Musings with Camera in Hand

Belinda Greb – The Photographic Journey

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Back to Burns, Malheur and the Wild Horses

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.

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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.



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Yellow-Headed Blackbirds

I took another short trip to Harney County at the very end of May, early June. I was dying to see the wild horses again and also to see what other birds were around Burns and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It was almost too late for birds, but I just couldn’t get away before. Also, this time a friend came along, and it was fun to share the experience of seeing all the wonderful wildlife. The headquarters at Malheur are still closed which is a shame, but the Central Patrol Road is open.

For having only 1 full day and 2 half-days I came away with a lot of experiences, memories and pictures. I will do more posts later on the wild horses.  This post will just focus on the Yellow-headed Blackbirds (males) I saw. I have to say there was a lot more greenery as my prior trip had been at the beginning of spring, and this time the grass and wild flowers were abundant as were the blackbirds!

The female Yellow-headed Blackbirds are brown with a duller yellow on their chest, so yes, the males get all the attention.

A challenge for me was to catch one in flight in order to see the great white marking on its wings. This was harder to expected, as I was seeing the blackbirds from a car (using it as a blind) along country roads outside of Burns. It is hard to maneuver a long telephoto in a car when trying to follow a bird’s flight and the erratic way the blackbirds take off from their perches on a fence.

Fortunately, there were so many blackbirds, I would just have to move the car up slowly to where another one was perched and try again. I thank my friend for being so patient.

Finally I just got out and approached slowly. This was obviously a hit and miss, and I really didn’t know if I had gotten any good ones until I got home and reviewed them on my computer.

It turned out I was happy with a few, although only this one had the white markings on the wings clearly visible.

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Malheur Wildlife Refuge

Benson-Pond Malheur Wildlife Refuge is over 187, 000 acres in Southeastern Oregon, containing over 320 species of birds and 58 mammals. It consists of sagebrush and wetlands.

I had grown more interested in visiting the Malheur Wildlife Refuge after reading Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, by Terry Tempest Williams (a wonderful book). She mainly talked about the Salt Lake Region in Utah, but did mention this refuge as a wonderful place for bird sightings.  But what really sealed the deal for me was when I heard about the wild horse herds in the same area. I’m not a birder, but I do enjoy seeing the various varieties and recently got The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North American in order to be able to identify more.

After my trip to Kenya, I do feel I became more observant and would start to see the birds more, and becoming reignited by photography has also refined my observation skills.  However, I have a long ways to go.

The headquarters area was about 30 miles from where we were staying – Crystal Crane Hot Springs, most of it a well-maintained gravel road.  There were birders out and about with their huge telephoto lenses, which made mine seem rather dinky. There were a lot of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds about, and also Red-Winged Blackbirds.

Yellow-Headed-Blackbird Red-winged BlackbirdIn addition at the pond there were several American White Pelicans, which are beautiful.  Around the grounds were bunny rabbits and ground squirrels. Also seen were hummingbirds, and many other birds that I did not identify. It was supposed to be rainy that day, so the clouds were got were much better than expected, with even a few spots of sun.

American-White-PelicanOne birder told us that there were owl babies by Benson Pond, and that we would probably see others about who could point them out to us.

We headed down to Benson, meaning to stop and then look for the South Steens Wild Horse Herd.  We actually passed it, reaching French Glen and realizing we had gone to far.  However, we had stopped to take a picture of a beautiful Great Egret.  While the Egret was fairly sharp for the distance he was from me, I did end up doing a texture to the background, as the photograph was cropped quite a bit.

Where the photograph of the Egret was taken, in the middle distance was a flock of geese, and in the far distance I made out two coyotes probably hunting rabbits or rodents.

Long-Billed-DowitcherAlong the way, I also got this picture of a Long-billed Dowitcher.

French Glen is a very small town (est. pop. 12) with a historic hotel built in 1924. Pete French was the owner of a livestock company and he was murdered in his 30s as he had a tendency to buy up land, controlling the water rights and preventing settlers from getting to their own land if they had to cross his.

The little town is at the foot of the Steen Mountain Loop which rises from sagebrush terrain to over 9000 feet. I’ll have some pictures of that next week. Here is a picture of the area right by French Glen. Frenchglen

After going up the Loop, we headed back to see if we could find Benson Pond and nearly missed it again.  There is no sign directly off Hwy 205. Instead, you have to take another gravel road north of it, and then work your way down.

By the time we got there, there was really no one else around to point out the owls, and frankly I didn’t even know what type of owl or what I was looking for! Hindsight tells me I needed to ask more questions, but aside from looking up at the trees to see if I could see any owls (since I did learn that they don’t usually stay right by the nest but in nearby trees).  For some reason I thought it might be a burrowing owl, so I was looking on the ground around Benson Pond, but there was a lot of grass, reeds, and parts where there were holes down to the water.  I also tried to listen for any sounds, but again, was unsuccessful.

There were more egrets, and it was wonderful to watch then land, as well as some Dark-eyed Junco Sparrows, more blackbirds. I also admired greatly these beautiful trees, pictured below as the bark was nearly black and stood out from the green leaves.  On the way back, I happened to catch some movement and saw this beautiful pheasant, but by the time I stopped the car and started shooting though not at a fast enough speed to get any great photos as he was retreating behind a barbed wire fence.

PheasantAgain, I feel like I would like to go back and just have more time to observe and hang out.  This trip was very short, but it provided a great overview to make plans for the next trip and I had some wonderful experiences.

Next week, just a bit more about the general area.