Malheur’s Sage Grouse

My long-held belief that Malheur Wildlife Refuge is Sacred Ground was reinforced by my early morning trip to a Sage Grouse Lek on my last day there. Ever since I began telling birders that Malheur is one of my favorite birding destinations, they have asked me if I’ve visited the Lek. I haven’t largely because getting up at 3:30 AM is pretty brutal for me and because I was never convinced that I would be able to find the Lek in the dark in the middle of the desert. In fact, I didn’t think I would visit this year either until I met Mark in the campground and he asked me if I was going there. Mark had been birding for forty years and knew where the Lek was. I told him my reservations and he told me he knew where it was but he wasn’t sure his Prius could handle the back roads. So we agreed to go in my truck at 4:00 AM.

Even with his experience we ended up slightly off, probably because there had been a major fire two years ago and the Sage Grouse had relocated slightly. Luckily, a ranger drove a ways past where we were waiting, spotted the grouse and backed up and directed us to where they were.

There was something “magical” about watching male Sage Grouse emerge from the darkness one by one and begin to perform their dance. All I could see with the naked eye was the white ruff around the neck at first. As it turns out, the magic of RAW shots and Photoshop makes the bird actually appear clearer than it did in the early morning light.

 Sage Grouse

Since I had to shoot at an ISO of 3200, I had to use a plug-in to remove some of the noise from the shot. I could have adjusted the colors, too, but I wanted the shots to remain as true to life as possible.

Luckily, the grouse actually moved closer as the light increased, making better and better shots possible as the morning went on, though none of mine approach the quality of some I’ve found on the internet. They are, to say the least, fascinating birds with their huge fan-shaped tails, their white ruffs, and their bright yellow air sacks they inflate to attract females.  Sage Grouse There were five or six males displaying on the Lek  Sage Grouse

and several female Sage Grouse ran across the Lek throughout the performance.

 female Sage Grouse

Time passed rapidly sitting there listening to their odd, thunking calls and before long it was sunrise, which made photographs much easer to get, though it still wasn’t ideal conditions because the sun was behind them. What it did do, though, was give a wonderful glow to those brilliant tail feathers

 Sage Grouse

and those large, yellow air sacks that produced those haunting calls.

 Sage Grouse I’m already looking forward to next year’s trip to the Lek, or, perhaps, to other Leks. Until then, I’ll have to be satisfied with this shot.  Sage Grouse

If you ever get the chance to visit a Lek, don’t wait like I did; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Osprey at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Although I’ve never seen an Osprey at Malheur before and was told that they’ve failed to establish nests there because they can’t spot fish in the muddy water in the middle of summer, I managed to get the best shots I’ve ever gotten of one on this trip.

This Osprey was circling the small pond at the visitor’s center as I pulled up, so naturally I watched as it made several passes over the pond.

Osprey

Although I got shots of it on passes where it failed to catch a fish, it was behind a tree when it caught this whopper and I had to settle for a shot of it carrying the huge trout

Osprey with trout

to a perch

Osprey with trout

where it could eat its catch.

Assuming that it would take a while to eat that big of a fish, I decided to get

closer, using the blind at the east end of the pond. Even though the Osprey seemed irritated by my presence

Osprey with trout

it continued its feast

Osprey with trout long enough that I finally decided I wasn’t going to get a better shot than the ones I had already gotten and decided to look for more birds.

Pheasants at Malheur

I got a chance to photograph another bird at Malheur that has been elusive in previous years, the Ring-necked Pheasant. This is the first time I’ve ever see a male pheasant with females and was surprised to see this one with several females. A little research showed that male pheasants often have harems. Unfortunately, I only observed them together a long ways off, so I only managed to get a shot of the male with one of its harem.

pair of Pheasants

When I got closer, they scattered though the male pheasant headed towards the long grass that lined the road, which might have been a good strategy for most predators but wasn’t the best strategy if you were trying to avoid human hunters.

It did, however, give me a change to get some great shots of him. I liked this shot showing the beautiful patterns on his back.

Pheasant

Then, as if to offer a perfect profile, he made a sharp right turn and followed the grass line for several more feet

 Pheasant

before finally disappearing. If I’m going to improve on the shots I’ve gotten this year, I’m going to have to really step my game up and go back to Malheur when there’s snow or doing the earlier mating season when males compete for mates.

Long-Billed Curlews at Malheur

I spent two or three years at the coast looking for Long-Billed Curlews without any luck. So last year when I got a distant shot of one at Malheur I was thrilled. This year, though, I wasn't nearly as happy when I saw this one in the distance even though it was much closer and I got a better shot.

