Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Week in the Oregon Outback 10.04 to 10.10.15

I've been back in Portland for eight days, and of course working overtime to make up for missed time. Throughout the week, I've had these flashes of images from my adventures out in eastern and southern Oregon. They seep through the cracks, saying "Remember me?  Remember seeing this incredible thing?"  
It seems surreal to think that I was pottering through Leslie Gulch, or clambering down the trail along the Blitzen River.  That I saw thousands upon thousands of ducks on Tule and Klamath Lakes in California and drove round Crater Lake later that same day..  It's a literal whirlwind of images and I wish I'd had more time to spend at each place, hiking and more thoroughly exploring each road and trail, but we do what we can with the time we have, right?  

Even after deleting over half of the photos I took, I still have  a whopping 400+ to cull from, so I think I'll just post the must haves from each day and annotate with descriptions.  If I were to write my usual detailed story it would amount to a novella, and won't be finished until Halloween.  And for the more avid birders amongst you, be warned that the majority of the bird photogs don't take place until the second half of the trip, so be patient. Lots of beautiful things to see before that.. click on any of the photos to see it larger, and you can scroll through the whole photostream there as well.

Day 1 The Wallowa's and a night at Blackhorse Campground on the Imnaha River

    Deer hoof at Umatilla Wildlife refuge; just the hoof

     Beautiful and super painful spiny desert shrubs have taken over paths at Umatilla

     Driving up above Pendleton into the foothills of the Wallowa's

    Favorite combo of desert basalt bones rising from the hills and the wonderful pine smell

     Love old signs..

      Bewildered cattle with a view

I love this barn, used to know the name of it.. Bad shot, but the sun was in exactly the wrong place.  I suffered from that a lot on this trip, staring at something amazing with the sun right in my face.

    And this is how I get my first decent magpie photo; he's eating meat out of the rump of a deer

     "How you like me now?",  seems to be the question being asked here

    Heading up one of my favorite roads: Wallowa Mountain loop, the sun dropping just like the temps

     I slept maybe 30 feet from the Imnaha River and was cooold. Packed up early and headed out.

    Lovely breakfast at the Hell's Canyon overlook, and of course sun is too bright for photos.

    Descending back down to more scenic barns and heading south to the desert.

     White crowned's were more than plentiful on this trip, they were the predominant sparrow seen.

I pulled over for the view in the next photo, almost didn't notice this family of white tails on the other side of the road; what every hunter was looking for. On guard, little dudes!

     Fall sage brush and desert foliage and last view of the lovely jagged Wallowa's

Day 2 Succor Creek Wilderness 

    The beginning of the silliness and the gravel that was the undoing of my tailpipe

Its really impossible to capture the space and the dimensions of the desert in photos, yet I keep trying.

     The way back

    The way forward

     Bones of the earth rising up

     Down in Succor Creek canyon 


     Home sweet home for the night at Succor Creek campground

     Not that deep this year but still a water source for the wildlife, insects,fish, birds, deer, coyote..

     View from the campground

    I had it to myself except for one other dude, then at dusk an RV from California pulled in

    Went for a little hike up the off road lane to find a burn had swept through up the valley

     But the regrowth was pushing through and looked all the more vibrant against the coal black soil.

     The canyon that sources Succor Creek's water

    Up the valley from the campground, just past the burn; a surreal landscape

     My first picture of a katydid!  They are so freaking cool.  Talk about camouflage..

    This is ridiculously the best picture I have of quail all week; they are so speedy and good at hiding.

    One of the many kinds of rabbit brush still blooming in late summer

    Teasel, my fave

      Female Downy in the tree over my truck

      Mountain Chickadee doing a little fantail dance for me

      Succor Creek valley

Heading south the next morning to Leslie Gulch after I'd Magyver'd my now dangling tailpipe back together with some rusty bailing wire borrowed from my campground RV neighbors. Nice people; rockhounds. She showed me her first Chalcedony Rose while he looked for wire. It's a good thing I was never truly bit by the rockhounding bug, beyond looking for Oregon sunstones, and a little gold panning. It's even nuttier than birdwatching and that's saying something. But bless their hearts for that bailing wire..

