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Voices of Spencer Creek

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

A trip to Southeastern Oregon is a dramatic shift of perception: the landscape, the winds and rains, the mountains and rivers, and most of all the birds, are different.

By Lois Barton

Posted on Aug 25, 2007

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"Sandhill Crane," photo by Kit Larsen, 2004, courtesy of The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

In 1908, the Portland Audobon Society lobbied for a bird sanctuary to prevent commercial plume harvesting from swans, egrets, herons and grebes for the millinery trade. With great public support President Theodore Roosevelt created the Lake Malheur Reservation which included Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes. New concepts of the public good included wildlife preservation and public ownership. Now, almost a hundred years later, we are benefitting from such progress.

An informational leaflet reported that "diversion of water from the Blitzen Valley for irrigation and drainageof wetlands was robbing migratory waterfowl of traditional resting and nesting ground in this part of the Pacific Flyway.... In 1935, 64,717 acres from Frenchglen to Malheur Lake were purchased ...and annexed to the 81,786 acre Malheur Bird Reservation and the area was renamed Malheur Migratory Bird Refuge. Then in 1941 another 14,751 acres were purchased from ...the Wm. Hanley company. Martha Hanley was an avid bird watcher and wanted the Ranch to become part of the refuge."

I was part of a group of Friends (Quakers) from Eugene, Oregon, who drove to the Malheur Field Station on Friday, June 1st, a six-hour drive east across the Cascade Mountains and the high desert country of Eastern Oregon. We went to join other Friends from Corvallis, Oregon and Boise, Idaho in an annual retreat that has been happening for the past twenty years. It was started by the Corvallis Friends to make an opportunity to get better acquainted with the Idaho people who were just starting a Worship group. It is customary for such newly formed Meetings to come under the care of an established Meeting as they get started.

Our first stop was to view the Sahalie Falls off the McKenzie River Highway. Our trip was broken again by a lunch stop in a lovely city park in Bend. Our entire trip focused primarily on wildlife along the way and in the Refuge. This aspect of the adventure was nobly introduced by a flock of cedar waxwings as we decamped from the Bend park. My companions carried heavy duty binoculars which were in almost constant use the whole trip.

As we drove across that high desert country at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet in an air-conditioned van which made the trip comfortable, the sky became fairly cloudy. Some of those cumulous clouds grew heavy and dark on the bottom and what looked like rain fell from them in sort of wispy streaks. Our driver assured me that it was raining, but that the rain didn't reach the ground. He called it a virgis pattern.

On Saturday morning after breakfast in our dormitory kitchen and fortified with packed lunches we first visited the Malheur Headquarters, collecting useful information and admiriing ground squirrels, yellow-headed and redwinged blackbirds enjoying a seed feeder by the office,and great horned owls roosting in trees there. We also spotted a couple of Western tanagers

From the headquarters we drove slowly south through the Refuge on a gravel road stopping every few minutes to survey the wetlands along the road for birds and other wildlife. Our driver, Ethen Perkins, PhD in botany, was a former manager of the Field Station and a skillful biologist who could name most birds on sight.

I began to hear names like avocet, cinnamon teal, whitefaced ibis, northern harrier, black-necked stilt. These were primarily water birds or shore birds I'd never heard of before. Checking my Peterson Field Guide to Western Birds, I discovered that they were all pictured within. What a remarkable addition to my familiar bird list.

While I am not member of Audubon nor an avid "birder" I'm familiar with many birds. I have had bird feeders for years and rejoice on the mornings when I can count six goldfinches or pine siskins or cassins finches at the thistle feeder, or admire the pair if black-headed grosbeaks that come to the suet feeder. The hummers, the robins, the towhees, the Stellar's bluejays, the thrushes--I had a list of 40 kinds of birds I knew when I moved from Ohio to Oregon in 1948. How colorless and quiet life would be without these lovely neighbors in our daily lives!

By lunch time on Saturday we had reached the southern end of the Refuge after a breath-taking view of this part of the world from the Buena Vista Overlook. The Steens Mountain to the southeast was still liberally snow-capped and we were told roads to the summit would not open till the snow was gone.

After a picnic at the Page Springs camp ground where we admired the hundreds of cliff swallows adorning the rocky cliff, we drove back up the central patrol road expecting to visit the Diamond Craters on the way back to the Field Station. A boisterous wind gathered as we went along, blowing roadside willows on the banks of the Blitzen River furiously. Dust devils swept across the gravel road in great gusts and rain from those virgis clouds splattered the windshield telling me that there were times when the rain did hit the ground... It was almost breath taking to see the vegetation blown practically flat in gusts that we estimated would measure 20 m.p.h. or more. This exhilarating bit of weather added to my enjoyment of an area and of the birds that were very new to me.

