It seems like whenever I think it may be time to move on from Idaho and experience some other part of the world that moment of indecision coincides with a trip to the one-hundred-five-year-old Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and surrounding environs in southeastern Oregon. The country there is a mix of high sage and bitterbrush flats, juniper dotted ridges, and to the north and east, mountains. And in the spring, the Malheur country, or Harney County, is a place full of birds. Great Horned Owls and Burrowing Owls and Short-eared Owls.
Every year, Betty and I hit our personal high spots, the roads and fields around Crane and the Pete French Round Barn, Diamond and the Diamond Loop, the P Ranch, the Central Patrol Road that meanders parallel to the Blitzen River. Yellow Warblers and American Bitterns and Northern Shovelers and Yellow-rumped Warblers and Cinnamon Teal.
We go south of Frenchglen and check out the road into the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Area and look for the herd of mustangs that rove there. Cassin’s Finches and Vesper Sparrows and Warbling Vireos.
We go along The Narrows and into the refuge headquarters where the cottonwood trees tower over the old masonry buildings and Coots graze on the grass and the Lewis’s Woodpeckers haunt the treetops. Cassin’s Vireo and Northern Goshawk and Dunlins and Forster’s Terns and American White Pelicans.
This year we did something different, as we do every year. For instance, last year we went around on the east side of Steens Mountain and checked out the arid Alvord Desert and then climbed up into Crane passing numerous small lakes, seeing lots of mule deer and pronghorn (or antelope as the locals call them). And of course, birds; Canada Geese and Sandhill Cranes and Cormorants. Osprey and Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers.
This year we asked around to see if anyone was working cattle since it was time for branding calves, and lo and behold, we were invited to a branding which we stood and photographed, shooting picture after picture after picture. Shooting something like a branding is different from landscape or portrait or still life photography…it’s kind of wild, the buckaroos building loops to head and heel the calves, the cows on the prod (folks are messing with their babies), the vaccinating, the branding, the tagging, the cutting. It goes on with the smoke and the dust boiling up and the scent of burned hide from the branding and the loops of lassos that float on the horizon just before they snake in and capture a calf. The shouting and laughing, the bellowing of the animals, the cutting horses twisting and turning, digging in their heel bulbs when necessary, and this is all going on at rat-a-tat machine gun speed, and if you wish to photograph this you are on your toes, so to speak, with the zoom going in and out and in and out, finding those moments when the action gets caught, like a packaged explosion just about to ignite. Vavoom! Wow!
What a comedown, but not a sorry one, after that experience. Then on to the tiny burg of Diamond where the poplar limbs still stood naked as if they didn’t trust the warm breaths of the breezes. We photographed old buildings and big trees and hunted for sign of White-faced Ibis and saw Sandhill Cranes and Great Egrets.
Then on to the Buena Vista ponds in search of signs of Black-throated Sparrows and Sage Sparrows. Instead, it was the haunting mating call of a male Sora from the marshes below, and Western Kingbirds darting from sage to sage catching the little creatures whose short, flitting lives come and go in the course of a few days.
From there it was back to Burns, and the following day we took that drive south of Frenchglen and located over forty mustangs. A lot of the Harney County ranchers hate these creatures and I understand that, for the mayhem they create on the range, but still, there is something that gets up inside my throat when I see them out there lazily grazing on the new grass down in the swales. Something primitive speaks to me about freedom and all that stuff that often gets stuffed when we start thinking in terms of dollars and cents.
While in search of mustangs we found Warbling Vireos and Cassin’s Finches and an ambiguity of sparrows that left us perplexed as we thumbed through our Sibley…is it this kind of sparrow or that? We think we saw Lark Sparrows and Vesper Sparrows and Savannah Sparrows. We know we saw White-crowned Sparrows.
Then we traveled down to the P Ranch and hiked along the Blitzen River. Two Caspian Terns circled us like fighter jets, squawking as if berating us. One showed up with a fish as it swept by and then abruptly veered overhead as if to show off the latest morsel of piscine paradise. At The Narrows again, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks, Ruddy Ducks.
The next day, on the road home, we cut off the macadam and bumped down some dirt roads. Pickup trucks pulling trailers loaded with saddled horses sped up behind us, and we pulled over multiple times to let these earnest travelers get on their way and soon we found out where they were hurrying. A branding, but not so formal in terms of corral and pens and headquarters structures as those we encountered earlier in the week. Here, the corral was makeshift, mostly trucks pulled up end-to-end and some portable panels wired together.
A hot fire crackled in a fifty-five gallon drum turned into a fireplace. Branding iron handles stood out from the sizzling orange-red and the smell of burning calf hair filled the air, along with the dust, and the voices talking local cowpoke gossip, or the boss-man barking orders about where to drag a calf, or comments on the quality of the calf crop or who was going to be the header and who was going to be the heeler. Wild action, back and forth, and loops built and caroming off the sky and onto the dusty ground, caught on the camera screen like something you might see in a Charlie Russell painting. Yeehaw! And Mountain Bluebirds…so bluebird blue.
Betty and I drove away and headed home and she commented to me, “Pretty darned western.” And it was, and it was more, and just a part of why we stick around.