Day 3  Leslie Gulch, the Pillars of Rome, no Willow Creek Hot Springs so onto Page Springs 

What to say about Leslie Gulch besides ooh, aah..?  Well, it's been an unbelievable 9 or 10 years since I was last there, and there are some small changes. The dirt road is now washboard gravel which at times is almost worse, but that's because I don't always want to do the prescribed 30 mph it takes to not have your vehicle rattle like a jackhammer.  And that's because you head down some steep road with sharp curves on the way into the gulch.  If you hit those washboard grooves wrong and skid on those curves, it's bye bye Leslie Gulch, bye bye everybody. So the road in was a bit of a trial, but I had been expecting that.

There was a burn that looked fairly recent on the left side as I headed in, with barely any new growth yet. And as I finally stopped at the campground at the end before the Owyhee River boat launch, I saw that the BLM had put up all new metal canopies and picnic tables at each campsite as well as a more permanent vault toilet.  There were several full length RV's parked as well as trailers for ATV's and the like. Those must have been fun to drive in, better them than me.  No one seemed to be in the campground, and the day was already bright and growing hot, with black flies swarming over everything. I chatted with the two guys I had leap-frogged on the drive in; we talked cameras and populations and nature. They both lived in and around Boise, ID, and complained that the population boom was taking place there too.  Alas, there goes one of my backup plans..  Well, all I can really say about Leslie Gulch is that it continues to blow my mind, it's on my top five spots in Oregon, without a doubt and I'm so glad I made it back..


      Chloe, my endlessly faithful trooper

     My new summer cabin

     Not so lucky, that Hiram. But he got a hell of a place named after him, so you know..

Heading out to Jordan Valley for another tank of gas, and the kid who pumped it had just moved back home after a couple of years living in Beaverton and Tigard; I congratulate his choice.

     The rock formations just east of the tiny hamlet of Rome, the Pillars of Rome.  Impressive..


Just look at the graceful swells of those hills, like the coolest sculpture ever; volcanic mountains pushing up and glaciers and water tearing it back down.. And so on and so forth, down through the geologic record, through time immemorial. How cool is that?

I had gone looking for Willow Creek hotsprings, a couple miles south of Whitehorse Ranch road, a 55 mile gravel road running between highway 78 and highway 205, just south of Fields. I remember reading about it in my old camping book, with promises of remote privacy for the intrepid traveler, (And possibly being eaten alive by black flies).  Well, with high hopes, I swung southwest onto Whitehorse Ranch road and at the mile mark I was looking for, I spotted the creek.  Backed the truck up to find the road that would continue the 2.5 miles to the campground and hotspring.  Hmm. Well, it was either the 4WD track that I took up the adjacent hill only to have it peter out amidst piles of car parts and other desert debris, or the nice gravel road to the immediate left of the creek, with a locked gate and a firm no trespassing sign.  I'm assuming it was the gated road.  Looks like the hotspring is now on private land, and I should remember to repurchase camping books every couple of years, or do an internet search on every place I intend to hit up before I head out.  

Oh well, luckily, my next day's camp spot was only an hour and a half further.  So I continued on to Fields where I was too late to get a meal, (the cafe closes at 4pm promptly), but was able to get some gas from owner Sandy and say hello to a couple of the half-ton hemi's full of deer hunters. No one seemed to be having any luck, they were exchanging possible hot spots over beers.  Mann Lake was perhaps the place to be?  I checked in with them to see if they thought there would be room at Page Springs campground. I hadn't considered having to duke it out with hunters for a spot. I have to say, that my prior years of birding Malheur in the fall usually consisted of a hotel room in Burns, and keeping to the corridor of the refuge, so I didn't run into that many hunters.  Not this trip, this was full bore, everyone in camo, hunting tents, atv's and dirtbikes for going after kills, all the gear and ammo you could ever want.  But I didn't see a single kill. Huh. I rolled into Page Springs at dusk, and didn't even risk driving through the campground.  Space #1 to my immediate right was open and I pulled in and turned off the engine, sighing in relief.  Just happy to be there.

     This is one of my favorite intersections; yes to all four, please!

So happy to relax, listening to the owls, the coyotes, looking at the stars and having a drink in front of the fire. That's all I really want out of life..

Day 4  Taking a break and nature watching in Page Springs CG, southeast Steens Mountain

    Hiking up the Blitzen River trail

     Fence lizard

    Townsend's Solitaire getting a drink in the Blitzen

These needles seem too delicate to be a western juniper, but it had the lovely blue berries so probably..            .

