For the first time in over ten years, Malheur lived up to its name which is
French for misfortune. Years back, explorers looking for water found
Malheur Lake and discovered its water to be undrinkable. This year, we also
came with expectations. We left disappointed.
Our trip had been curtailed by events such as a funeral for Paul’s friend
and districts for Elsa and Greta in track. Our new mini-van is without a hitch
to tow our tent trailer, so we asked our friends, the Smith-Jacksons, to tow it
for us. They kindly agreed, but when we met, we discovered the hitch was the
wrong size. Paul decided to tow it with the truck, which seats four people, and
I had to drive separately in the van with the kids.
We headed out from the funeral on Saturday. After driving for two hours, we
turned toward Frenchglen. There is a wide, flat basin and the road zigzags up
and over a moraine. After descending onto the other side, there was nothing but
sagebrush and the road and the sky. The sagebrush hunkered in the sandy, dusty
plain. The road stretched straight and true toward Frenchglen. The sky in the
treeless landscape lowered menacingly. Cracks of lightning whipped the ground.
Then, the rains came.
But there was an end to it. Once through the storm, we wound our way past
the Frenchglen hotel and a little abandoned house that Paul and I have always
dreamed of inhabiting. It was for sale. Each year it looks more condemned and
lost — like it needs us.
We turned onto a gravel road at the foot of Steens Mountain. At the
campground, we found the Smith-Jacksons waiting for us with cold, frosty beers
and a plate of chili stack-ups. We set up the tent and stood around the fire,
happy to have arrived.
Then, it began to drizzle. The light faded. Luckily, the typical desert cold
did not surround us. It was mild, warm, wet, and muggy. The drizzle slowly
increased into a shower. We decided to turn in early. As we climbed into bed,
the shower increased to a downpour.
When we left, the weather report said showers were 50 percent expected. In
the desert, you can chance it. It’s probably likely to shower and be done. Not
this time. When Jason checked the weather report again as he went to bed,
chance of rain had increased to 80 percent. Moreover, there were flash flood
warnings for Frenchglen.
The night went badly. I was warm. I was dry. But the constant downpour was
loud and unsettling. Not only did the rain sound the death knell to the chance
of seeing any birds, but its force and amount seemed to be a warning that the
flash flood was coming.
5:30 am: The camp manager woke us to tell us to evacuate the campsite. I
stepped out of the tent and saw that the way we had come in was now under
water. We packed as quickly as possible but remembered that the tent trailer
had a flat. We knew it the previous night but decided to fix it in the
daylight. The spares were flat. The compressor Jason brought wasn’t powerful
Finally, after ideas became scarce, we went to another campsite in search of
a more powerful compressor. The manager there was none too happy to be awoken
to help the competition (we forgot it was so early). But after dressing, his
altruistic side awoke too and he helped us.
Paul and Jason went to fix the flat and Robin, the seven girls, and I birded
on the way to the hotel in search of coffee. The rain had stopped and the
cinnamon teals were paddling away in the puddles by the road. There was a
Northern Harrier and, of course, plenty of mallards. We saw some Northern
Pintails, and Northern Shovelers, and a Gadwall couple beyond the reeds.
After obtaining coffee from the hotel, we needed breakfast. Up in the trees
beside the abandoned house, a Great Horned Owl roosted and beside it nestled
her three downy babies, looking like large, feathery kittens curled up in a
tree. But the Yellow-breasted chat and the Bobolink were chirping merrily,
happily unidentified in the brush back near the campsite. Something must be
done about it. So we pulled out bagels, peanut butter sandwiches for lunch, and
a bag of snickers and tided ourselves over with such snacks so we could search
out these secretive birds that would be new for us.
Everything was flooded – both the roads leading to the hayfields where the
bobolinks nested, and the brushes where the chats sang. Paul, Elsa, and Aine
braved the elements by wading through the flooded areas to gain their new find.
The rest of us napped and allowed the little ones to shout and play near the
barn. The foray returned partly successful. The Yellow-breasted chat decided to
rise to the top of the brush and sing for them, showing off its black throat
and yellow breast. But the bobolink remained hidden.
Later, I was able to see the Yellow-breasted chat on another set of brush.
But not for long. It was gone in a second and never returned. We saw a Sandhill
Crane and Turkey Vultures. Great Egrets waded through the wet grasses.
We did not attempt to see the sagegrouse lek. The roads were full of clay
and mud and we knew it would be folly to take our mini-vans down them.
Though the birding wasn’t non-existent, it was underwhelming. We choose
Malheur because of spectacular masses. Young kids cannot be expected to search
long for tiny species. They need to be amazed with what they can see with the
naked eye. Only the White-face Ibises delivered — they showed themselves in
masses but a long way off and the little ones only gave a glance before
continuing their play.
In the past, we’ve seen fields of snow geese, groups of Sandhill Cranes, and
flocks of pelicans. This year, we saw two pelicans, two Sandhill Cranes, and no
snow geese. It was disappointing.
However, we attempted a trip a few weeks ago, and did not come because of
the weather. I’m unsure which is worse — not going at all or going and being
Though we had planned to stay until Monday, we decided to leave that night.
Our campsite was underwater and the birds weren’t likely to show themselves in
the stormy, wet weather. After visiting the headquarters, the rain began again
in earnest. Our hobo stew that is usually cooked over the fire was cooked
instead on the Harris gas stove at home in front of the fireplace. We nursed
our wounded spirits and sent our friends off full of food and beer and hopes
for next year. We told each other, “There are no other friends with whom
we’d rather be miserable!”