That’s especially true along Foster Flats Road when a bit of sagebrush romance is underway.
It is a stunning strutting show as more than two-dozen sage grouse meet on a communal breeding ground called a “lek.”
Ecologist and wildlife guide Steve Shunk joined me as we sat alongside a not-so-camouflaged lineup of vehicles filled with folks who similar ideas oh how best to begin their day.
We were drawn to an intriguing show as male sage grouse puffed up their chests and strutted in quick-step back and forth displays with tail feathers fanned out in impressive display.
Nearby, Shunk pointed to a group of smaller, drabber females or “hens” that watched the male or “rooster” grouse go to such great lengths to win over their favors.
Shunk noted, “ We have our own mating rituals – we get all primped up and wear fancy clothes and go out on dates – but to do what these birds do;Distend their bodies and make the odd sounds is just something that most people don’t have any perspective on. There’s just nothing like coming to see it in person.”
Every now and then a real battle royal would break out between two male sage grouse – Shunk offered that dominance is the key word in order to understand the bird’s behavior.
“If you’re a younger male and you want to challenge the older male, you have to go right up to him – stare him down and wait to see what happens.”
What most often happened was a flurry of feathers and dust as the birds went round and round across the sage covered flat.
And within seconds it was over – and usually the older, larger male assumed his victorious position near the females.
Sage Grouse were once common species in the high desert, but today half has reduced their habitat. So refuges and protected wildlife areas are critical to the bird’s survival.
“There are at least a dozen leks scattered around the refuge,” noted Shunk.“Not just upland but even higher because the birds need the open sage flats. Also, the sage has to be very low and on an open flat.”
That’s because the grouse need to be able to see predators that might be approaching the lek – coyotes and bobcats and foxes are common species that hunt the grouse.
Shunk added, the sage grouse strutting is an incredible way to start a day’s adventure at Malheur Refuge:
“If people are willing to get up early, yes we’ll start here – I love being up at sunrise. To come up here and see this and then travel thru the wetlands, it’s a nice diverse nature experience.”
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation, an 81,786-acre preserve and breeding ground for native birds.
This designation followed decades of neglect and misuse that included draining and diking historic marshes and heavy cattle grazing that denuded stream banks and eroded soils.
Unrestricted bird hunting--not only by settlers for food but by market hunters who killed egrets, swans, and terns for feathers to adorn women’s finery--decimated the local bird population.
Protection for wildlife continued to expand, and by 1940 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stretched thirty-nine miles in width and extended forty miles in length.
At 187,540 acres, today’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an oasis in the middle of Oregon’s arid high desert country.
It consists of marshes, ponds, meadows, uplands, and alkali flats, diverse habitats that attract a wide variety of bird species that arrive at peak numbers each April through June.
During the spring migration, more than 250,000 ducks--mallards, pintails, teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and ruddy ducks, among others--join more than 100,000 geese and 6,000 sandhill cranes.
In the deeper marshes, gulls, terns, ibises, herons, egrets, and cormorants find ideal nesting habitat.
The refuge is primarily located in the lush Blitzen River valley, the surrounding sage uplands and basalt rimrocks, and the immense bodies of water that collect the Blitzen’s outflow.
I like to begin each visit at the refuge’s visitor center, with its interpretive exhibits and bookshop. The visitor center overlooks Malheur Lake, and the trees and shrubs offer homey habitats to many migrating songbirds each spring.
The adjacent Benson Memorial Museum contains nearly two hundred mounted specimens of local birds in one of the buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and 1940s. CCC workers constructed the buildings with volcanic rock that was mined from a quarry on the refuge.
Head south from the visitor center on the forty-one-mile-long automobile tour route. In about twenty miles, you’ll come to the Buena Vista Overlook, where you’ll find an outstanding view of the Blitzen River valley with towering Steens Mountain as the backdrop.
You’ll appreciate the short, easy hiking trail around the overlook, as well as the restroom. This viewing area also offers wheelchair accessibility.
In addition, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a wealth of wildlife viewing opportunities – many are located in Eastern Oregon including 25 different state managed areas.
Water is a magnet to wildlife, and along this route you’ll need to slow down to savor the spring season that’s bursting with birds. You’ll be rewarded with views of migratory waterfowl
Sandhill cranes and shorebird species, as well as songbirds such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers, use the many wetland areas, including Krumbo Reservoir and Benson Point.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Carey Goss said the birds are waiting for you to enjoy: “You’ll see a lot of large flocks, like snow geese, sandhill cranes and that’s why people get excited about this place when they see those large numbers of birds in one little area – being able to drive for miles on a tour and see those opportunities is very unique.”
