I saw plenty of raptors on a Birds of Prey tour in the wide-open country of Harney County, Oregon last April. We ventured briefly into the Malheur National Forest in search of eagles. Though we didn’t see any eagles, we did get a nice view of an American kestrel.
We saw immature and mature bald eagles later that day. It’s always exciting to see them.
Some of the wildlife out there was keeping an eye on us. This herd of elk on a distant ridge top watched us for a while.
Raptors were common and we saw many of them perched on fenceposts and telephone poles.
Ground squirrels hang out in the irrigated fields and the birds of prey congregate there to find an easy meal. They like to perch on the pivot irrigation systems.
Turkey vultures also enjoy some nice fresh ground squirrel. This one was close to the road and we had a great view of it having a little snack.
We were lucky to see a prairie falcon, the only one we spotted that day.
Mule deer were common. This herd had 30+ deer.
We stopped in another spot to take pictures of deer then noticed something else in the foreground. Two burrowing owls! Can you find both of them in the photo with the deer? That was my favorite observation of the day.
This tour was part of the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. Our guides that day were Ben Cate, from the High Desert Partnership, and Melanie Finch, wildlife technician with the U.S. Forest Service .
Raptors Pocket Guide
Though I know certain species well, I’m no expert when it comes to identifying raptors. I rely on helpful tour guides and field guides. I have field guide books and the iBird Pro app, but this handy fold out pocket guide is really helpful.
This guide includes silhouettes, identifying markings, and different color morphs. It was a dark spring day on this trip and the silhouettes page helped make identifying birds easier.
We saw quite a few raptors so it was a successful seven-hour field trip. Until next year…
On the first 4-mile hike, my llama was Marty McFly, AKA “The Professor.” He was not the most dominant llama there, but he was considered to be the smartest. He was always on the lookout. Llamas have large eyes, much like pronghorns, so they can spot predators.
If you go on a hike with pack llamas, they can carry all of your gear. Well, at least 60 pounds of gear. You have to weigh each pack so that they are about even on both sides.
On both of the hikes I went on, I worked with llamas from the Burns Llama Trailblazers group. They have llamas that are trained in packing, cart pulling, and livestock guarding. They train the llamas to do packing from a very young age by having them carry miniature packs.
So what’s it like walking with a pack llama? Kind of like
walking with a very big and inquisitive dog. These highly-trained animals keep
a loose lead and they’re very sure footed. Though some are more spirited than
others, they have an overall gentle nature.
We stopped for lunch at a small lake and tied off our
animals. My llama had been quiet the whole trip, but once we stopped he became
more vocal. I thought he sounded like Chewbacca from Star Wars. The reason he
was complaining was because he wanted to keep going. Llamas can walk many miles
in a single day.
On the second hike I went on this spring, we traveled three miles. My llama that day was a young female named Manzanita. She was going for Basic Pack Llama Certification. She had to walk a three-mile course with 250-500 feet elevation gain. The llamas in this level carry 10% of their body weight.
We would encounter five different obstacles. These would
include walking through tight places, moving up/over/across obstacles, and
walking at least ten feet down a flowing creek. Did you know llamas often have
a fear of water? Neither did I.
Manzanita did fine and passed all of the tests with flying colors. There are four levels of PLTA certification. At the highest level, the llamas walk on a 10-mile course with 2,500-3,000 feet elevation gain. There are 20 obstacles. The animals carry 25% of their body weight.
I was happy doing the shorter hike. My llama companions had a good walk and so did I.
If you are interested in helping out with pack trials, they can always use more volunteers to lead the llamas so contact the Pack Llama Trial Association .
The sand lily, also known as the star lily, is a delicate perennial wildflower found in western North America. It grows in sagebrush deserts, open montane forests, and in sandy and rocky soils.
The plant above is growing near sagebrush in an uncultivated part of my property near Bend, Oregon. There is only one plant and I look forward to it blooming every spring.
I have seen “fields” of sand lily growing in other locations. This field was seen on a hike near Tumalo dam.
Last year I planted two sand lily plants I purchased at WinterCreek Restoration and Nursery and they bloomed a couple weeks ago. This nursery specializes in native plants that use little water.
