A visit to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge goes to the Birds

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BURNS-HINES, Ore. — Twenty-five miles south of Burns, the Narrows on Highway 205 separates Malheur and Harney lakes, with Mud Lake in the mix.

Darlene, Nora the Schnauzer and I loitered there at an arch-shaped pullout twice a day, mornings and evenings, Monday through Thursday in early September.

We often make a fall visit to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

So, six times Darlene read and watched while Nora and I strolled back-and-forth for close-up views of grebes, pelicans, black-necked stilts, gulls, terns, black-capped night herons, American avocets, great blue herons and great white egrets.

Once we counted 16 great white egrets.

One looked different, smaller, with breeze-riffled plumes.

I noticed it.

So did Darlene.

“May be a juvenile,” she said.

But in September?

We didn’t know. It looked like an egret, and it stood in the water between a full-sized great white egret and a great blue heron.

On subsequent sightings, we forgot the small egret’s differences.

Then, after returning to Walla Walla I visited Tim Blount’s website (www.harneybirder.com). He listed the sighting and a photo of a Little Blue Heron near Frenchglen. It resembled the small egret (with a bluish beak and legs). I sent him a photo to identify.

He did: Not a Little Blue Heron or a young great white egret, but a snowy egret and not on my refuge bird list. I found it, however, in my favorite pocket-sized bird book ( Birds of the Inland Northwest and Northern Rockies) with local expert Mike Denny as one of its authors.

I should have checked the book at Hines.

But I didn’t.

Google reveals the Little Blue Heron as, “a smallish heron of the southeastern United States. ... It is the only heron species in which first-year birds and adults show dramatically different coloration: first-year birds are pure white, while adults are blue.”

Anyway, the frolicking, red-eyed grebes, in the backwater between the highway and the pullout, demanded attention.

Terns and pelicans sailed overhead for wing shots with the 500-millimeter lens.

Herons and egrets launched from the water, stretching skyward with water drops spilling from scaly toes like jewels in the sunlight.

Flocks of avocets in fall plumage, heads down and tails up, burbled the shallows with hectic foraging.

Black-necked stilts prospected for morsels with stiff grace and microscopic absorption.

Sandhill cranes winged westward in V-formation, looking for a field with evening-time forage.

We left Rory and Ryan’s in Hines after breakfast at 7 a.m. Thursday for one more visit to see the birds at the Narrows.

On the way, Darlene spotted a fox on a giant brick of hay.

I stopped.

Pointed fox ears stood as silhouettes against the sky.

I turned back to get the fox on my side.

It had disappeared.

Drat.

Nevertheless, we spent another hour at the Narrows pullout. The smaller egret had moved farther out on the water. The blue heron and the white egret had moved on.

We also moved on, heading north toward John Day. We had barely crossed Highway 26, that goes west from Vale to Burns, when we spotted turkey buzzards in the sky and on fence posts.

So, I stopped.

After shooting buzzards for another 20 minutes, we headed home.

Contact Don Davis at dondavis@wwub.com. More of Don’s photos can be found online at www.tripper.smugmug.com .

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