Surveying Golden Eagle Nests Sites - A day in the Oregon desert with a wildlife expert

When my friend Rick Vetter, a recently retired Forest Service wildlife biologist, invited me to accompany him for a couple of days checking on Golden Eagle nest in Oregon, I didn’t hesitate to say I would come along. We would be in the wilderness desert of Harney County, about an hour south of Burns. This was territory I had been wanting to see and photograph. Now with an expert guide inviting me, I jumped at the opportunity.
      Rick’s plan was to gas up his Ford off-road capable truck early every morning early and head south out of Burns, where he lives. The rule in this sparsely populated county is to fill up any time you see a gas station. Next stop was McDonald’s for a breakfast muffin to hold us over for the morning. The only fast food where we were headed might be a hawk on a rabbit.
      We headed south on the highway to Frenchglen and then turned west on the road to Harney Lake, a shallow alkali lake basin located approximately 30 miles south of Burns. During wet years, the lake receives water from Malheur Lake, located approximately 10 miles to the east. The depth of Harney Lake is less than 4 feet when it has water. It dries up completely during times of drought and this was a time of drought. The alkali lake bed gleamed white in the morning sun. Except for a little sagebrush and tufts of marsh grass, there was no visible life. Driving across the lake bed can be dicey. We saw evidence of a recent unplanned sightseeing stop where a large vehicle had been buried up to its kneecaps, leaving deep ruts in the otherwise smooth lake bed. The surface can be deceptively dangerous. It’s a bit like walking on a sponge although the surface look like white hard pan. It is essential to drive only on the slightly elevated proven tracks and not venture out onto the acres of inviting, smooth unmarred whiteness.

     After a couple of miles across and along the lake, the road climbs a slight slope up to the sagebrush and bunch grass that somehow survives in this lava-encrusted landscape. The road is an actual dirt track that is frequently used by visitors and ranchers and it is easy to follow for a few miles. We spot a few cattle — ranching is still practiced here. A distant herd of antelope and a few deer take notice of us. I hum “where the deer and the antelope play” just as a pygmy rabbit scampers across the road. What appears at first to be an inhospitable desert habitat is home to a host of creatures, large and small. On a later hike to one of the nest sites, we did meet a couple of desert rattlers.
      About when I think getting to the first nest site is going to be too easy, the road dissolves into what looks like the path used by the cows when they come home. Rick assures me we can make it over the rocks and that we can find our way out. He has a BLM map and his iPad is loaded with GPS aids, topo maps, and nest site locations. He does however confess that he has never driven this particular section of Harney county. The nearest tow truck is a couple hours away and cell phone service is intermittent, so I trust that he is right. He is. It is amazing what modern four-wheelers can accomplish.
     When we take a break and walk around a bit, I am amazed at the soil, or lack of it. We are walking on lava. Theory holds that molten lava flowed east over what is now central and eastern Oregon, filling in the basin with twenty to thirty feet of lava. This happened when the long-dormant volcano that created Crater Lake did its thing about eight thousand years ago. The lake is 1,943 feet deep at its deepest point,[4] which makes it the deepest lake in the United States. The stuff we are walking on was once in and below that deep cavity where the water in Crater Lake is now. That was a major earth-moving event. What little “dirt” there is on top of the lava and rocks that have broken up over the years will only support a few species of desert vegetation, which is why over-grazing is such a big issue around here.
     The nest sites we are to check on are marked on the BLM map and we are nearing the first one. Spaced within the relatively flat lavascape are huge cracks in the ground that form canyons with walls up to a couple hundred feet high. This is the Golden Eagle’s preferred neighborhood. They build nest of lighter colored sticks and branches that are fairly easy to spot against the darker cliff rocks. Rick can easily observe the nest to detect if there is any activity as he scans with his spotting scope across the canyon on the opposite side from the nest. From down in the canyon it is usually impossible to find the nest, as they are built back from the face of the rock wall. All in all for the day we checked on about a dozen nest sites and find a female on eggs in about half. Rick says this is normal as the birds don’t always come back to the same location. At a couple of the sites, the male eagle was circling overhead watching us while the female stayed on the nest. All these encounters were too far away to photograph with my telephoto — a truck-mounted safari lens would have been required. Just seeing where the Golden Eagles live was reward enough.
     While we were in the neighborhood, we visited a couple of huge lava sinks, which the locals understatedly call holes in the ground. These holes can be as wide as a football field and maybe two hundred feet deep in the center. They are lava bowls. Some seep or collect water at the bottom and vegetation clings to life there, attracting birds and other small animals. We saw a great horned owl perched in one.
      Other sights worth seeing are the ruins of old homesteads from the late 1800s. Dreams die hard out here and don’t leave much behind.
     I didn’t get great photos of the eagles, but I did get some nice scenic images, an old homestead ruin, wild burros, and several small birds, including the Vesper Sparrow, which was a new bird for me. My thanks to Rick Vetter for a great adventure. [back to Journal Index]

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