If you see sand lilies in nature, you may be tempted to dig them up to plant in your yard. Unfortunately, this plant, with its long rhizome growing beneath the soil, does not transfer well.
Please enjoy them in nature and purchase them from a trusted source. They will grow in USDA zones 5-9. They do well in rock gardens with lots of sunlight. Sand lilies require very little water to shine brightly in your garden.
Here’s a haiku about this plant I featured in a previous post – Tiny Oasis
The River Ranch Barn at Summer Lake Wildlife Area in eastern Oregon is weathered to perfection. Here are a few pictures of its exterior from a distance and close up. Winter Ridge rises majestically behind the barn.
The shakes of its roof line up in irregular and interesting patterns.
Here are a couple pictures of an outbuilding next to the barn. The weathered barn wood has a variety of warm tones and a distinct personality all its own.
This pale knotty eye watches the wildlife visiting this oasis in the desert with a look of approval.
I’m sharing the March issue of the High Desert Voices newsletter. It’s a newsletter for volunteers and staff at the High Desert Museum in Bend, Oregon. I help out with the newsletter and I’m particularly proud of this issue.
This issue of the High Desert Voices newsletter includes a History event – 19th Century Making & Mending; Art – a new exhibit by Native American artist, Rick Bartow; Nature – a fact sheet on white sturgeon; People – a profile of our Communication Director; and Recreation – a trail through the colorful Blue Basin. There’s a little more related to updates for the different areas of the Museum and kudos, for work well done.
These images from Fort Rock, Oregon focus on looking up. In this photo you see what a town from the early 1900’s may have looked like. Buildings were moved to this site to create the Fort Rock Valley Historical Society Homestead Village Museum. Each building is decorated with artifacts so it’s easy to imagine yourself stepping back in time.
Pioneers were promised rich and fertile land. That was not the reality in this arid high desert. Many settlers moved away after unsuccessfully trying to cultivate the land.
Yet some stayed and learned to love the land. In this photo a sage thrasher perches on a shovel next to a re-created pioneer garden. Listen to the thrasher’s beautiful song here.
Fort Rock is a prominent land feature that settlers looked forward to seeing. Some pioneers who settled there cannot imagine living anywhere else. The ever-changing skies make even those of us there for a short visit look up in wonder.
The antelope bitterbrush appears to be reaching for the sky in this photograph. This plant gets its common name due to the fact that it is so important to wildlife. Deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and pronghorn (antelope) browse on its small three-toothed leaves and use its dense growth for cover. It’s also important for deer mice, kangaroo rats, sage grouse, and Lewis’ woodpecker.
I have seen plants over twelve feet tall but in my yard, they only reach a height of about three feet. My “landscapers” love to prune them. In certain parts of this plant’s range, bitterbrush can comprise up to 91% of mule deer’s diet in September.
There are three short hikes near the covered picnic area. The Geologic Time Trail winds along ¼ mile to connect you to the other two trails. Interpretive signs note the changes of the last 50 million years. The colorful small signs explaining the geologic history looked brand new. The Trail of Fossils takes you up a ¼ mile loop trail on the hillside and shows you fossils that left their imprints in large boulders.
An almost-tropical forest covered this region 44 million years ago. 120 inches of rainfall per year, compared to about 9 inches today. Bananas used to grow here! Bear-like predators, four-toed primitive horses, and other creatures once roamed this land. The Clarno Arch Trail takes you up ¼ mile trail (yup, another ¼ mile one!) to the base of a cliff with a natural arch cut into the stone. This trail has a 200 foot elevation gain. If you hike all the trails out and back, it adds up to 1.25 miles.
Spring shrubs and flowers
When I was there in mid-May, wildflowers were in full bloom. The rose bush featured in one of my earlier posts—Wild Rose: Friday Flowers—was near where we parked. The “trunk” of that shrub looked like a formidable weapon! We saw orange globemallow blooming along the trail. Large netleaf hackberry shrubs grew on the slopes near the cliffs.
