Road Trip: Malheur County to Crook County

 I left off the last post on the morning of day three when we were leaving Antelope Reservoir after a pleasant sunrise.

Our first planned stop was at Pillars of Rome, a series of cool geologic formations that obviously reminded someone of Rome at some point. It looked neat on the internet, wasn't far from the main highway, and there were Black-throated Sparrows there in eBird. Sold. 

But then the lack of signage had us miss the road to the pillars and instead we drove over a bridge and past someone's property with lots off protective farm dogs that wanted to bite my tires.  There was also a sleepy dog that looked just like Ralph. I was confident it was the wrong way but kept going in case it wasn't. 

A Northern Mockingbird appeared and briefly posed on a fence post. There are only two other NoMo eBird records for Malheur County so that's neat. The road got pretty bad right after that and we turned around and found the correct road to Pillars of Rome. 

It was pretty but not as cool as Leslie Gulch. The Black-throated Sparrows were real at least. 

We returned to the main road to visit the cafe/store in Rome and found a few nighthawks roosting in the trees there. 

From Rome we continued west on 95, then south on 95 before turning west on Whitehorse Ranch Lane, a 48-mile gravel road that connects 95 and 205. 

This is what it looked like most of the time

Somewhere around here we crossed into Harney County, made it to 205 and headed south to the town of Denio, Nevada. Why did we do this? Because I wanted to bird in Nevada. We parked in the post office lot, ate some snacks, and managed 14 species including Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. 

From there we drove north past Fields to the Alvord Desert which neither of us had visited before.

We drove around a bit exploring the area before heading back down to Fields where we had a room reserved for the night at Fields Station. After some food from the cafe we walked across the street to the famous Fields Oasis, a small patch of trees and water that is known as an excellent migrant trap. Not so much on a warm and windy afternoon. 

Great Horned Owl

Some kind of weevil

Western fence lizard

Back at Fields Station there were more nighthawks roosting in trees.

That night we passed out early but we were up and ready for the sunrise the next morning. 

Day four.

The area is huge and you can drive anywhere on it without hitting anything. Jacob did his best to get my subaru going but barely clocked over 100 mph before giving up. We started making our way back to Fields with lots of stops for birds and things with giant ears.

Black-tailed jackrabbit

Lark Sparrow doing a "turkey walk" display (term from Birds of North America)

The next thing to happen was we pulled over for some more baby magpies because why not. I'm trying to get a photo when Jacob declares a grosbeak right in front of us. It took me a minute to get on it but when I did my impression was that it was not the common Black-headed Grosbeak. It had a pale pink bill and seemed more drab overall.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak! A state bird for both of us! We got back to Fields and tried another attempt at birding the oasis but not much going on. At least it helped kill time till the cafe opened again so I could order the most reasonably sized pancake ever.

It was fine but probably not in my top 5 Oregon pancakes. Number one is still the pancakes at Summer Lake Lodge, followed by the Wildflower Grill in Lincoln City and the Gateway Breakfast House in NE Portland. Sizewise, this one wins, followed very closely by the Gateway spot though. 

After breakfast and listening to a couple of 20-something girls driving from Austin to PDX talk about the social justice podcasts they've been listening to, we headed north to the Steens. We knew the full loop was likely still closed but wanted to drive as far along as we could on the south portion, which turned out to be Big Indian Overlook.

It's a beautiful spot with tons of wildflowers, great views, and singing Green-tailed Towhees. 

Anise swallowtail

On the way back down we stopped for what this area is known for: wild horses. 

So wild and sleepy

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After deciding the South Steens Campground was a little too popular we opted to drive to Page Springs to camp for the last two nights of our trip.  We set up camp and did some driving down the Center Patrol Road, then a mad dash to headquarters to chase the Magnolia Warbler seen earlier. By then it was about 6:30 and ridiculously windy and we came up empty. Bleh. 

Day five.

The next morning I listened to a variety of birds in the dark including a Common Poorwill, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and a couple of Great Blue Herons. With coffee made we drove back north to South Harney Road where some well-publicized Burrowing Owls are hanging out. But first, Pronghorn.

We drove a bit farther down the road and found a little Loggerhead Shrike family. 

We birded headquarters for awhile hoping the Magnolia might appear but no luck. After that we made the quick drive down to where a Grasshopper Sparrow had been reported and found it quickly.

We drove back to the Narrows for gas, then south to more refuge spots.

White-faced Ibis

Sandhill Crane babies!

We managed more views of Bobolinks and Jacob finally got some photos. Eventually we made it back to the campground and decided to do the Wilderness Trail hike. 

I apparently walked right by this gopher snake on a rock which got angry and started making crazy sounds. Scared the crap out of me. 

The view from the top was pretty cool and we could see the approaching weather. 

Our orange tent really pops here

Finally, Ash-throated Flycatcher year bird
Hot rock penstemon

Well-camouflaged Great Horned Owl family

Now this is when something very embarrassing happened. We were listening to a bird call that I was convinced was a Black-throated Gray Warbler but really wanted visual confirmation. The sound moved from tree to tree to tree while we got annihilated by mosquitoes. I was ready to give up when it flew over our head and landed in a tree across the canyon (or is it a gulch?). I saw a bird in the tree, raised my binoculars and found a bird that was blue. 

I fired off a bunch of terrible photos while coming to the irrational conclusion that this was the bird that was singing.

My mind went all kinds of places, fueled by the knowledge that Malheur is where vagrants go to be seen by birders. 

Of course it was all just a misunderstanding. There must have been two birds. A Black-throated Gray must have been singing and must have flown into this same tree where a Lazuli Bunting was just sitting around. When the bunting flew the warbler also happened to fly and sang from a new spot out sight. It was a coincidence, not a rare bird, which is of course the usual explanation. Sigh.

We retreated to our campsite after catching up with a Portland birder, ate same chili, then went to bed. We woke to rain. 

Day six. 

It was gross outside. Wet and windy and super fun for breaking down the tent.  We drove north to get away from it with mild success. By the time we reached the substation pond on 205 things were a little calmer. 


Cliff Swallow

We continued north to Highway 20, stopping once for a pronghorn family and a Ferruginous Hawk. 

We took the George Millican cutoff up to Prineville so we could stop at Crooked River Wetlands. We did not know that a Tundra Swan had shown up there recently so were surprised to see one mingling with the Canada Geese. 

Probably my first June Tundra Swan ever? And a more normal summer bird:

Eared Grebe

After that stop we headed back to Vancouver. We almost stopped at Timberline Lodge but only did a drive-through because of a strong wind mixed with snow. We finished our trip with 144 species including lots of county birds in a variety of places. It was an awesome adventure and I look forward to the next one!


  1. Selfie What a fun road trip...and you had some really good birds along the way you always find plenty of Owls I couldn't get over the camo didn't even see them all at first. And the pronghorn youngster really cool to see also. The campground looked like a really good one from the hillside shot. I can't seem to find my traveling mojo just yet and now my van is hiccupping. Have a good weekend.

    1. Yeah it's a great campground- lots of birds and good trails nearby. Hope your van gets better!

  2. Jen, you are my favorite blogger. Why? I dunno, I like the way you write. Straightforward, honest, enthusiastic, well-illustrated. And I can't even relate to your birds - I live in NC! Keep it up.


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