This area is remote and rugged. Plan on traveling long distances on gravel roads, and make sure your transportation is reliable and your spare tire is in good shape.
In fact, this area is so remote I suggest carrying two spare tires if you’re planning to travel the back roads much. It’s also a good idea to carry plenty of food and water (it can get pretty hot during summer months).
That said, some areas are wheelchair accessible. The refuge is heavily signed and restrictions are plentiful, so heed where you’re going and tread lightly.
Remember that the refuge is full of marshy areas that are ideal breeding grounds for hungry mosquitoes. If you go between April and November, take plenty of insect repellent.
And remember that hiking is restricted only to designated and signed areas. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to hike only on roads that are open to automobiles.
The John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival is held during the first full weekend in April following Easter and offers non-stop birding activities as well as historical and cultural information sure to entertain you and your family. So whether you're a beginner or a life-long wildlife enthusiast, the Burn’s based festival has something for everyone.
Spend an amazing weekend witnessing the spectacular spring migration in the Harney Basin of Southeast Oregon. View thousands of migratory birds as they rest and feed in the wide-open spaces of Oregon's high desert. From waterfowl to shorebirds, cranes to raptors, wading birds to songbirds, you'll see it all!
SMITH AND BYBEE LAKES WILDLIFE AREA
It's hard to believe how special a place we have in the Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area.
Framed by industrial parks and development on all sides, it is 2,000 acres of cottonwood forest and wetlands; the largest urban lake and marsh in the country.
Metro’s Urban Park Naturalist, James Davis, recently told me that it’s also a premier site for hiking and watching wildlife.
“It’s is big enough – at 2,000 acres – a big solid chunk and not divided up into pieces by roads and such – so it’s not fragmented and that’s great for wildlife.”
While human activity occurs all around, all the time, along an easy paved trail, the city hubbub seemed a million miles away.
“It is nature in the city,” remarked the exuberant Davis. “Nature in your neighborhood and you don’t have to go out to the wilderness to live with wildlife.”
As Canada geese winged by...a red tail hawk soared past on its hunting foreay – it was easy to see that waterfowl and raptors provide the best shows that you can watch in winter.
“It is pretty unbelievable to most people,” added Davis. “We have two pairs of bald eagles nesting here, we’ve got a nesting colony of great blue herons, we’ve even had Tundra swans hanging out here in the winter…really, any bird that comes thru the Portland area can show up here.”
But what doesn’t show up much are people! I wondered aloud, “Could Smith Bybee be a well-kept secret?"
“Perhaps!” nodded Davis. Although as Metro’s point man of sorts and the park’s naturalist for the past dozen years, he insisted that the word is getting out and more folks are discovering the many pleasures that the wetlands offered – either on the easy hiking trail – or – in a canoe with a paddle.”
In fact, Davis does all he can to spread the word about Smith-Bybee and other local places too – through his book: “The Northwest Nature Guide,” a month-by-month, comprehensive wildlife-watching guide with 75 color photos and extensive maps and directions.
Top of his local list for newcomers: Crystal Springs Park in SE Portland.
“It is the best beginner’s bird watching place in Portland,” exclaimed Davis. “I’ve been there on a bird walk in February – and we saw 13 different species of waterfowl without binoculars. There may not be a lot there, but the diversity is just spectacular.”
Fast on the wings of Crystal Springs comes the relatively new Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge in Sherwood:
“Ah, they really planned the trail across the refuge right, said Davis. “It’s in such an excellent location so that you can get out there, see them and yet there are many other areas closed to the public. So, the birds actually have a refuge on the refuge.”
Part of the wonder of Smith-Bybee Wildlife Area is that it’s not on the way to anywhere; you must go there to explore it for yourself on a journey of discovery.
“It’s one of the things that makes Portland such a great place to live. The idea is that nature doesn’t have to be way away from people. We can have nature in the city, nature in the neighborhoods – we can have urban wildlife.”
TIP OF THE WEEK: RAIN GEAR AND BINOCULARS
You can enjoy wildlife shows anytime, but at this time of year staying “warm, dry and comfortable“ are the premiums that we prize when we head out and about in Oregon. We learn more on this Outdoor Tip of the Week:
Robert Campbell at Fishermman’s Marine and Outdoor noted that “good fitting and proper rain gear” is your best friend during Oregon’s cold, damp and blustery winter and spring months.
“You want to pick the rain gear that suits your activity – that’s key,” said Campbell, an Oregon native and outdoorsman who enjoys fishing and hunting who is the manager of one of the largest local retail shops to specialize in outdoor clothing and gear.
