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Still In Oregon

A visit to Summer Lake Wildlife Area,


My son and I are still in Oregon. (My wife wasn’t invited on this trip and isn’t very happy about it.) Today we visited a new (to me) birding location. The Summer Lake Wildlife Area, which is located in the south-central part of the state, was created in 1944 as a stopover for migrating waterfowl. Going here was actually Casey’s suggestion. It was a good suggestion.

Right off the top I should point out that a $10.00 parking permit needs to be purchased before entering the refuge. No big deal, right? Well, it is kind of a big deal because they don’t sell permits at the refuge. The permits are sold offsite at area sporting and convenience stores. We purchased ours at something called, “Quick Stop,” and what a trip this place was. The shelves were mostly stocked with old VHS movies, assorted kinds of jerky and for some reason, used clothing. One other note about the refuge: It has no visitor center and except for a few very scary outhouses, no restrooms. None of this matters to the birds, of course. They really like it here (probably because they don’t have to use those scary outhouses).

The eight-mile auto loop road around the refuge made for easy (and lazy) birding. The loop road also allowed us to remain close to our car, which was a good thing since it rained most of the day. Every few minutes we would run out, view the birds and then hop back in the car to wipe off our equipment. (By “equipment,” I’m talking about our binoculars and cameras…that was not a euphemism.) On the loop we saw the usual assortment of waterfowl, plus several birds that even non-birders would enjoy. There were super-skinny Black-necked Stilts, beautiful American Avocets, Sandhill Cranes and two Trumpeter Swans, a bird that not too long ago was headed for extinction. But my favorite birds on the drive were the Marsh Wrens. I know Cape Cod also has these feisty birds, but around here they can be hard to find. At Summer Lake we heard them every time we stopped the car. Each patch of reeds contained a male wren that was constantly screaming and chattering at the wren next door. They were like brothers bickering over politics, but in this case the bickering was over reed patches…a much better topic.

During a break in the rain we parked and walked across a field to watch a feeding flock of Violet-Green Swallows. About halfway across the field the rain started up again, so we ducked into an old barn to keep dry. (I know this sounds like the beginning of a Hansel and Gretel story, but it’s true.) As we stood in the barn doorway, watching the rain come down, I noticed several large duck feathers on the floor. I was just about to point them out to Casey, when he nudged me and nodded up at the rafters. There, staring down at us, sat three very large Great Horned Owls, and none of them appeared to be willing to share their barn. One of the owls even began screeching at us. Knowing how aggressive Great Horned Owls can be, Casey and I quietly moonwalked our way back out of the barn. Neither of us wanted to end up like that duck on the floor, or in the oven with Hansel and Gretel.

On the long drive back to our cabin, we decided to break up the trip with a little detour. We spotted a sign for Wickiup Reservoir and thought a place with such a fun name must have some cool birds. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. The “little detour” proved to be longer than I thought and soon we ran out of daylight. After we crossed the Deschutes River, I made a U-turn. But before totally giving up, I pulled over and suggested that we walk across the bridge and check out the river. Casey immediately spotted a pair of Common Mergansers diving into the swift moving water, but my attention was on something else. In the fading light I had seen a small bird fly under the bridge. I couldn’t tell what it was, but I felt it was something good. (Birders have vivid imaginations.) I called Casey over and told him to keep staring down at the water. For the longest time we both stood and stared, looking like dogs waiting for their owners to come out of the post office. Casey must have been thinking, “Boy, my old man is really starting to lose it.” But then he yelled, “There it is!” A little bird flew out from under the bridge and landed on a rock in the middle of the river. My vivid imagination turned out to be spot on. The little bird was an American Dipper. Dippers are North America’s only aquatic songbirds. They spend their entire lives diving into fast moving streams, where they hunt for insects and small fish. It was the perfect way to end a long, but very rewarding day of birding.

This was my third visit to the area around Bend, Oregon and I totally recommend it, whether you are interested in birds or just enjoy visiting trendy towns. The landscape to the east is dominated by sagebrush and arid loving birds, including California Quail, Greater Sage-Grouse and even Golden Eagles. West of Bend you’ll find thick forests and picturesque snowcapped mountains. This is where we saw several adorable Pygmy Nuthatches, Rufus Hummingbirds, flashy Lewis’s Woodpeckers (the reason for the trip) and the even more handsome, Williamson’s Sapsuckers.

Upon returning home, Casey immediately started writing a report for his bird biology class. I attended to more important matters, such as laundry, paying bills and promising my wife that she’ll be included on the next trip.