This spring I tried something new by going on two nature walks with llamas. The first hike was part of the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival in eastern Oregon. The second hike, just north of Burns, Oregon, was to help a llama get certification for the Pack Llama Trial Association (PLTA).
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 .
I don’t see the desert as barren at all; I see it as full and ripe. It doesn’t need to be flattered with rain. It certainly needs rain, but it does with what it has, and creates amazing beauty.Joy Harjo
Here are a few delicate beauties growing in the High Desert near Bend, Oregon. Enjoy their rainbow colors and gentle grace.
Lens-Artists Photo Challenge – Delicate
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
“I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.” e.e. cummings
At this time of the year, I often think of harmony in nature. Every time I go outside, I hear the songsters of spring. Here are a few local songsters whose voices and plumage are full of gold.
Click on the word “song” in the caption below each photograph to hear the harmony in nature these birds share with us.
Lens-Artists Photo Challenge – Harmony
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.
Lens Artists Photo Challenge – Worn & Weathered
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.
Enjoy the newsletter! To see more, go to Volunteer Newsletters.
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.
Lens-Artists Photo Challenge – Look Up
Ancient trees direct
An ensemble of moist clouds
Over the desert
Lens-Artists Photo Challenge – Path
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.
The prickly pear cactus in my garden are highlighted in the summer with bright yellow flowers and in the winter with layers of snow. The sharp needles make their presence known throughout the year.
Yes, that pronghorn is kind of bossy, but I hope you’ll take a minute to look at my “new and improved” About page. Thanks for visiting!
Bend Branches About page
In May I visited the Clarno Palisades area, 18 miles west of Fossil, Oregon in the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. This unit gets light usage. We only saw a few other visitors.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is a Trail Guide for hikes in the Clarno, Painted Hills, and Sheep Rocks Units of the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
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.
Tuesday Photo Challenge – New
The theme for the very last Weekly Photo Challenge was All-time Favorites. I’m late getting these up because my computer was in the shop and I was traveling. So without further ado…
I have a lot of photos of animals so it’s hard to choose favorites but here goes. Here’s a handful for you.
This was even harder to narrow down! Here’s another handful.
And here’s a dash of history for good measure. Hope you enjoy them!
Final Weekly Photo Challenge – All-Time Favorites
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weekly Photo Challenge – Twisted
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Daily prompt – Partake
At this time of year, mule deer are migrating and breeding in Central Oregon. Your best chances of seeing this nighttime-feeding deer are in the early hours of the morning or in the late evening. On a chilly November morning, High Desert Museum Curator of Wildlife, Jon Nelson, led a group of people eager to learn more about mule deer.
The mule deer is uniquely adapted to the environment of the American West. In the spring and summer they browse on plants in mountainous areas. As winter approaches, mule deer pack on the calories and move to lower elevations. Deer in the Cascades migrate eastwards and have to navigate their way past Highway 97. Underpasses help large numbers of deer make that journey. As the deer continue eastwards, hundreds can be seen in the area between Silver Lake and Fort Rock during fall and winter months.
In Central Oregon, deer feed mainly on bitterbrush, Idaho fescue grass, and sagebrush. They are not as dependent on the availability of water since they get much of what they need from their diet. On the field trip, Sand Spring was one of the few water sources we saw. It’s fenced to keep cattle out but the deer, as you probably know, can easily clear most fences if they want to get a drink.
Should you feed deer in your yard? No. If deer eat food provided by humans, it can have devastating effects. Their gut has evolved to process certain foods. If they eat other foods, it can kill the good bacteria in their stomachs. This can cause illness or even death. Certain diseases are spread to other deer via their saliva so you may not want to give them salt licks either.
Mule deer can often be found in ecotones, edge habitats between two plant communities. They can also find their preferred food plants in areas that are becoming re-established, including those affected by fires and clear-cutting. Deer seek out certain areas using behavioral thermal regulation. For example, they bed down on south and east facing slopes where it tends to be warmer.
Mule deer are adapted to living in areas with high snowfall. However, depths deeper than 20” for extended periods of time, like we had last winter, can cause many deer to die. Scavengers benefit by feeding on winter-kill deer. On this trip, we found a dead buck and bald eagles and ravens were congregating nearby to feed on it. It appeared that coyotes had been there as well.
When you see numerous mule deer around Central Oregon you may assume they are doing well. That, unfortunately, is not the case. The number of mule deer in Oregon is steeply declining. In the 1960’s, there were more than 300,000 mule deer in the state; now the number is estimated to be around 200,000. On this trip, we drove south on the China Hat Road, east of the Museum. Several years ago it would have been common to see lots of deer in this area. We didn’t see many deer until we were many miles away from Bend.
There are several factors contributing to declining numbers. Fences affect deer populations by excluding them from some areas and also entangling them, which can lead to injury or death. Other factors include disturbance due to more people living in and visiting the area. Activities such as OHVing, mountain biking, and hiking with off-leash dogs, disturb deer. The many roads of Deschutes National Forest (more than any other National Forest in the U.S.) help in firefighting but also bring more people into the backcountry.
