Posted by: atowhee | June 6, 2022


This was the third day of our Malheur Field Station birding trip.  We did the south end of Malheur Basin, and the south part of the Steens Loop as far as the Blitzen River Bridge.

We made some discoveries as we headed south along Hwy 205.  At the cliff west of the highway (between MP 44 & 45), we looked for owls.  Our May trip from the Field Station, we had found two adults raising two owlets in a small cave there.  Today we found the owlets fledged and moved to a ledge still fifty feet above solid ground but about thirty feet north of their birthplace.  No adults visible this time.

Then, further south, one of our group spotted a pair of cranes.  We had to reverse the van and find a place to stop.  Worth it.  There was a pair feeding with their yellow colt marching along between them.  Sometimes this little cranelet was shorter than the grass.

We hadn’t seen a House Wren on this trip yet.  Stopping at Frenchglen we could hear one singing even before we got out of the van.  We parked in front of the hotel.  Across the highway a tiny House Wren broadcast loudly from the top of a speed limit sign.

At P Ranch we found the Bald Eagle nest empty.  Just north of the Blitzen Bridge we started seeing and hearing Bobolink.  Males and females were flustered and fluttered, the display flights of males included a lot of frantic wing flapping coupled (that’s the thematic word for June “bobs”) with slow movement through the air.  More than once female and male dropped into the flooded field and disappeared among the bright yellow blooms,  The songs and signs must’ve been alluring to Lady Bob.  Finally we were satiated and hurried off to Page Springs, expecting a more workaday world, perhaps?

Not to be.  Spring at the springs was heavy with hormones.  Orioles were chattering, sitting high in bright sun, flapping about and circling in the air to be seen, unavoidable.  One male seemed to say of his own over-saturated brilliant colors–“I can look at the sun, but it dare not look at me.”

Male Cinnamon Teal floated lazily in the clearest water imaginable as it was flowing from one of the many springs.  Yellow Warblers and swallowtail butterflies fluttered, hung from limp twig ends, nervously changed position with blazing moves in bright sun. How many yellow wing flaps did we see?  Lark Sparrows seemed to be playing some kind of scavenger hunt in the lush grass along the Blitzen’s bank.  Waxwings perched high in bare branches–surely they wanted us to be impressed by the intense salmon and red and gold and the velvety black mask.  An Eastern Kingbird is only black and white and what he misses from the color spectrum he can ignore as he surpasses any realistic expectation with how to display his black back and tail with its bold white terminal.  Signal flashing—we could only guess the meaning but likely a nearby mate knew exactly what was being messaged.

The dozens of Cliff Swallows and a handful from other species were jetting over the waters, above willows, past human noses, vertically up dark cliffs, across blue skies, all with no obvious deliberation or moderation.  Frenzy, yet no seen collisions.

But birders know well every spring drama played out on the stage at Page Springs has beautiful sets of willow and cottonwood and juniper and river and basalt cliff and gurgling upwelling of ever-precious water.  There are parts to be played by oriole and waxwing and duck and swallow—to each his sunlit role.  But there is a single concerto, a single pantomime, inside a single costume, that will, should, can, must and inevitably shall take center stage and get the rave reviews.  The songs and unpredictable behaviors of the Yellow-breasted Chat.  The male, in his burning yellow vest, his bandit’s mask, his rapid movements across the stage, behind the curtains, through the back-drop, over the water…this male with his ability to imitate and captivate and dominate nature’s sound system…this male with his warbles, chirps, churls, damns, dares, duhs, chatter and musical chat…it is assuredly his performance that lines up birders along the stream bank, waiting for the next punchline, the next disappearing act, the next unrehearsed surprise beginning or unexpected ending.  Bravo!!!

Up the Steen slope we found Gray Flycatcher, Mountain Bluebird, marmot, golden-mantled ground squirrel, myriad wildflowers, that Steens Mountain air, ravens pursued by their nemesis blackbirds.

We ended the day with a Burrowing Owl on his mound along Sodhouse Road east of the Narrows RV Park.

Next Field Station birding trip is in September, and we get to the top of Steens on that one.

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