Saturday, May 7, 2016

Greater Sage-Grouse Lek, and the Road to Malheur

A few weeks ago, Maureen and I headed to eastern Oregon to see some great birds, and celebrate our 10-year(!) anniversary. We booked a trip to Malheur NWR before the refuge actually opened back up, post-occupation, and lucked-out when they announced that everything would be accessible again, except for the HQ. Since we were heading that way anyway, priority numero uno would be an overnight stop in Bend in hopes of seeing a Greater Sage-grouse lek.


Pronghorn butt

Yellow-bellied Marmot

The adventure started on our first night out, though. Just as we were heading into the mountains, not long before we headed into a surprise blizzard, with the sun dropping quickly behind us, we found ourselves at a living roadblock. A gigantic Elk was straddling our narrow lane (lifer mammal, finally). I braked and it took off downslope like a lightning bolt.

Sage-grouse, we heard, might be found strutting about from an hour before sunrise to an hour after. We headed out plenty early, and made a beeline for the coordinates of the eBird hotspot. Nothing. We pulled over and hoped for the best when a pair of birders with the same goal pulled up. They seemed just as lost as us, but fortunately they knew who to call for more specific directions, and soon we convoyed over to the right spot. 

Greater Sage-Grouse lek

For the most part, the bulk of the grouses (grice?) stayed mostly obscured behind tall grasses, but the occasional male would wander over toward a clearing, giving open, albeit distant, views. As far as we could tell, there were at least 13 males putting on a show, with no females to impress but Maureen (sorry guys, she's taken). 

Maureen taking her photography to new heights

Even though we found them at about sunset, we still got to spend another two hours with them. Eventually, around 8:30 a pack of coyotes started howling from far off, but it was enough to spook the grouses/grice and they all scattered.

With our main target out of the way, we headed to Malheur NWR. Our first stop in Harney County was the Sage Hen Rest Area, which we remembered fondly from last year for the omnipresent Mountain Bluebirds taking advantage of the nest boxes hung all around. Also along Hwy 20 we had some nice looks at Pronghorn just off the side of the road. It's great to come out this way, and see these awesome animals everywhere. It's especially great when they're not sprinting away from you at 55 mph (fun fact: Pronghorn aren't true antelopes; their closest relatives are giraffes and okapis).

Mountain Bluebirds

Mountain fluffball


Now we hit Malheur proper. OR-205 runs south along the length of the refuge, from Burns to Fields, and some of the best birding opportunities are along here. Not only did we find thousands of Snow and Ross's Geese, we started picking out dozens of Black-necked Stilts and American Avocets - some of our favorites shorebirds that you'll see featured in a future post. 

Snow and Ross's Geese, Black-necked Stilts, and American Avocets

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Say's Phoebe

The refuge HQ is still closed while the authorities catalogue the evidence that will hopefully keep the Bundy crew in prison for the maximum sentence (P.S., fuck the Bundys). The HQ is spectacular, and it was a shame to pass it up, but the nearby Field Station was open. It was too early for the Cliff Swallows to start nesting like we found them last year, but we were content with some splashes of yellow that brightened up the place. 

(Audubon's) Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-headed Blackbird

Belding's Ground-squirrel

Swainson's Hawk

Down the auto route tour, we started seeing Black-tailed Jackrabbits in greater numbers. We must have seen 50 over the weekend, darting every which way, including out in front of the car. 

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Tree Swallows

Cinnamon Teal pair

We would spend the night in Frenchglen (population: 8), but when we got into town there was still enough light for one more stop, so we headed to P Ranch for a quick stroll. As the sun started to drop, the Turkey Vultures started crowding into their roosts, the most prominent of which was an old fire lookout (I assume). At the same time, we started hearing the most eerie sound all around us. And it kept moving, first far away, and then practically on top of us. We searched and searched, and couldn't turn up any clue until I picked out a shorebird directly above us. It took some detective work, but we soon figured out it was being made by several Wilson's Snipes. It wasn't a call exactly, but the winnowing noise they make with their tail feathers as they display in flight. Between that and the colors of the sunset reflected off the mountains, it was a truly awesome end to our first day.

Turkey Vulture roost


  1. Your trip looks amazing and those Greater Sage Grouse are just to die for! The Cinnamon Teals photos beautiful and the Yellow-rumped Warbler's yellow throat is so striking. I'm glad you both encounter great birds and no protesters.

    1. Thanks, Charlotte! It was totally amazing, and if you ever have the chance to visit Malheur, you absolutely should. There's really no place like it.