If I had the time and money, I’d make the trip to Burns at least once a month. My heart is so attached to the wild horses that I see out there, in addition to the wide variety of birds to be sighted around Burns and at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It’s not a huge trip for me, four hours, but long enough to require at least one night’s stay, and better with two, since once you get out there, the driving doesn’t stop. South Steens Mountain is about 50 miles south of Burns which will take you through Malheur NWR and the small historical town of Frenchglen. To really see all the area has to offer is to take forays down gravel roads and I have even ventured at times onto deeply rutted dirt roads where I prayed that my car had the clearance to pass over boulders and ridges. This last May trip, I also did a bit of walking by foot to reach the wild horses as the dirt road became impassable by my passenger car. One note: I do try and stay at a respectable distance. The horses will be aware of me from quite a distance, but I don’t want them to be uncomfortable with my presence.
This Spring the area looked generally much more lush than last year. I stopped first to see the Palomino Buttes horses which are west of Burns. I was looking forward especially to see a favorite, more approachable band, that as of Fall last year, consisted of the Palomino Stallion (some locals call him a Dunalino), his primary mare, Bella, two of her sons, Pallaton and Traveler, from prior years, and a filly from last year. Also there was a bay mare and her colt, and another bay mare that had joined them sometime during the Summer or Fall. (Some of the horses are named by the locals.) I didn’t see any horses initially. Then I spotted white spots on a very distant hill (both Pallaton and Traveler were white/light colored palominos). When I walked out, I saw it was my favorite band with some significant changes. Pallaton was not with the band. This isn’t such a big surprise, since as a three year old, he would start to have conflicts with his father. I was surprised this hadn’t started happening last year, since Pallaton had already started chasing fillies in other bands. Instead, he and his father seemed to work as a team, protecting their band from another stallion on the couple of occasions I observed. I also observed that when the band was on the move, Pallaton would the lead while the stallion brought up the rear; this year Traveler took the front spot. Though Pallaton’s absence was expected, it was still a blow, as the bonds between the family, especially he and his mother, and he and Traveler, were affectionate and playful. Even the bond with his father had been a special one. I still don’t know whether the bay mare and her colt were with the band. I think so, but the horses coats change so much from season to season and this time I wasn’t in close enough to compare other markings from my earlier picture. There were also two new foals and at least one other horse I don’t recognize at all.
Though I hadn’t made it over to Burns until May, I did see some Sandhill Cranes still in the area, one pair with two colts (what the “chicks” are called because of their long legs), along with various other birds. I didn’t even see the colts until I reviewed the images on my computer. The birds weren’t as plentiful as they would have been a few weeks earlier but they were much more plentiful than they had been last May.
While in the vicinity of Malheur I was excited to capture a couple mammals I had not photographed before in the area, including, not one, but two hares. Last year the ones I saw had proven too quick for my reflexes. I also saw the first marmot I had seen in Oregon as well – a yellow-bellied marmot. These critters spend most of their time in their burrows (80%) hibernating or otherwise, so I was lucky to capture this one. I had seen a flash of one about an hour earlier than this, so apparently the beautiful Spring day was too enticing to pass up.
I also saw the usual suspects, mule deer and pronghorn antelope. Mule deer are distinguished from white-tailed deer as their tales are black, their ears are larger, and antlers fork rather than branch on the males.
Just past Malheur NWR, is the small historic town, Frenchglen, population 12, and continuing on Hwy. 205 you will find the south entrance to Steen Loop, a gravel road that loops around the mountain. The road will usually be blocked at some point during Spring due to snow as the mountain rises over 9000 feet, although it does it in a fairly non-dramatic way. If you’re lucky you will be able to view some of the wild horses in South Steens herd. I’ve been lucky to see multiple bands together on two occasions and on other occasions, a small band by itself. This time, I was not exceptionally close to them but it was wonderful to observe them – some playing, the more mature grazing or resting along with the foals.
Is it hard to see why I’m in love with this place? If you travel out there, don’t expect luxury. You will get the most basic of accommodations and a very limited assortment of restaurants. In fact, you will need to be sure that you fill up on gas before you leave Burns to go exploring. During summer, the temperatures can get quite high, so it would be advisable to carry water for both you and your car.
I’ve hoped you’ve enjoyed this post. To see more of my work, please visit Belinda Greb Photography for all of my published work. My next post will be on some of the beautiful Oregon waterfalls I’ve visited in mainly Silver Falls State Park.