Circling Steens Mountain Tour

Up with the birds for a Steens Mountain tour

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.

Steens mountain tour, geese beneath a stormy sky 6April2018

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.

Steens mountain tour, pronghorn buck eastern Oregon 6April2018

 Steens mountain tour, views of the east side of Steens Mountain, Oregon 6April2018We 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.

Steens mountain tour, burrowing owls eastern Oregon 6April2018Visits 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.

Steens mountain tour, black-necked stilt in eastern Oregon 6April2018Waterfowl 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.

Raptor rapture

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.

Steens mountain tour, ferruginous hawk nest eastern Oregon 6April2018Small 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.

Steens mountain tour, western meadowlark eastern Oregon 6April2018Dining 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.

Steens mountain tour, great horned owl eastern Oregon 6April2018Home on the range

Steens mountain tour, cowboy eastern Oregon 6April2018Wranglers 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.

Steens mountain tour, old cabin eastern Oregon 6April2018

Daily prompt – Partake

Mule Deer Field Trip near Bend, Oregon

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.

Mule Deer 10June2016

Mule Deer in the West

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.

Mule Deer buck 8August2017

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 carcass 10April2017 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.

 

Factors Affecting Mule Deer Population Levels

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.

DeerHabitat 18Nov2017.jpg

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.

Mule deer 18November2017

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.

A Bit About Mule Deer Life History

Fawn at Spring Creek near Camp Sherman, OR 25June2016 SiobhanSullivanPredators 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.

Signpost rubbed away by deer antlers 18November2017In 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.

Diseases That Affect Mule Deer

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.

Mule deer in garden 9August2017

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.

 

Juniper of Dreams

“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.

Western tree in Bend, Oregon 19November2017

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

Pete French Round Barn

Horsemen of the past

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.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

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.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

Round barns – marvelous structures with a purpose

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.

Round barns allowed livestock to be sheltered and trained year round. Teams of horses and mules were trained to pull freight wagons in the barns. This particular barn has an interesting history.

Pete French

In 1872, Pete French and a group of vaqueros were camping in an area south of present-day Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He was working for cattleman and wheat baron, Dr. Hugh Glenn, moving 1,200 shorthorn cattle to better grazing lands on Steens Mountain.  French met a prospector named Porter who had about a dozen cattle and squatter’s rights to the land. He bought the cattle, rights to the land, and the “P” brand. The laws of the land were a bit different back then so when he moved the cattle onto unsurveyed land nearby, that land became his. Ranchers were required to build fences to keep cattle out of their lands.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017French continued to work with Hugh Glenn and together they created French-Glenn Livestock Company.  Pete French became president of the company in 1893. The company went on to become one of the best run cattle businesses of the time. French-Glenn Livestock Company had two round barns and numerous other buildings on their 150,000 to 200,000 acres of land.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017Though successful as a businessman, Pete French was not well liked by some of his neighbors. Settlers were putting up fences on what they claimed was public land and French contested those claims in court. He fought with one neighbor, Edward Oliver, off and on for ten years. On December 26, 1897, they got in their last argument. Oliver shot and killed French and was later acquitted of all charges.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

Preserving the past

The round barn has been carefully restored by state and federal agencies.  It is now protected as the Pete French Round Barn State Heritage Site. Cycle Oregon and Trust Management Services have also put work into maintaining and improving the site.

The barn is in an isolated location but it’s a remarkable structure well worth seeing. When you stand in it and look around, you really get a feel for the history of the place. It is a place full of many stories. For driving directions, click here.

Pete French Round Barn near Diamond, Oregon 13Sept2017

The Round Barn Visitor Center

There is also an impressive visitor center and store near the barn. The Round Barn Visitor Center contains a small museum and a store featuring clothing, jewelry, hunting knives, and a very good assortment of local and regional history books. The store also has a few snacks and beverages. The museum contains artifacts related to the Jenkins family, who have lived and worked in the area for several generations. Talk to Mr. Jenkins, the proprietor of the store, to learn more about the stories this land has to tell.

Weekly Photo Challenge – Rounded