Birds of the cliffs
There were a handful of birds out that day. Canyon wrens serenaded us with their descending song. A prairie falcon, American kestrel, and golden eagle flew near the cliffs protecting their nest sites. A California quail called Chi-ca-go in the background. Swallows flitted overhead.
Fossilized logs forming a “T” on the cliff face
Logs and lichens
We spotted several fossilized leaves and branches along the Trail of Fossils. When we went up the Clarno Arch Trail, we saw large fossilized logs sticking out of the cliff face. The colorful lichens covering the rocks attracted my attention as usual.
Colorful lichens on the rocks
Stairway to the arch
The columns of the Palisades were formed by volcanic lahars 54-40 millions years ago. They are stately and beautiful but the stair step-like structure beneath the arch really got my attention. Water must have pooled up in each “step” before falling.
Steps beneath the arch
When we were there with Bend Parks and Recreation, it was a cool day. I imagine it gets hot in the summer here so plan your visit with that in mind.
Last night my dog was shaking with excitement looking at something right outside the sliding glass door. A baby bunny! However, it wasn’t just any rabbit. This one was a tiny “kit” that was just a few inches long.
I have seen jackrabbits and cottontails in the shrub-steppe High Desert habitat where I live. This could be a cottontail or maybe even a pygmy rabbit. It’s hard to tell when they are young.
Yes, the background is not the best for this shot. But sometimes nature comes to you and you have to take advantage of it and grab your camera. The sprinkler head is just over an inch across so this gives you an idea how small it was.
Needless to say, my dog did not get to go outside for a while. The bunny went back to its burrow which is probably under our porch. Life goes on for this little cutie.
The Central Oregon Wildflower Show is on hiatus in 2018 but the Native Plant Sale is taking place this weekend, June 9 and 10, at Sunriver Nature Center. Click on Sunriver Nature Center – Upcoming Special Events for more information. I am sharing an article I wrote last year about the show.
Getting to know local flora at the Wildflower Show
Colorful examples of native plants drew crowds to the 29th annual Central Oregon Wildflower Show at Sunriver Nature Center on July 1-2, 2017. Participants could visit a room packed full with cuttings of plants, each of which were clearly labeled. Visitors could go on short staff-led wildflower hikes near the Nature Center to see some of the featured plants growing in the wild. Volunteers working at the event were ready to answer questions visitors might have.
Teams of volunteers headed out on the day before the show to collect wildflowers and other plants. They collected plant cuttings in the Cascade Mountains and near Metolious, Odell, and Crescent Lakes. They also collected specimens near Bend and eastwards into the Ochoco Mountains. Nearly 300 specimens were collected and identified for the wildflower show, the only event of this type in Central Oregon.
Up close and personal
If you’ve ever wondered what a particular plant was, this was a good place to find out. “Is that what balsamroot looks like?” I heard one visitor say. She was happy to put a “face” with that name. Seeing labeled plant cuttings of certain plants that are hard to identify, such as grasses, helped visitors figure out what they may have seen in the field.
There were cuttings from grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, and trees at this show. Cuttings of the plants were neatly arranged in water-filled vases around the room. Many were in full bloom. Lavender-colored Mariposa lilies shared the room with scarlet red paintbrush, yellow Oregon sunshine, blue and purple showy penstemon, and delicate white queen’s-cup. It was interesting to see so many plants in one place and think about which types you might want to put in your own yard.
Going native with plants from the Wildflower Show
The Wildflower Show had a limited supply of native plants for sale that were provided by a local nursery. Planting your yard with low-water usage plants can not only help you spend less on your water bill, it can also ensure your plants grow well and attract butterflies, bees, and other wildlife.
One of the most interesting displays at this show consisted of weeds that grow in the area. Yes, the Dalmatian toadflax plant is pretty with its snapdragon-like yellow flowers and interesting leaf structure. However, it can easily get out of control and push out native species. Knowing what some of these noxious weeds look like can make it easier for you to know what to pull in your yard. Here’s a link to a brochure that has pictures of some of the invasive weeds that grow locally. Noxious Weeds: Your Responsibility.
