Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge includes about a quarter million acres in Lake County, OR. It is not close to anything, but is definitely worth the trip. The weather here in early June tends to be cool and breezy, and my recent visit was true to form.
In the morning, I parked at the campground and walked up toward the top of the large fault block that is Hart Mountain. It was a four-hour round trip through low sage steppe with aspen groves along the creeks. The riparian areas held MacGillivray’s and Yellow Warblers, Dusky Flycatchers, Bullock’s Orioles, and lots of Robins. In the more open habitats, the most common birds were Brewer’s and Vesper Sparrows, Rock Wrens, and Horned Larks.
Pronghorns are the main reason this refuge came into being. Not actually antelope, Pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America, having evolved alongside the now-extinct American Cheetah. Most of the Pronghorns I saw that day were rather skittish, keeping a good distance from me.
Near the top of the ridge is this large cairn, which stands almost eight feet tall. I’m not sure why some people are compelled to stack things. Monty Python addressed this issue with their Royal Society for Putting Things On Top of Other Things.
On my way back down the mountain, I again passed the unconcerned Pronghorn.
Despite the cold, he has already started to shed his winter coat. If you look closely, you can see just a bit of a yellow tag in his left ear. This identifies this animal as part of a study tracking Pronghorn migration between Hart Mountain and Sheldon NWR in Nevada.
Farther south on the refuge lies a little patch of Ponderosa Pine forest known as Blue Sky. Since the habitat is so different from the surrounding sage steppe, it is worth exploring for different bird species, especially in migration. On this cold blustery day, I found Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, Warbling Vireo, and White-crowned Sparrows. The large trees are attractive to various owls, I am told.
In the very southwest corner of Kansas lies the Cimarron National Grassland. This area, along with the nearby town of Elkhart, is a favorite birding destination for Kansas birders. Several western species reach the eastern edge of their ranges here, and lost eastern migrants are attracted to the patches of trees in a sea of sand-sage prairie and cropland.
The Elkhart sewage ponds are the only permanent bodies of water for many miles around, so they attract good numbers of migrant shorebirds and waterfowl. These American Avocets were swimming in the middle of one of the pools.
Burrowing Owls are one of many species that rely on prairie dog towns for shelter or food. I found several Black-tailed Prairie Dog towns on this day, each containing an owl or two, but the dogs kept out of camera range.
The Sept./Oct. issue of Bird Watcher’s Digest has my piece on Hart Mountain National Antelope Refuge (Birding Oregon p.20). This is a great area to explore for birds, other wildlife, scenery, and native petroglyphs. The article didn’t use any of the photos I sent with it, opting instead for a rather dreary view of the mountain. So here are a few photos from the refuge. For more information, check the refuge website.
Most of the refuge consists of a quarter of a million acres of sage steppe. While I appreciate trees and water as much as the next person, I really love the vastness of this habitat (one of the most threatened in North America).
Sunrise over Hart Mountain, viewed from the Warner Valley
Blue Sky is an island of Ponderosa Pine surrounded by sage steppe. These trees attract migrant and nesting species not found elsewhere on the refuge.
Hart Mountain refuge was originally established to protect the dwindling population of Pronghorns.
Mountain Lions are another mammal species that live on the refuge.
Horned Lark singing from atop a small rock
Many of the rocky outcroppings on the refuge contain native petroglyphs. Were these images drawn by shamans, artists, or just kids who liked to doodle?