    The birds and the deer were obviously taking advantage

     Field of teasel next to the Blitzen River

     Golden-crowned kinglet busy eating 

     Same bird giving me his best angel improv

     This scrounger wasn't getting snacks from me, but John down the road was feeding them peanuts!

    But the magpie reminded me to snap a quick photo of my tailpipe shenanigans.. ha!

Water levels are not high, this was a drainage irrigation culvert off the Blitzen on the CPR road.  I ran into a USFW guy taking measurements on the Blitzen.  He admitted it was lower than usual.  I'm just glad it was flowing.

    Ring-neck pheasant madness about to ensue

    Immature White-Crowned sparrow

     This joker

      Audubon's warbler

     Female Ring-necked

     Northern Harrier, I think.. odd shot, so kind of hard to see identifying characteristics

 Dry Benson pond had what these deer and ring necked pheasant wanted to munch on, and no hunters!

      Headed to Benson Pond

    The only two T.V.'s left in Oregon it would seem, the rest have migrated

    Red-naped Sapsucker.  There was a pair of them on matching posts but only caught the one

    Fall foliage making me happy

    Historic P Ranch long barn, such a good structure

     Fall leaves and colors

      What did I say about these guys? everywhere..

     Another immature white crowned sparrow on the fence keeping Bun-bun company

This buck was the only one I saw the whole trip; he was smart and kept his family herd in the boundaries of Page Springs campground.  I had three of them feeding and sleeping about twenty feet from my campfire; smart deer.

      Red-tailed hawk posing

      Ruby-crowned Kinglet playing hide the beak

    The Donner river running past my new spot, I moved to #31 for the second night at Page Springs

Northern flicker- this was the bird at Malheur, literally hundreds. I stopped counting, it was just nuts..

     Another Townsend's Solitaire

Day 5  Heading South through Sheldon Antelope Refuge, then West to Klamath Falls and Odessa Creek campground

    This Great Horned Owl was less than thrilled with me and my flash.. in the P Long Barn

  So irritated that they all transformed into robo-owls with the help of my camera's flash

Robo Great Horned #2 also thrilled to make my acquaintance.  Bothering nocturnal owls in the daytime is not cool birding behavior, it left a bad taste in my mouth..

All three with the last on the right turning it's back in disgust.. Can you blame it?  I skulked off in shame..

I headed back through Fields and stopped for a burger and fries from Sandy.  Took the opportunity to charge my phone for an hour and got some more gas.  I love those people.. Super nice, and Sandy and I talked about the joys of asthma; the grease from the grill and seasonal rabbit brush make hers worse. She gave me a hug before I left and I was glad to have met her. However, I think that will be my last beef burger. 

I've been thinking about this for a while, but being out in eastern Oregon again and spending more quality time with hundreds of miles of overgrazed cattle fields has finally done it.  I can't in good conscience be a part of this cycle of ecological and commercial bullshit.  I met this retired marine biologist at Page Springs, John, who was just awesome.  He was obsessed with the wild mustangs on the southeast side of the Steens and had hundreds of photos of them and coyotes as well.  John was patient and had been driving around the Steens for the better part of a week, so he had earned it, but man, his pictures were amazing.  And he had found a mustang skull!  But anyway, we got to talking about all things ecological, from the global warming conference he had attended in May in D.C., to how we were gonna vote if the shit hit the fan.  And then this woman that I knew from Evergreen and Olympia a lifetime ago walked by with her dog.  I called out to her and she came over to say hello. Lisa had just recently left a job with the BLM, and had spent her career doing all the things I wish I had done.  Even though she felt her local office was more progressive than some, she was still disenchanted and ultimately decided to leave.  Let's face it, us naturalists get to enjoy what we do thanks to the Department of the Interior, but their MO is commerce funding. And that's cattle, timber and hunting and fishing licenses.  And environmental concerns are secondary to those power grids, to those dams built and maintained by the corps of engineers.  All these places that we rub shoulders with those intermediary and bureaucratic forces which determine how our nature and wildlife are managed, those are the places where I feel the need to keep my eyes open. So no more beef for me, but more questions about how migration is being impacted by changing environmental forces.  We just had a really good lecture at the Portland Audubon this last week about that, and it's got me and my friend Jill asking a lot of questions.  Reminds me that no matter how overblown our reality can become, how overwhelming the traffic and the population density is, that it's important to pay attention to the details, the gristle that holds it all together.  And to remember that if you care about a facet of your reality, don't assume it will always be there.  Fight to protect it, to preserve it, fight for the things that can't fight for themselves. Because you can.. Why do I love going out to the desert? Because issues like this become really crystal clear to me. Anywho, enough politics, and onto Nevada!