Learning from our community
Booths representing several local groups were set up outside at this show. Local author, LeeAnn Kriegh, featured in the July 2017 High Desert Voices newsletter, was among them. Participants had many questions and the representatives from the different groups were very helpful in answering them. There were several wildflower-related lectures at this show. Damian Fagan, of the High Desert Museum, gave a lecture about locations where you might find various wildflower species. Other lectures were about getting to know some of the state’s flora, native plant landscaping, and how to provide habitat for monarch butterflies.
If you are curious to learn more about native plant species, consider going to this show next year. It is small, but it’s jam-packed with helpful information. Proceeds from the native plant sale and admission benefit the non-profit Sunriver Nature Center.
I went on a field trip recently to one of my favorite places–Glass Buttes. Obsidian is everywhere you look! It’s like being a kid in a candy store. In fact in one of my previous posts, Glass Butte Dragonglass, I show a picture of some obsidian I have collected displayed in a candy bowl.
Glass Buttes – Rockhounding and habitat
Located about halfway between the towns of Bend and Burns in eastern Oregon, this site is a rockhounder’s paradise. You can dig and crack open obsidian with a rock hammer, but you really don’t need to because it’s all over the surface. The Bureau of Land Management oversees most of this site. Individuals may collect up to 250 pounds of obsidian per year.
Glass Butte, elevation 6,388 ft., and Little Glass Butte, elevation 6,155 ft., tower over the surrounding hills. Sagebrush, rabbitbrush, and bunchgrass cover the landscape. Western juniper and mountain mahogany are interspersed over the land. Sagebrush-dependent species such as Brewer’s sparrows, sagebrush sparrows, and sage thrashers were seen and heard the day we were there. A pair of mountain bluebirds was seen perching high in the juniper trees. We caught glimpses of ferruginous hawks.
Geological history of Glass Buttes
Glass Buttes formed during the Miocene and Pliocene periods, 5-5.8 million years ago. Three layers of lava flows from volcanic domes and vents formed the buttes. The first flow was basalt, the second rhyolitic lava, and the third another layer of basalt. Rhyolite contains a high percentage of silica and it forms much of the substrate. Due to a rapid rate of cooling of magma at Glass Buttes, larger mineral crystals didn’t have time to form. The silica-rich “glass” of obsidian formed as a result of this process.
Here’s an interesting article with more details about the obsidian at Glass Buttes for you geology geeks. Obsidian is Hot Stuff.
This area is in the Brothers Fault Zone of the High Lava Plains physiographic province. The many faults are easily observed in aerial photos and through the use of Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) data. A 2011 map of Glass Buttes based on LiDAR can be seen here.
Flint knappers then and now
Obsidian from Glass Buttes has been used in making tools for thousands of years. Native Americans made arrowheads, spear points, and other cutting tools with the glass-like stone. Obsidian from this site has been found throughout western North America.
Modern day flint knappers take advantage of the abundance of obsidian at this site. Some groups meet annually at events such as the Glass Buttes Knap-in to work on their craft. My first photo on this post shows what flint knappers left behind at one of their campsites.
Obsidian from Glass Buttes, Oregon
Types of obsidian at Glass Buttes
There are MANY types of obsidian at Glass Buttes. I will quote Tim Fisher who runs the Oregon Rockhounds Online website. “Need a list of what’s here? OK, here goes: black/mahogany, leopardskin, mahogany, Midnite lace, triple flow, double flow, pumpkin, purple and silver sheen, gold sheen, silver sheen, rainbow, peacock, purple sheen, fire, green, Aurora Borealis rainbow, black, opaque black, opaque banded, gunmetal, and probably many more!” If you want detailed information on where to find the different types, please purchase the Ore Rock On guide from his website. We own it and it contains invaluable info for sites in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and western Montana.
Some rockhounds search for specific types, such as rainbow and fire obsidian, and they can be the most difficult to find.
Exploratory geothermal site
Other land use
We made a couple additional short stops on the field trip. We stopped at an abandoned mercury-bearing cinnabar mine. The site was discovered in 1933 and mined until 1957. Another stop was made at an exploratory geothermal well site. No development is currently taking place but it may happen in the future. Greater sage-grouse live and breed here and that may limit development.
