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  • 'Empty' quarter is alive with birds

    With the Malheur refuge luring thousands of songbirds this time of year and Steens Mountain nearby, southeastern Oregon is its own bit of paradise
  • It could be a scene out of "The Big Year," the bird-watching comedy with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The usually quiet Page Springs campground just south of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is bustling with birders, mostly middle-aged folk in earth tones and floppy hats with binoculars and cameras dangling.
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  • It could be a scene out of "The Big Year," the bird-watching comedy with Steve Martin, Jack Black and Owen Wilson. The usually quiet Page Springs campground just south of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is bustling with birders, mostly middle-aged folk in earth tones and floppy hats with binoculars and cameras dangling.
    "Did you see the burrowing owl?"
    "We waited for half an hour and didn't see him, but we saw yellow-headed blackbirds in the field and Wilson's phalaropes in a nearby pond."
    May and early June are the height of spring songbird migration at the refuge, about 350 highway miles east of Medford in the "empty" quarter of the state in this valley where the sagebrush shares space with wetlands and marshes.
    But as important as the refuge is to the birds — and visitors will see birds here they won't see in the Rogue Valley — there are other attractions, as well.
    With its cowboy history and wide open spaces, the region seems to pulse with the rhythms of a simpler time.
    "It's busy through the middle of June with birders," says John Ross, who operates the historic, 1916 Frenchglen Hotel and says he'd like to see the busy season expand. "I tell them about the mountain (nearby Steens). I tell the birders if they come back in September, they could probably see a black rosy-finch for their life list."
    The refuge covers 187,000 acres of prime bird habitat, including 120,000 acres of wetlands, and it's a magnet for pretty much anybody who enjoys the outdoors. There are 58 mammal species here in addition to more than 320 bird species, including the refuge's iconic sandhill cranes.
    There are hunting seasons for deer, elk, antelope and bighorn sheep. Wild horses graze here. There's fishing at Krumbo Reservoir.
    Steens Mountain, with its snow-capped, 9,700-foot peak, looms over the valley. Most of the water for the refuge comes from the mountain's snow. Views, including a 2,000-foot gorge, are incredible. The road doesn't usually open all the way until July, but it's been a warm, dry spring, and it's expected to be open in June.
    The refuge can be thought of as a sprawling T, with Malheur and Harney lakes making the horizontal line and the gravel Center Patrol Road through the refuge, which roughly follows the Donner and Blitzen River, making the vertical line. At the bottom of the T is the hamlet of Frenchglen, and a little to the east is Page Springs, just off Steens Mountain Loop Road.
    Short hiking trails can be found at Benson Pond, East Canal, Crane Pond, Krumbo Pond and other spots, but serious hikers head for the mountain. There's a 42-mile, self-guided auto tour from refuge headquarters south to Page Springs. It takes anywhere from two hours to all day. Carry food and water and either carry gas or gas up at Frenchglen or the Narrows.
    Other places to visit include the Round Barn and its visitor center, where the proprietor, third-generation Harney County resident Dick Jenkins, will tell you stories about cattle baron Peter French, who got himself shot for trying to force other ranchers off their land. There's the remains of the P Ranch, French's headquarters, and there's the Sod House, the northern outpost of French's empire.
    Page Springs is a lovely little campground with running water and pit toilets on a wooded creek. It's crowded now but goes begging for campers most of the year. You'll bed down to the sounds of great horned owls and howling coyotes. Bureau of Land Management volunteer Don Hackett, the campground host, who was a plumber in Medford from the 1960s to the 1980s, says to watch out for rattlesnakes.
    "They come down from the rocks for water," he says.
    To enter the Frenchglen Hotel is to step into the past. Forget spas and Wi-Fi, and there are no phones or TV sets in the rooms. Cellphone reception is iffy, but the family-style dinners are generous and hearty (for reservations call 541-493-2825).
    Our dinner was baked ham, macaroni and cheese, green salad and marionberry cobbler with ice cream. The wine choice is basic: white or red. Dinner (at 6:30 promptly) cost $22. The hotel also serves breakfast and lunch through Nov. 1. Rooms are $75 and $82, and the bathroom is down the hall.
    Other indoor lodgings include the more modern Drovers' Inn behind the hotel ($115 to $135, same phone) and the even more remote Hotel Diamond (541-493-1898) east of the refuge and south of the famed Round Barn, where cowboys working for French trained horses.
    Camping is available at The Narrows at the north end of the refuge where Highway 201 runs between Harney and Malheur lakes. This is more of an RV spot ($26.26), although tent spaces are available ($12). There's gas here, a saloon and cafe and coin-operated showers ($2 for four minutes).
    And for the next month, there are all those songbirds.
    "It's a Mecca," says Barbara Clark, of Kennewick, Wash., who is birding with her husband, Tom. "We come every year."
    Birder Sharon Digby, of Bellingham, Wash., first came here in 1983 working as a geologist.
    "I have gone there eight times since," she says. "I go because it is an incredibly beautiful place, and for the stupendous birding."
    Refuge headquarters south of Malheur Lake on Sodhouse Lane is a good place to begin birding, with its pond, its many trees and its daily lists of hot bird sightings. During our visit, sightings (in addition to the ubiquitous Belding's ground squirrels and cottontail rabbits) included lazuli bunting, black tern, Cassin's vireo, yellow and Townsend's warblers, white-throated sparrow, black-chinned hummingbird and many more.
    You never know what you'll see.
    The avian highlight for "Shorty" Toussaint Black Creek, of Sunsites Village, Ariz., who was photographing wild horses, was watching the mating ritual of a pair of American kestrels, our smallest falcon.
    "They'd swirl around each other in the air and then mate in a tree," he says. "They did it over and over."
    Swans can be seen on the refuge's many ponds in June and July, and shorebirds start showing up in early July. In early autumn, the cranes stage for their southern migration, and ducks fly in from the far north. Then it's winter, and waterfowl will soon return to start the cycle over.
    Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.
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