Wild Eastern Oregon
Our caravan of minivans was greeted with a beautiful rosy sunrise early Tuesday morning as we headed out of town en route to the Malheur Wildlife Refuge. Student’s handled the long hours in the car well, entertaining themselves and training their eyes to look at the tiny details that make desolate Eastern Oregon fascinating. We arrived at the Field Station, our home away from home for the next few days, and settled into the dorms before exploring the surrounding areas. Around us we could see the snowy Steen’s Mountains, high buttes and low plains, and Malheur Lake. The sun set to a chorus of coyote howls. After dinner we played several wild games of hide and seek and cops and robbers under the brilliant stars before going to bed for an early start the next morning.
We woke early the next morning (some would consider this still nighttime) to meet the naturalist who would teach us about the birds of the area. Some of us had an easier time getting up than others, but luckily nobody was left behind. The naturalist took us along a dirt road way up on a butte in hopes of finding a sage grouse lek (a gathering where males strut to impress females). Each van had a radio so our naturalist could tell everyone about the places we were seeing, and the birds we would hopefully see. After several miles he stopped us and as we peered out the window in the pale dawn light, the puffy white chests and radiating tail feathers of sage grouse appeared. We had found the lek! We listened to the clucking noises they made and watched as the birds strutted around. Our naturalist was so knowledgeable about the area and the birds and we were lucky to have him with us.
As we drove back to the Field Station we kept our eyes open for other animals. We saw some smaller birds and deer, but we were really hoping to see wild horses. We knew that of all the places we would visit, this was the only one we might have a chance to see them. As we got closer & closer to the main road our hopes of seeing the horses dropped. Suddenly, a voice over the radio announced that the first van had spotted wild horses! They were beautiful. A herd of pronghorn stood next to them, providing scale to the huge horses. The pronghorn raced off, but the horses stayed, and we got to watch them for some time as the stallion gathered his herd and studied us.