This is a great area to visit but I should remind you of a couple things. Obsidian is SHARP so make sure you have good tires and a spare tire. Four-wheel drive vehicles are recommended for certain areas. There is no water or facilities here. If you visit, be prepared. Access to this site is on an unmarked road near mile marker 77 on Highway 20. Drive south a couple miles to find obsidian. Additional information is available from the organizations listed here.
I have been to this site several times. My recent trip was with Bend Parks and Recreation. I always wish I could stay at Glass Buttes just a little bit longer. It’s a hard place to leave if you love rocks!
Here’s a photo I took in March of three twisted swans at Summer Lake in Central Oregon. The northern shovelers surrounding them seem to be doing some contortions of their own. Can you find a raptor hiding in the background taking it all in?
The three swans have bands on their necks. I saw them there last fall and turned in my sighting to find out where they came from. I found out the young birds were banded in the spring of 2017 at Summer Lake so they haven’t strayed far from where they hatched.
This area hosts thousands of snow geese at certain times of the year. Summer Lake Wildlife Area is open to hunting so in order to avoid confusion, they have this sign posted for hunters. From a distance, snow geese and swans can be hard to tell apart.
Do you want to learn more about trumpeter swans? See my post Swan Song to learn about the conservation success story associated with this beautiful bird.
The hike to Gray Butte, located in the Crooked River National Grassland near Terrebonne, Oregon, is great to walk in the spring because of the wildflowers. I went here in May and we saw quite a few colorful flowers. The habitat is sagebrush steppe with scattered western juniper trees.
View of Mt. Jefferson from Gray Butte trail
I have been here twice with Leslie Olson, one of my favorite guides with Bend Parks and Recreation. One time we went on Cole Loop Trail #854 and the other time we went on Gray Butte Trail #852. The roads to the trailheads have sections that are rough but passable. We did out-and-back hikes of around four to five miles total distance. They are listed as easy to moderate hikes. Here’s a map that shows both trails.
McCoin Orchard at Gray Butte trailhead
A piece of history
My most recent hike began at Gray Butte trailhead, elevation 3,800 feet, near the McCoin Orchard. The orchard was originally planted by Julius and Sarah McCoin in 1886. The property was purchased by the U.S. Forest Service in the 1930’s. At one time there were 100 fruit trees here – apple, pear, plum, etc. Grassland range specialists saved the surviving trees in the 1980’s. When I was there, the trees were in full bloom.
Gray Butte Peak
Did I make it to the top of the butte yet? Nope, but we had fantastic views from the Gray Butte Trail. Gray Butte reaches an elevation of 5,108 feet. We stopped for lunch on a rocky overlook known as the Austin Creson Viewpoint, elevation 4,200 feet. Austin Creson was involved in the planning of this trail. The viewpoint is 1.9 miles from the trailhead and this was where we turned back.
Views from Gray Butte
The Austin Creson Viewpoint is on the northern edge of the Crooked River Caldera. This caldera is enormous. It encompasses 425 square miles. In fact, the volcanic eruption associated with this caldera was the sixth largest on earth. Woah! Right here in Central Oregon. That’s impressive.
From our lofty perch at the viewpoint we had great views of Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, Broken Top, and Black Butte. Yes, it was a bit cloudy but seeing the peaks peeking through is always thrilling.
American Oil Beetle
We saw and heard eagles, swifts, and sparrows on our hike. We also saw a weird beetle known as the American oil beetle. Nice to look at but don’t touch them because they will produce an oil that will irritate your skin.
Gray Butte wildflowers
Seeing the wildflowers on this hike made my day. They are so beautiful! I am including photos from my most recent hike and from my earlier hike a couple years ago. Enjoy!
Giant Head Clover
For driving directions, see Gray Butte Trailhead. Note that if you stay on the trail for about 6.5 miles from the Gray Butte trailhead, you’ll end up at Smith Rock State Park. Please use applicable maps for this route.
Purple sage and paintbrush
Be prepared on any trips you make into the backcountry and help to preserve its beauty for the rest of us. Thanks!
Lupine plants were in full bloom on a recent trip I took to Glass Buttes, Oregon. They have beautiful flowers and a unique leaf form. The palmately divided leaves of lupine can have five to 28 leaflets. Water often funnels down the leaflets and collects at their base.
