Sunday, May 1, 2022

Malheur Country: Birding, Historical Structures, and Views


"Wear boots. Knee high. It can be muddy around the ponds." Such was the advice of Steve, a gracious ranch-owner in the Malheur area of Harney County in Eastern Oregon. Steve had invited my friend Nancy and me to visit and bird on his property. (Yes, bird is a verb.)

The ponds on his property were host to several hundred American coots and various species of ducks. The birds moved from pond to pond as Nancy and I circled the dikes walking on dry alkali-coated roads. There was also some mud, but Eastern Oregon is experiencing a severe drought.  


Over the five days of traveling from Walla Walla, Washington, through John Day to Burns, Oregon, and then to our lodging in the town of Hines next to Burns, and back, Nancy and I counted eighty-two species of birds. This is the season of spring bird migration and we were not disappointed. We saw thousands of snow geese and dozens of sandhill cranes.

Do you see the two sandhill cranes?

Many birds were in surprising numbers: white-crowned sparrows, yellow-headed blackbirds (my favorite), black-necked stilts, and cinnamon teals. Some of our rarer birds were a Virginia Rail, a pied-billed grebe, an eared grebe, a common loon, and a fleeting glance at a burrowing owl.

In old homesteads in stands of cottonwoods, we saw great horned owls and even one nesting in the cliffs on Steve's ranch.

Our best sighting of great horned owls was in the Peter French historic round barn. To digress from birds a moment, this area became a ranching magnet in the latter part of the 1800s led by a man named Peter French. Peter built this round barn for winter use.

The barn is one-hundred-feet across with an interior wall of stone, sixty-feet across, punctuated by windows. Inside the interior wall foals were born, while in the outside circle wild horses were trained to pull wagons.

A pair of nesting great horned owls had taken up residence in the peak's beams. You can see one owl on the lookout in the upper left and the ears of a second in the huge nest in the lower right.

Wild horses are still gathered in the area. BLM has corrals where horses and burros are fed and eventually sold. It was difficult not to come home with a horse or a burro. 


It is impossible to wander Harney County and not notice evidence of old ranches and homesteads, many still running, but some abandoned. Stands of cottonwoods marked where houses once stood.

An orange basketball hoop attached to a tree was evidence of more recent occupation at this homestead.

Fences, some of woven sticks, mark old corrals.

There is beauty everywhere—sites of hardwork and tenacity.

Hines, where we stayed in what I thing was one of the 128 mail-order houses which were constructed for mill workers back in the 1920s, has its monument to ambition. Besides the carefully planned community of houses that still has an inviting neighborhood feeling, the mill owner commissioned an elegant hotel. Unfortunately, the timing was poor coming up on the Depression, so the concrete hotel named The Ponderosa never opened its doors. 

The Ponderosa

Our mill house lodging had been rennovated and was absolutely lovely. Tourism is the new mill work.

The drought is tough on ranchers. Everywhere we went, locals mentioned their concerns of drought, of low wages, or lack of help. At the Frenchglen Hotel in Frenchglen south of Burns, the restaurant was quiet. Nancy and I were the only lunch customers. The hotel is owned by the National Park Service and will be open for an operating bid this next year. The current operator has been there for decades and is retiring. Finding help has been a recent problem. Fortunately the Frenchglen Mercantile two doors down is expanding into a former many-windowed porchlike room. An energetic local woman is making it into upscale coffee shop with couches, a woodstove, and local art for sale. The hotel's eight rooms are nearly fully reserved from now into next fall. Might any of you be interested in relocating and becoming a hotelier? The position comes with a room of your own!

You could even be a cook! The Frenchglen Hotel has a kitchen for serving meals for the hotel guests.

The Mercantile had a good selection of attractive items. This is Nancy, my best birding partner. We both bought something pleasing at the Mercantile.

I certainly felt sorely tempted to stay in Malheur country. What I found appealing was the immense solitude and the long views. The beauty is at every turn from the panoramic to the macro. 

And of course the wildlife is intriguing. 

Not sure what this species is called. Steve, have you selected a name yet?