     All right, Sheldon Antelope Refuge, here I come!

 Okay, so here I am!  Show me your antelope!  Or a jackrabbit.. a rattlesnake..  A quail?  I'll take    anything... Hello...???

Nothing, nada.. or Nevada rather.  I have to give it to the state. They aren't messing around when they say desert.  None of this daytripping bullshit, with a couple days out to the "high desert" and then back to the forest or the coast for a little misty surfing.. No, they mean it. DESERT, full on 24-7, this is what you signed up for when you decided to live here, so suck it up.  I totally respect that. It takes a different breed of person.

     There was one Western Grebe on the pond, and photo was blurry. Why is the "N" backwards?

     Some painted hills action going on here

    Major signage at state lines.  I love them, and these were all in a 500 foot range, so you know...

 Perspective dulled with overcast skies, but this was a very high range drop-off in front of a huge flat valley

    Weaving down the empty road to the valley floor, I love driving out in the desert

     Little roadside falls on my way to Lakeview-Highway 140

     Harold Bay on Upper Klamath Lake- heading to Odessa Creek CG for the night

     Upper Klamath Lake from the southeast corner at sunset

Day 6  Full throttle: California/Oregon Birding and Crater Lake then Home. By 11pm. No shit.

So my original plan had me about a half day ahead of where I was now.  Where in fact was I now?
Well, I was waking up in a wooded campground on the west side of Upper Klamath Lake, Odessa Creek to be exact.  I had rolled in at dusk, found a mostly private spot, there were two other dudes in the place, but we all kept to ourselves.  I had a pleasant tailgate soup dinner and crawled into bed soon after dark, did a little reading, a little writing, then conked out.  Because of my attempts to find the mustangs the previous morning, (no luck), and my drawn out lunch at Fields, I didn't get to Tule and Lower Klamath lakes the previous day as I had hoped.  I hadn't even had time to check out Eagle Ridge before dark.  

So those were both on my agenda today.  I planned to get an early start and do all of those things and then head north up to Crater Lake by early afternoon.  I knew that I was giving up on my plans to camp at Crater Lake.  If I wanted to do that I would need to be at Lost Creek CG at noon, fighting for a spot.  After all, it was Friday and a sunny weekend in early October, so it would be a showdown. Funny, what decided me was my first night out this week, camping at 5500 ft elevation in the Wallowa's.  It was cold, and I knew it would be even worse at Crater given the 7500 ft elevation.  I had even brought an extra comforter to top my seemingly useless sleeping bag, but I still didn't want to go through with it. And the other part was that if I did that, then I would just be stuck at Crater Lake from noon onward, too far to get to other places, and nothing to do except hike.  In fact, that is probably what I would recommend to people to do there, it's a lovely park, but I wasn't in hiking a national park mode.  For better or worse, I was in "see five new things a day" mode.    

So I packed up and hit the road at 7:30, heading south a few miles to drive out to Eagle Ridge on Upper Klamath Lake.  There were a couple of helpful signs on the way, and then at the last intersection, with a road going down and a road headed up, the sign in the middle was blank.  Blank. I panicked and in a regrettable moment, I elected to follow the half-ton hemi in front of me to the right and upward.  The road quickly became crappy and while I suspected I should turn around, I plowed doggedly onward following the other truck.  At the mile mark where Eagle Ridge was clearly not, I decided I should turn around but couldn't find a clearing.  I was now passing hunters with rifles in camo, and had clearly driven up a mountain into a hunters camp.  The road started descending again, and I just decided to do a four point turn into some shrubbery. Got turned around and confirmed from another passing hunter that yes, the road I'd wanted was the lower road.  I grit my teeth and raced slowly down the mountain, getting finally to the Eagle Ridge campground, to pull in and enjoy the serene calm and quiet over the water as morning slowly warmed the air.  Got out, and snapped some photos of some  Greater Yellow-legs, some Bonaparte's diving for fish, and more grebes, geese and ducks.  The shoreline trees were teeming with Audubon's warblers, but the light was too dark in the shadow of the mountain still.

