territories are the American kingbirds. Ferocious, they defend any nesting site against all other flyers they perceive as dangerous. Hence “tyrant flycatchers”.  Raptors can be found contesting air space, especially during breeding season. Usually the smaller after the larger as size decreases the aerobatic flexibility of the bird. Long-billed Curlews will chase away harriers and over hunters found near their ground nests. Swallows will also, sometimes in tight groups. Then there are our western American icterids, especially Brewer’s and Red-winged Blackbirds.  They will attack larger birds from kestrel up to cranes.  Cranes are assaulted as they stroll along but the attacks all come from above. Not often is there actual physical harm.  But when harassing a Golden Eagle no other creature wants to get within talon reach.  That would likely prove fatal.

During our Malheur Field Station birding trip last week we found aerial combat all around us.  There was even some evidence that the Common Nighthawks were warning us off with zoom-bys and vocal threats.

Eastern Kingbird, frequent aggressor.  At Malheur found along Blitzen River mostly.EAKI-CPR2 (2)FERRUGINOUS NEST AND NETTLESOME NEIGHBORS
Here is nest north of Wright’s Point, west of Hwy 205; at least two youngster could be seen from the highway.

ferru nest-no2 (2)
Here is nest between Wright’s Point and The Narrows along 205.  We counted four young.  The mother was nearly always at the nest, and the presumed father was on a roadside utility pole, then flew pursed by Brewer’s Blackbirds, those nasty neighbors.

ferru fly-a (2)

Posted by: atowhee | June 14, 2019


One of the most exciting moments for spring birders at Malheur: your first annual sighting of Bobolinks.  In May we missed them entirely.  This population in Harney County may be the most westerly breeding Bobolink population on earth.  So we made them a priority on our first day of the June trip.  And at P Ranch they showed off and taught us a bit about bobolinkage.

Look closely at this sequence of two males facing one another.  The display of the velvety golden crown is clearly a masculine dominance performance.  The male showing off his nape ended up with the female Bobolink flying after him. Both males gave us some song.

Two days later we were in Diamond Canyon and with help from our own Bob we found the Bobolinks there, as well:

Posted by: atowhee | June 13, 2019


Any air travel can be exhausting.  Discomfort, unseen danger, turbulent weather, strange places and faces, unpredictable food quality. Even if you never have to check luggage or go through security shoeless.  Even if you have no shoes. Exhausting.  Especially if you have to flap your wings all the way…eve napThis guy had winitered in South America and was recently returned to Malheur…a trip of over four thousand miles in many cases…often they are seen passing through Ecuador, on the way further south…this is a bird that weighs just over 2 ounces, that’s one-eighth of a pound, that’s roughly one-fourth of the weight of the ordinary Norwegian rat that shares cities with humans the world over and never has to fly or travel far for food.  This fellow has to catch all his own food on the wing.
Here are two more at ease at Malheur Field Station, one just plunked down on the ground, where they always nest and often “roost” or should we say “rest’?IMG_3211 (2)IMG_3216 (2)Here we get one eye open, just to check that we weren’t within annoyance range.  Some of the birds would buzz us or scold us if they felt we infringed on their natural eye (2)At least a score of these birds hawked insects high above Chickahominy Reservoir in gusting wind one afternoon.  Here are two:coni above

Not all resting places have to be artificially horizontal, the nighthawk willing to take a slant on life:on limb.JPGIn this previous blog I explained why the June return of these birds draws me back each year.

I can’t resist plugging Edge of Awe, Oregon State Press’s newly published anthology of writings on Malheur.  I got the rewarding chance to write about the annual nighthawk visitation for that book.  Edited by Alan Contreras, the back contains writing from a wide range of contributors including Ursula LeGuin, William Kittredge and Noah Strycker.

Posted by: atowhee | June 12, 2019

Yes, Virginia…


Our Malheur Field Station Birding trip was carefully observed by a circumspect Virginia Rail at Buena Vista Marsh.  He called out…then stalked stealthily through the tules.  Sometimes a subtle V would form between stalks, or some reed would wiggle a bit too much for the light breeze.  Thus did we track his movements along the ditch edging the gravel road through the marsh.  One small pool between tules reflected the bright sun and shown with subtle ripples as the unseen rail slipped past.  Then for short moments we could see the bird carefully probing the fallen stalks, even stopping for what may have been a quick gnosh.  Here are the best pictures and one that shows how well he was hidden behind rows of compliant reeds.VARAIL3_LIVARAIL2VARAIL1VARAIL6

Posted by: atowhee | June 12, 2019


I have led to birding trips in the Malheur Basin and nearby Harney County this spring.  One was in late May, the other ended June 12.  Both trips were sponsored by the Malheur Field Station (great grub by the way).  We have another in September with at least one opening.  That trip will do the entire Steens Loop.  Also, not too soon to reserve for next spring.

Here are some notes, observations and discoveries.  Many of the things that are relevant now are seasonal and given to annual variation as well as continues change as weeks and months pass.