On April 6, I was up bright and early for a birdwatching trip that would encircle Steens Mountain in a single day. Being a bit of an introvert, I wasn’t sure I wanted to partake in a tour like this one. The Steens Mountain tour was one of 22 tours available for nature enthusiasts at the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival. The festival, which started in 1981, takes advantage of the annual spring bird migration in the Harney Basin. More than 300 species of birds use this area annually.
A land full of drama
At 6:00 am, participants in the Circle the Steens Mountain & Alvord Desert tour met at Burns High School. The weather was not cooperating for the 200-mile trip. A big storm system was blowing in. Twelve hours and 76 bird species later, we returned to the high school. Though we didn’t see any rare birds, we did see a lot, considering the weather conditions. Our views were framed by the dramatic landscapes of Harney County. The pale colored sands of the Alvord Desert stood out in contrast to the dark stormy skies. Steens Mountain provided beautiful panoramas from many different angles. We also had great views of pronghorn and deer.
We traveled east of Steens Mountain, south to Fields, then north along the west side of the mountain. Our tour guides, Joan Suther and Rick Hall, worked for the Bureau of Land Management locally for many years. The first brief stop was to look at burrowing owls. The small owls were seen braving the wind on this tour and the one I was on the next day. Flocks of snow geese and Ross’ geese were in fields nearby. Our next stop, at Crystal Crane Hot Springs, was much longer.
Visits to places wet and wild
Crystal Crane Hot Springs is a resort with a large hot spring-heated pond and a recently created cold water pond for wildlife. We checked out the wildlife in both ponds. I’m not sure if the people visiting the hot spring appreciated a bunch of people walking nearby with cameras and binoculars.
Waterfowl seen here, and at other ponds and lakes on this tour, included swans (tundra and trumpeter), northern shovelers, cinnamon teals, redheads, common mergansers, and American coots. Western grebes were starting to do a little mating behavior but we didn’t get to see them do their unique walking-on-water display. American avocets and black-necked stilts gracefully waded through shallow water. Killdeer were seen and heard as they tried to make sure we didn’t get too close to their nests.
We saw quite a few raptors on the Steens Mountain tour. Northern harriers drifted over marshy areas. Bald and golden eagles hunted near fields. Swainson’s hawks, red-tailed hawks, and rough-legged hawks perched on pivot irrigation systems looking for prey. American kestrels perched on power lines watching all the birdwatchers driving by. On the field trip I was on the next day, we saw a ferruginous hawk peeking out of a nest in a lone juniper tree. This tree is one of their favorites for nesting, but last year ravens took it over.
Small but significant
Songbirds sought shelter from the weather but luckily we saw several species. It was a little early to see some of the shrubsteppe-dependent songbirds, but western meadowlarks and sage thrashers perched high singing their bright songs. Yellow-headed blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and marsh wrens sung in marshy areas. The descending call of the canyon wren was heard near rocky buttes. Say’s phoebes were seen perching briefly then flying out to do a little fly catching.
Dining at an iconic location
We stopped for lunch at the Fields Station Cafe, at the southern end of Steens Mountain. The isolated small town of Fields is famous for the burgers and shakes it serves at the cafe. We ordered ahead for our large group. I didn’t know if I would partake in slurping down one of the giant milkshakes but ended up splitting one. I think I was able to finish one-quarter of a coffee milkshake. It was just enough to give me a much needed infusion of caffeine. After lunch, we crossed the highway to a grove of trees. A great horned owl, perched in the cottonwoods, eyed us warily.
Home on the range
Wranglers were out on horseback herding cattle on the west side and east side of Steens Mountain. Harney County is 10,226 square miles in size. It is the largest county in Oregon and one of the largest in the United States. Yet with a population of only 7,200 people, it somehow still has a small town feel. One of our guides recognized a cowboy working the range many miles from Burns, where we started our tour.
This was a long, but good, day in Harney County. Our guides knew the country well and helped us spot wildlife. They also told us some of the interesting history related to the area. They pointed out to us what makes this country so special and that’s what made the Steens Mountain tour great.