The Diamond Craters is a unique geological area where volcanic activity has left remarkable evidence of former patterns. Quotes from the Internet include a statement that "Diamond Craters is a complex of multiple volcanic vents, craters, cones and other lava events within a large caldera." The Harney County Chamber of Commerce calls it "one of the most diverse volcanic features in the nation."

Our stop there included viewing explanatory posters and a brief walk to look into one of the craters. Fascinating rocks of various colors and shapes demonstrated some of the activity described by the posters. I was impressed with the glitter and sparkle in some rock surfaces, and assumed that the "diamond" name came from that, but learned later that it was actually a name transferred from a former rancher's diamond shaped brand. The countryside presents a mixture of alkali flats, rimrock and sagebrush covered hills. There is a country road about 5 miles long into the caldera where one can admire the various shapes, caves and colors remaining from volcanic activity that occurred some 17,000 years ago.

Back at the field station we enjoyed supper and listing more wildlife on the blackboard in the kitchen. The list which I copied from the blackboard adds up to 51 species, mostly birds, but includes mule deer and pronghorn antelopes. A different domino game filled the evening for several people. Most of us fell gratefully to sleep on old hospital beds which were donated for the dormitories some years ago. Those who had the energy could hike up a nearby butte to listen to the coyotes howling after dark. That adventure was beyond my tired 89-year old body, but our driver, Ethen, said there were three packs in three different directions that seemed to be talking to each other.

Sunday morning as we headed home to Eugene our first stop was at The Narrows between Malheur and Harney lakes where we stopped to look at the birds. One special treat was watching a fledgling Western Grebe riding on his mother's back. Three car-loads of Audubon birders were present at many of our stops each day. They carried expensive viewing equipment they'd set up to give better views of the waterfowl. One other "birder" from California said he was on a special trip to add to his list which had grown to 400 birds by the time he stopped at The Narrows.

Shortly after we were back on the road I had a chance to watch two antelopes grazing nearby. We stopped in Bend at the park again for lunch. Then a short stay in Sisters where folks could visit a favorite ice cream store. Three of our party had never seen the beginning of the Metolius River, so we drove that five miles off the main route and walked down to observe those remarkable springs flowing out of a dry hillside to create a fullblown river running off into the landscape. Home again about 6 p.m. with minds aglow from adventures to long remember.

Copyright ©2007 by Lois Barton

Writer and historian
Lois Barton

Lois Barton is an 88 year old mother of eight children. She has lived on the same rural acreage just south of Eugene, Oregon for more than 50 years. All their children learned to milk, to keep the woodboxes filled, to do their share of household and garden chores. Her first book, Spencer Butte Pioneers, was published in 1982 when her youngest started to school. Since then she wrote five other books: Daughter of the Soil, now out of print; One Woman's West; A Quaker Promise Kept; and Through My Window, autobiographical sketches, sequel to Daughter Of the Soil.

Through the years Lois has been a 4H leader, president of the neighborhood association, a precinct committee woman, election board clerk, editor of the Lane County Historian, and a life-long Quaker. She spent a month in Southeast Asia in 1974 as a member of a church peace mission, after working for ten years as director of the Eugene Chapter of the World Without War Council.

Follow the links of the Voices of Spencer Creek for the most recent articles by Lois Barton, including:

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frank and the Rivers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: My Friend Peg and the Peaceful Good Fight

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: These Stones Are Speaking

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Lucy McIver, Peace Pole Artist

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Telephones, Then and Now

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Remembering Bovine Tuberculosis

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: What Is a Quilt?

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Quakers in the British Virgin Islands

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Manta Rays, and Dandelions, A Poem, also introducing Carolann Krohn

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Those Husky Macadamia Nuts

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Fender's Blue, a Nine Day Wonder

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Frannie and the Arrow

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Bhavia's Cambodia

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of the Smoking Chimney

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Saga of Big Oak Stables

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Fishy Story

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Different Peace

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Hal and the Mountain

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: A Rogue River Adventure

Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Obituary for a Country Cat

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Cortesia Sanctuary

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Tree and Me and Lady Slippers

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Cranberries

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Endurance Riding

The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: Butterflies and Community Development

and The Sunnyside of Spencer Butte: The Last Gift.

See more of Lois Barton's articles in West By online magazine's archives:

Visit the Heron Rookery

Sauerkraut and All That

Charlotte's Overdose - Just who is Charlotte and what did she take?

The Midwife–The midnight call awoke an unusual midwife.

The Mystery of Fox Hollow - Fact and fiction meet in this story of the origins of Faith Rock.

Trees, Tame Trees and Squirrel.

© Copyright 2000-2006 by West By

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