“Decide breathable versus non-breathable fabric because there are advantages for each. For example, if you’re hiking in the Columbia River Gorge, rubberized, non-breathable fabric is not your best choice. You’ll soon be so wet from your own perspiration that you’ll end up getting chilled. So, on the active side of things you want a breathable product like Gore-Tex; the best fiber out there for breathability and durability.”
Campbell said that the key to staying warm is layering with synthetics – never cotton – so you can remove the layers as you get warmer from your chosen activity.
“If you layer correctly and use the type of synthetic garments that are good at wicking away moisture and also provide good insulation (like fleece and polypropylene in the correct fashion) you will stay warmer and drier than you ever dreamed.”
That brings us to “seeing” the wildlife – up close and with clarity!
“8 x 42 binoculars are popular with hikers, hunters, fishermen, birders – anyone with an outdoor pursuit who wants to see things up close and personal.”
Campbell advised that when you shop, take the binoculars out of the box and try them on in the store or ask permission to take the outdoors – just as you would with the rain gear.
“Come in, try them on and see how they’re going to fit your eyes. Play it safe and stay on the low end of the magnification with 8-power binoculars.Don’t go up to a 10 or 12 power binocular because the higher the magnification, the more shake you’ll experience. That’s a common complaint I hear all the time.”
Recently, I really went to the dogs on this getaway to Central Oregon where I discovered a snowy playground and the chance to run a dog sled team in a unique snow country adventure near Mt Bachelor.
Jerry Scdoris has twelve of the most faithful friends one mountain of a man could ever hope to have in a lifetime. Consider what they do for him:
Whenever Jerry hollers “Hey,” these dedicated buddies of his rise to their feet and go. Actually they run and run and run anywhere he tells them to go.
They will pull hundreds of pounds while enduring deep snow or slippery ice and a biting wind that would send most of us indoors for rest and relaxation beside the nearest toasty warm woodstove.
And get this: They never, ever complain. In fact, they live to be outdoors when winter is its roughest: downright mean and nasty.
Jerry’s best friends are huskies.
“These huskies been doing this for thousands of years. It’s like - why do birds fly, why do fish swim - my dogs just got to run.”
They’re not big or brawny either. Rather, they’re medium-sized pooches about twenty pounds each, but they are huge when it comes to desire and energy and enthusiasm to please people.
During a visit to Jerry’s Iditarod Training Camp near Mount Bachelor, I asked him how he trains dogs for the kind of pure commitment it takes to run and pull through the snow. He told me his dogs “are 110 percent go-power. They just have to run out of pure joy.”
“It all starts out fast and exhilarating,” noted Scdoris. “I think it surprises people how fast and how powerful these little dogs are A lot of folks have sled dog dreams – they’ve read Jack London novels as youngsters and have just had it in their brain to go for a sled dog ride – that’s how I started – decades ago.”
Jerry is in his 19th season at Mt Bachelor, but he has been a professional musher for over thirty years. He also takes passengers on a thrilling dog-sled ride across a three-mile course.
He’s covered 100,000 Alaska wilderness miles with his dog teams and he likes to say the dogs are “experts in motion.”
When you watch Jerry work with his dogs, you witness an incredible transformation when he attaches the huskies to their traces individually and they become a team.
The older, veteran lead dog is generally calm in comparison to the younger huskies. The excitement and energy build among these youngsters, who bark and yelp for joy until the musher releases the drag brake and steps onto the back runners.
No longer do you hear a dozen whining individuals, because the dogs’ eagerness settles into a determination to pull hard and fast no matter the weight in the attached sled basket.
Dave Sims, a longtime partner in Jerry’s business, designs and builds all of the equipment including the toboggan-style sleds that carry up to 600 pounds – plenty of room for Mom, Dad and a couple of kids.
“The sleds are safe, they’re sturdy and they’re comfortable for people to sit in. You can fill them up heaping to the top so you can haul a lot of gear in them.”
I was intrigued with so much energy about to be let loose, so my wife, Christine and I didn’t hesitate to accept Jerry’s invitation to sit in the comfy sled. Actually, Chris sat while I was invited to stand on the runners.
With that, we were off in a moment of madness, down a slope into a wooded stand, leaving a snowy wake flying up behind us.
The loop trail’s first part follows a narrow Forest Service trail flanked by Douglas fir and ponderosa pine.
As we slip-slid along, it was a bit like a combination sled and rollicking roller-coaster ride.