This spring’s water situation in the Basin finds both the Blitzen and Silvies Rivers at or near flood stage.  The floodplains along both rivers are awash with water flowing or standing in many fields, roadside ditches and low places.  Significant wetlands can be found in Diamond, along the road to Diamond from Hwy 205, and along 205 north of Wright’s Point, east end of Ruh-red Road, along much of Greenhouse Lane and Potter Swamp Road.  In addition most fields along the Central Patrol Road south of Krumbo Road are wetlands.  Over on Lava Beds Road “Dry” Lake is so full there are Cinnamon Teal paddling in the pool abutting the round barn.  The lake is not only not dry, it is full of waterfowl from Eared Grebe to Canada Geese.  It had the largest concentration of Blue-winged Teal that we found in June.  Other surprising spots for that species: lake about six miles east from 205 along south end of Steens Loop…and small pond on Diamond Road about five miles east of 205 where normally I find nesting avocets.

Yet both Harney and Malheur Lakes remain drought-sized.  Neither has water even visible from The Narrows which is still cow pasture and grasslands.  In fact in June the only area we saw pronghorn was around Hwy 205 Milepost 21 which some years is under water.  The water is now high enough that the man-made tern island is an island once again and apparently has this year’s nesting pelicans and other smaller water birds.

At Chickahominy we found dozens of Eared Grebes and a number of both Western and Clark’s Grebes.  It proved a fine spot for Horned Lark as well plus a score of hawking nighthawks in June–they are late arrivals.  To know more go read my chapter in Oregon State University Press’s Edge of Awe anthology on the region. Edited by Alan Contreras.

Sage Hen Rest Area has nesting Tree Swallows and Mountain Bluebirds in nest boxes.  Say’s Phoebe nest this year is built on top of last year’s at east end of toilets building.

In Diamond Canyon we found Bobolink.  Our senior birder was 96 year old Bob Jones of Eugene.  Bob had stayed at Diamond Hotel the night before our trip began and saw Bobolink near there. So he led us to what we now think of as Bob’s Corner, for both Bob the man and Bobos the birds.  Bob’s Bobos it was.  This spot is between first the two road 90-degree elbows as you leave the hotel and drive back toward the main canyon entrance that passes the elementary school.

Nesting at Malheur Field Station:

  • Western Kingbird on south side of Dorm F
  • Flicker on north side of Dorm D
  • Starlings in various holes in various dorms
  • Cliff Swallows on north side eaves of Dorms A & B
  • Tree Swallows in boxes south of Owl Dorm
  • Say’s Phoebe under north eave of Owl Dorm
  • Kestrels at some undisclosed location on campus
  • Willets and meadowlarks in the sagebrush to the east of campus
  • California Quail likely scattered in the area, seen now only in pairs, no young yet

Also at the field station we had a sighting of Eastern Kingbird near the defunct volleyball courts facing Dorm E.

We saw young cranes with parents in at least three places, including Grant County at Silvie Valley Ranch.

We birded half a day up Devine Canyon along US 395.  There we found Lewis’s Woodpeckers fly-catching over the canyon rim above us.  Other non-Malheurians we found: Spotted Towhee, Clark’s Nutcracker, MacGillivray’s Warbler on territory, lots of juncos at Idlewild Campground.  Other birds there included an inconsiderate Williamson’s Sapsucker male who flew overhead, tanagers, Cassin’s Finches, Dusky Flycatchers, robins, the pale interior Hermit Thrush (an oddity for those of us who live at sea level), Audubon’s Warbler plus all three nuthatches and Mountain Chickadee.  That half day drove our five day species total well over 120.  We’re not too bitter about missing bittern.  Our consolation prize was a co-operative Virginia Rail.

Here’s info on where we found our owls (no long-eared).  Click on this link.

Why bird in June with all those buzzing mosquitoes?  Love of Nighthawks, click here for my apologia.



Posted by: atowhee | June 10, 2019


Sunday, June 9, around 230PM we birded Potter Swamp Lane in Harney County.  About a half mile south of Green House Lane we found two Burrowing Owls.  They were on and around a small mound about one hundred yards south of the cattle corral with the solar panel.  Both are on the east side of the road.  The mound is about two to three feet higher than the surrounding pasture land (there were beef cattle in the same field) and has several sagebrush adorning it.

Previously the only widely publicized Burrowing Owl nest site this year was on Ruh-Red Road.

In the evening we went to Sodhouse Road and parked near the entrance to the Sod House Ranch.  With a clear view northward (toward what should be Malheur Lake) we watched the marshy grasslands.  First we found one perched Short-eared Owl about 150 yards from the road.  The bird sat and looked around, and listened.  Then around 8PM that owl and a second one began flying circles over the field, diving, landing, flying more.  One of them went to ground, one landed briefly on a fence post.  At the same time we saw a third short-ear a bit further to the east.  As Boat Launch Road is closed to the public, this location may be your best hope for finding this species this season.

There are two easily viewed Ferruginous Hawk nests along Hwy 205.  One is north of Milepost 17 ina lone juniper.  The other is around MP 9 north of Wright’s Point in a dead tree.  Both are west of the highway.

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