I took off South down 97 past the town of Klamath Falls and just over the state line into California to Lower Klamath lake, and drove the auto route backwards, hoping to come out closer to the entrance to Tule Lake's auto route.  I almost drove into a drainage canal trying to take pictures of a red tailed hawk while driving.  Kids, don't try this at Ridgefield.. It was a close call, lots of fishtailing, followed by hyperventilating.  Scared some coots half to death.  The sheer number of coots, ducks, and grebes was overwhelming.  I now understood some of the numbers I had looked at before I came down and said, "62,200 coots as of 09.22.15, how is that even possible?"  How do they even tabulate those figures anyhow?  "Well there's 100 in this little patch, let's multiply that by the square acreage of the lake and call it good?"  That probably is how they do it.  

So I missed the road to Tule Lake, and had to turn around, but then got it sorted.  I skipped the visitor center on the grounds that I had to make up some time, and stopped at the first viewing spot.  There was a nice new bird blind out over the lake, and another birder was heading towards it purposefully with her fancy scope and a jumbo Pepsi in tow.  I decided I didn't want to be in a small space with that vibe, and elected to head out an alternate path past an old and hilarious Gilligan's Island style bird blind.  I went past it, sinking into the oozing mud, through a swarm of flies, to be rewarded with a gaggle of birds I don't often see together; a Snowy Egret with fifteen or so Bonapart's gulls, a ring-billed and juvenile Herring gull, a Greater Yellow-legs, and was that a green winged teal flying past?  Oh, and a Killdeer thrown in just for continuity's sake.  "Killdeer - everywhere you wanna be", is going to be my next T-shirt.

Now this was more like it! I headed to the next stop, on the tail of Pepsi scope, and we politely waited for the other person to take the first pullout on the beginning of the auto route through the lake. Feeling like I didn't want to do the whole tour hopscotching with this other car, I looked in the rearview mirror to see a large truck bearing down on me.  The kind of truck that transports gravel or similar.  And we were on a wide but still single lane road with water on both sides.  He was revving his engine, and I couldn't back up, so I gunned it, and drove like a bat out of hell.  He stayed right on me until I reached a turn that had extra room, and I pulled over. He raced past me, kicking up gravel and generally being an asshole.  But the good news was that I was about 3/4 of a mile in front of Pepsi scope and in a pretty nice viewing spot.  I calmed down and then happily took off on the auto tour.  It was pretty amazing.  So many GREBES... and COOTS. Oh, and a long-billed curlew flew into a drainage ditch on my right, and then I didn't see it again.  It was mostly farmland right along the edges of the lake, although some internal spots were clearly for hunting. I saw two types of egrets and American White pelicans, and Snow geese, and it was so enjoyable.  I love this area and I want to go back there asap. Alright, here are the bird photos, nothing brilliant, mostly for id'ing purposes, but I'm happy with them.

    Serene Upper Klamath at Eagle Ridge

    Beautiful and elegant Bonaparte's gulls diving for fish

    One of the army of Audubon's warblers in the trees at Eagle Ridge

    Lovely morning breaking over the marsh up the road from Eagle Ridge

    Our state flower looking particularly autumnal and stunning

I really tried to make this into an American Sparrow despite no chest spot, but I think it's another immature white crowned; no eye stripe to make it a chipping.  This is like when I realized 99 % of the hawks I was seeing were juvenile red-tailed, and not other exciting unusual suspects. 

    Western Grebe's

    Coots and ducks and coots and ducks and coots and ducks.... you're beat boxing!

  Another steely stare down from a red tailed.. not the one I almost drove off the road for.. ha. haha..

 This immature red-tail needs to go on a diet, don't you think?  Looks like a football attached to wings

I'm not sure when that super sturdy wooden wheelchair ramp was last used for birding access, but hey, glad someone thought of it.  

    Of course, I had to capture this gem

    Go team harrier!

    Go team red-tailed!