Long-Billed Curlew

It seems to be human nature to always want more than we have. Photographically, that means I want more than just a shot of a curlew walking across the grass.

I was a lot happier, though, when I caught a picture of this curlew with its wings spread out in the sunshine.

Long-Billed Curlew

If you can't catch a picture of one actually flying, this is the next best thing.

Later, though, I got an even better series of shots when I was attracted by one curlew’s persistent “call.”

Long-Billed Curlews

Though I could never figure out exactly was going on these three had a squabble that went on for quite a while. Two of the curlews seemed determined to drive the third off, though they never actually touched each other. No matter, it made for some

Long-Billed Curlews

dramatic shots.

Long-Billed Curlews

I never did see what happened in the end. When I decided to leave after nearly fifteen minutes, the bird they were trying to chase away was still voicing its displeasure.

Long-Billed Curlew

Sandhill Cranes at Malheur

Judging from my recent experiences, this must be The Year of the Crane. Upon my arrival in Malheur last week, I was met by a field full of Sandhill Cranes, quite a change from past years when I was lucky to see one or two cranes on my whole trip.

Sandhill Crane

As a result, I had more time to actually observe their behavior, which, in turn, raised questions I've never had before, like, what the heck they were eating

Sandhill Crane

when they drove their beaks into the wet muddy soil? As it turns out, they are omnivores and eat almost anything, though I think in this case they were probably eating tubers in the mud.

On the second day of my trip I was driving through cattle country looking for raptors when I noticed Sandhill Cranes browsing with herds of cattle.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Cranes are often described as “very large” birds, and looking through binoculars or a telephoto lens they look huge, but as this photo reveals, “very large” is a relative term, isn't it?

My trip to Malheur ended the same way it began, taking pictures of the Sandhill Cranes in the flooded fields just south of Burns. This pair of cranes held my attention the longest, though, because of how closely they stayed together,

Sandhill Cranes

at times almost appearing as a single, two-headed bird, impossible to separate.

Sandhill Cranes

The morning light also gave a quite different look than the late afternoon light did. Perhaps the blue reflections off the water made them seem “ bluer,” too, Even the crane’s white faced appeared blue in this shot, but it made me wonder why the colors varied so much in the shots I had gotten of different cranes. Although Sandhill Cranes are “slate-gray” birds, they apparently preen themselves with mud, giving themselves a rusty sheen, which is certainly more noticeable in the first shots in this entry.

Although I don’t think I really like any of these shots quite as much as the shots I took earlier of the Sandhill Cranes flying overhead at Ridgefield, but it was definitely fun to get a closer look at them and beginning to understand more about them.

At the Port Orchard Marina

After Friday’s trip to Theler, I made my usual stop at Port Orchard to see if the Horned Grebes had left as I had predicted. As I entered the marina I was greeted by a large number of gulls, and this one flew over my head with a small starfish in its beak,

 Gull with Starfish

closely followed by another gull squawking very loudly

Gull chasing another Gull to get food

Not too much later I encountered another gull

Gull with Starfish

having a hard time fitting a whole starfish in its mouth.

I was also surprised by a Pigeon Guillemot that also seemed to have a starfish in its beak.

 Pigeon Guillemot

Since I hadn’t managed to get very close to the Pigeon Guillemots at Westport, I thought it was nice of this one to come up right in front of me.

In the same vein, I spotted this Western Grebe a ways off shore, a bird I’d hoped to see at Malheur but hadn’t.

Western Grebe

Although the majority of the Horned Grebes seemed to have left (or were spending the afternoon at another nearby site) there were four or five Horned Grebes in various stages of breeding plumage.

Horned Grebe

Spring Flowers at Theler

I spent most of this week at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge, partially to get a “sunshine fix,” but, as often turns out, it was great weather here in the Puget Sound area while I was gone. When I got up Friday morning the skies were blue, and I knew it would be a sin to go to the YMCA and get some much needed exercise. Instead, I headed to Belfair to see what had changed in the last week. The birding wasn’t exactly great, but the Spring flowers were an entirely different matter.

One of the trilliums at the Wetlands’ entrance was beginning to turn purple.

Trillium

The Oregon Grape was in bloom.

Oregon Grape blossoms

The Shooting Star lit up shady areas in the garden

Shooting Star

even brighter than these bell-like purple flowers.

  bell-like purple flowers

The highlight of the walk, though, had to be the Cherry and Apple trees that line much of the trail.

tree blossoms

The flowers were so impressive that I was hardly aware that the best bird of the day was a Stellar Jay,

Stellar Jay

which I could probably have gotten a better shot of in my backyard.