Poaching is a big problem in Oregon. More deer are taken illegally than legally. Due to budget constraints, the few officers responsible for enforcing the laws must cover huge geographic areas. On January 1, 2017, fines for poaching increased. The fine for poaching a deer with four or more points on at least one antler is now $7,500. While that is a lot, some people are still willing to break the law to bag a deer.
The mule deer’s iconic antlers can affect their population levels. Some hunters prefer bucks with large antlers but another type of hunter is out looking for antlers. Shed hunters look for antlers that have been shed where deer tend to congregate in the late winter and early spring. This activity disturbs the deer at a crucial time of year. Selling the antlers, priced by the pound, is a lucrative business. Some states regulate how long shed hunters are allowed to collect antlers so that deer are not disturbed in the spring, when fawns are born.
Deer are managed through hunting throughout the U.S. Here in Oregon, seasons run from September through early December. Different types of firearms and restrictions are allowed at different times of the season. Hunters report their success and this information is used to set future seasons and manage the population.
Predators also affect deer populations. Cougars are the primary predator of deer in this region. Black bears and coyotes sometimes prey on fawns. Wolves have moved into the state over the last few years and they too prey on deer. One of the ways mule deer ensure more of their young survive is through a behavior known as swamping. All of the does become pregnant at about the same time. There are so many young fawns at once that predators can’t possibly get them all.
In the fall, breeding season starts for mule deer. The hormone levels in the bucks skyrockets. Their antlers grow at the amazing rate of up to an inch per day. The bucks shed the velvet on their antlers by rubbing on trees – or unlucky signposts. Big antlers attract mates and deter other males. The slim necks mule deer have in summer, become muscular and massive. Their eyes turn red and they sometimes drool. The rutting bucks are ready to fight any male that gets too close to their harem of does. Harems can contain 15-20 does. The does choose which bucks they want to breed with. Fawns are born in late May through June after a 212 day gestation. Once they are more than a year old, does often have twins.
Mule deer have a lifespan of about ten years in the wild but their life may be shortened by disease. Two diseases affecting deer were mentioned on this field trip. Adenovirus Hemorrhagic Disease (AHD) is passed through direct contact, bodily fluids, and airborne routes. Symptoms may include a blue-colored tongue, mouth ulcers, severe weight loss, and weakness. AHD affects mule deer, white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and pronghorn and is often fatal. Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) is a disease with symptoms similar to mad cow disease. It occurs in deer, elk, moose, and reindeer and is always fatal.
You may have heard a story in the news recently about a local person cited for possessing a deer bagged in Montana. Oregon is CWD free and does not allow certain parts of deer and elk to be imported into the state from Montana, 24 other states, and one Canadian province that have the disease . Once it was determined that this particular deer had CWD, the deer meat was confiscated and every place it had been stored or disposed of had to be decontaminated. This highly contagious disease could be a serious problem here in the future.
So the next time you are concerned about mule deer eating your landscaping, keep in mind that their numbers are declining. Do what you can to keep them away from your most treasured plants and appreciate them for their beauty and grace.
Reprinted from High Desert Voices December 2017 newsletter. To see more issues, go here.
This young scrub jay patiently followed its cheeky parent around even though they kept dropping bark on its head. The young bird was waiting to be fed but maybe it should be thinking about leaving the nest soon. 🙂
Weekly Photo Challenge – Cheeky
“Its trunk had twisted and turned over the years as the roots sought water far below. The tree was more than a thousand years old. Crinkled yellow-green lichens adorned dark bare branches reaching skyward. Clumps of scaly foliage and tiny silver-blue cones clung to a scattering of branches.” – Description of Enebros de Sueños, the Juniper of Dreams, in a magical realism story I’m working on.
I have lots of western juniper trees on my property but this particular one serves as my muse. I have included it in many photos – see Juniper Muse – but now it is also a mysterious character in a children’s book I’m working on. The tree is old and twisted with age, yet it persists.
The Daily Post – Particular
Turning in his saddle and tilting his dusty hat to shade his eyes, he finally sees it in the distance. The round barn. The year is 1887 and he and the other vaqueros are moving a herd of horses collected over the sagebrush covered plains of the High Desert in Oregon. He had worked so many hours that week that when he finally settled down each night on a bed of hard sandy soil, he instantly fell into a deep sleep.
Moving cattle, horses, and mules for his boss, Pete French, was a hard but satisfying life. Guiding his horse with worn leather reins, he moves to the back of the herd of mustangs and starts driving them towards the barn.
The Pete French Round Barn, near Diamond, Oregon, was built in the 1880’s. The center pole and supporting poles are made from ancient western juniper trees. The juniper shows cuts and gouges from past use but is still strong. Umbrella-like beams radiate out from the center to support the rounded roof of this 100-foot diameter barn. Horses were stabled in the middle part of the building. The 63-foot diameter rock wall in the middle section forms a round corral in the building’s interior. A 20-foot wide circular paddock surrounds it. During the long winters, 400 to 600 horses and mules were moved through and trained in the barn, safe from the harsh conditions outside.