Jerry reminded me the dogs are bred for only one reason: “to run, run, and keep on runnin’.” Then he surprised me and asked, “Would you like to try running the team, Grant?”
“You bet! What do I need to know--besides hanging on?”
“Keep your knees slightly bent, take your right foot off the brake, and put it on the runner,” he replied. “Then say ‘Okay.’”
“Okay,” I whispered, uncertain what I should expect from the eager dog team.
“Nooo--you gotta mean it,” Jerry gently scolded, then shouted to his team in a commanding tone, “Okay, okay!”
And we were off again! The feeling was exhilarating and surprisingly quiet. We cruised silently at nearly twenty miles an hour. Suddenly I found time to admire the surrounding mountains that peek through the forest.
The deep powder is a storybook landscape for speeding through narrow trails in a dense pine forest with boughs bent low from a fresh powdery blanket.
Jerry spoke: “I’d say half of the visitors come up with a ‘Sergeant Preston of the Yukon’ fantasy. They are not real sure what to expect--perhaps bigger dogs, and then they’re amazed with my guys’ speed and enthusiasm. You know, Grant, these animals just don’t want to stop.”
You’ll want to stop in, though, and make Jerry Scdoris and his best friends part of your Oregon snow-country adventures. The training camp and rides open with the first fall of snow in November and continue into spring.
There’s a certain peaceful feeling out on the trail – a feeling that –even for an hour or so – all is right with the world.
A "STEP" IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION
Gordon and Terri Southwick never dreamed their “retirement” would lead to new careers marked by long days and cold nights in the great outdoors.
Recently, I saw how the “golden years” can mean hard but rewarding work for an Oregon couple who provide a salmon angling future for thousands of people too.
When water’s so cold it stings the hands and the air is just as frigid, “spawning day” at Trask Salmon Hatchery is speedy and efficient.
The fish are fall chinook salmon, mottled black and grey, as the salmon's biological clock is reaching the end.
Each female salmon is ripe with 5,000 crimson-colored eggs and each fish promises a future.
The Southwick’s hold tyhat future in their hands and they do it with a smile.
“I always have fun outdoors,” laughed Terri Southwick. “I love the outdoors and we trying to help out. It's our payback and it’s something anyone else can do too.”
They may be retired but they refuse to call it quits!
The 70-somethings are guardians who volunteer with Oregon Fish and Wildlife Department's STEP.
“Where others might be sitting inside and complaining,” noted Ron Rehn, (the local state fish biologist) “or like to be armchair quarterbacks, the Southwicks are out here making a difference with hard work.”
Assistant hatchery manager, Jim Scar, added. “They’re excited too! About everything! They always have a smile on their faces. In fact, I have never seen them without smiles on their faces. They are a breath of fresh air.”
Their “work” is more than just one sub-freezing morning at the hatchery. In fact, spawning day is just the start for the Southwicks!
The long days (and often the long nights) really get started at a tiny private hatchery that’s located alongside a small creek.
The creek is a tributary of the Miami River that feeds into the expansive Tillamook Bay.
It is here that the Southwicks take care of the salmon eggs that become the fish that anglers like to catch.
Terri and Gordon Southwick have run the operation since ‘96 when they stepped forward – fresh from their respective workplaces - to help a local fishing club.
“A year later everybody quit but us,” laughed Gordon Southwick.
Or perhaps they knew what the Southwicks later learned: that trees blow down, ice builds up and crystal clear streams can turn chocolate brown anytime the rain falls in buckets.
All of that can put their 100,000 eggs or fish at risk.
“The silt is one of the most detrimental things,” noted Terri Southwick. “If it’s too thick it prevents oxygen from getting into the eggs”
“Once we got the eggs,” added Gordon. “There’s no turning back! We must come here at least every other da, but if we have heavy rain or storms, we’re here every day.”
But the partners have taken to the work so well they recently hit a milestone when they raised their one-millionth baby salmon.
That fish represented over one-third of the total chinook salmon fry production for the region.
Gordon modestly noted, “We never set out to do a million fish, it just turned out to be that way.”
It landed them national recognition: a conservation award, a trip to Washington DC and even a cash prize – which they poured back into the program to help cover costs.
At a time of life when most retirees reflect back on their lives, the Southwick’s look forward to more volunteer days in the great outdoors and perhaps a chance to raise two million salmon.
“We say, 'why not?' - We’re young enough and we’re healthy enough,” chuckled Gordon. “We can do things and we’re at the time of our lives that we can give back what we’ve been taking for so many years.”
“I’ll do it as long as I possibly can,” added Terri “For me, it’s a great enjoyment to be outdoors and working with the fish.”