Tried to puzzle out mountain from map, have no clue, Shasta is too far and others don't seem tall enough to have snow

    Team Harrier!

    quack, quack, quack.... quack

Click on photo to see this closer; left is Blue-winged Teal, then two Bonaparte's gulls, center is American Widgeon, and then next duck to right is a Green-winged Teal, followed by two more Widgeons.  Tule lake had a good variety of ducks..

Fave picture from Tule lake bird blind, left to right: Snowy Egret, about eighteen Bonaparte's, a ring -billed gull on the left, with an immature Herring gull in the middle, a Greater Yellow-legs in the back on the right and a killdeer in the left foreground. Ridiculous. The next photo in this series had a green-winged teal flying by too, just cause..

    White American pelican and a bunch of quacks

    Tule lake bird blind, I dare you to go in it.

    Western grebe 

    Eared grebe

    Bunch of gulls taking control of the auto route

    Snowy Egret


I don't know why, but I find this photo amusing.. And this grebe seems like a hybrid, or maybe it's a juvenile so the black on it's head hasn't fully darkened around the eye?

    American Widgeons

    Female Canvasback and a Western Grebe

    Crazy looking Northern Shovelers, rare to see them with their beaks out of the water

    American White Pelicans

    Pied Billed Grebe

    slew of Snow geese

    Great Egret

    Great Egrets and Cackling Geese

     Flock of Great Egrets and variety of gulls

     GBH and Cackling geese

    Field of Great Egrets after I'd scared them all of with my drive by

    Approximately 2:00pm Snow geese influx, it was loud and stinky


    Make some more room, budge up..

    Love pelicans.  They were all gathered in a loose circle, and then..

    This happened, all cool

 One last sign.. how come Oregon's sign is so boring, Nevada's and California's are cool.
Same day, but these last few are all from Crater Lake, which was my first real visit. The fee went up to $15 this year, but that's par for the course for most national parks.  It's totally worth it and I would recommend doing the whole lake if you've got the time, the drive and the views are half the fun..
And check out the Pinnacles, they're cool formations.  Just know that the main formations are not far from the parking lot, there isn't any more to see if you continue up the trail. I actually found that I was leaving the boundary of the park. but I wasn't the only person, everyone around seemed to think there must be a different spot.  I think it's because the pictures you see of the pinnacles online look totally different than what we were seeing, so it was confusing.  It was Eagle Ridge all over again.. Anyone seen any wild mustangs, anyone? Is this thing on?!  Anywho, Crater Lake was fabulous and though it was a bit tricky getting usable pictures from the east rim as the sun was setting, I managed.  I entered the park at 3:30 and still managed to see all I wanted to by 6:30 as I left.  Left from the north exit and drove past what appeared to be a still burning fire on my left.  Signs warned that it was ok and not to call it in as emergency.  It's strange being around a down-classed devastation.. "oh, just ignore that.."

    Phantom ship

    Teds was, and is, my copilot.. thanks little buddy

 Wizard Island.. only in Oregon is that the name of an island in a volcanic crater lake.. just sayin..

    Driving north on highway 97 as the sun set

 Oh, and here's my new and shiny tailpipe and muffler, although I was proud of my making do..

I hopped on highway 58 just north of Chemult and took it 91 miles northwest and 5000 feet down to Eugene, where I got some gas, and headed home to Portland.  I made it by 10:45 and with no food in the house, and the grocery store closing in 15 minutes, I resigned myself to a Taco Bell burrito, and got myself home.  Staggered up the stairs with several loads of gear, then collapsed on the couch with my burrito and marveled that I had done and seen so much in one day.  That I had seen so much in six days!  It seemed completely insane but more real in my memory than my apt at that moment.  At least I had the next day off as I was still supposed to be on the road.  I could decompress and acclimate back to the city.  Was looking forward to a shower and sleeping in my own bed again.  But I had an amazing week.  

The last time I tried a similar trip was the summer of 2010 and I got derailed by the mosquito population down in Malheur.  But October is great for being in the desert, hunting season aside. Well, I know this was a lot of pictures to look at so thanks for your patience.  I think these are the exact same ones that are going into my flickr trip album, so you won't miss anything if you skip that.
I think it's going to be small day trips until my December vacation in Florida, so I might not have much to post about, but we shall see what the autumn brings.  Until then, enjoy the weather and the view, and happy trails!