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Introducing a Ruddy Duck

Malheur National Wildlife Reserve

I am somehow bamboozled into driving an official van for an Audubon trip to the Malhuer Wildlife Refuge led by expert birder Mike Houck, AKA an urban naturalist. He has awards upon awards and has literally put Portland on the map in his efforts to save urban green spaces. But he was no naturalist hero to me; simply my old high-school boyfriend. And when he asked me to take the trip I didn’t hesitate. He and sister Betsy had been conspiring for years to get me to Malhuer, but living in LA, it wasn't that convenient. Now, with a move back to Oregon after thirteen years south, it was.

How Houck ever became a bird watcher extraordinaire, I shall never know. He was a jock in high school, a state miler. Nary a hint of interest in the wonders of nature, let alone bird watching, which somehow seems fantastic. Now this is where my perception of birders falls apart. When I think of bird watchers, I think of eccentric, introverted, nerdy types, kinda wimpy if male, certainly never athletic or good looking. Houck doesn't fit the description at all (except for eccentric). So why am I so prejudiced? Perhaps it's because birders always seem to wear such goofy clothes. I guess we all judge people by clothes or profession and then are dumbfounded when we actually like someone we could never in a million years imagine we could align with, understand, admire, love, even. I, however, have the advantage of knowing Houck for thirty some years and so accept whatever he chose to be. Even a birder.

So. Here I was, off to remote southeastern Oregon with a group of urbane Audubon birders. There were two vans for twelve of us. Six in each vehicle. I felt incredibly inadequate as a leader of sorts. I know next to nothing about birds. I figured there were only a couple of things I could do as I hurtled into this situation: try real hard to be nice to these strangers and try my darndest not to back into a ravine.

The first day took us thirteen hours to get to Malhuer as we had to stop off at various locations along the way to look at birds. The first stop on the Santiam Pass, as we pile out of the vans and everyone takes their places in the parking lot with binoculars trained in the trees and sky, I think, "This is definitely a mistake. A very big mistake." I feel completely out of my element and wonder why I put myself in some unusual situations with abandon and why this is bugging me. The only thing I come up with is: I am not a group person. I never liked camp, nor tours and this was starting to feel like both. I force myself to stop thinking and simply go with the program. "After all," I coach myself, "You're in the woods, it's a beautiful day, so what's wrong with you?" Then, we walk over to this cliff and descend a stairway to the river below. It's stunning. The North Santiam River cascades around a natural out-cropping of rock and we see a pair of Harlequin ducks, a bevy of violet green swallows and American dippers dabbling. Suddenly everything feels better.

As we drive on that east of the mountains in the higher altitudes, the wildflowers are still in bloom. Now, there’s something I'm at home with. Houck is also a botanist and so identifies all the wildflowers. Besides pulling over for birds, we pull over for flowers. It has now become a Wildflower and Bird Expedition. Houck frequently makes stops in the van ahead and shouts back at my van, "Cody, Oenothera tanacetifolia!" Or some such. This is a gift I appreciate fully.

Sometimes we stop at places you would swear are devoid of birds, but Houck, who predicts what we will see in each location, calls them in. Most of the birds appear so suddenly that we accuse him of paying small children to hide in the woods securing birds and releasing them when he calls.

At Malhuer, we stay at the field station in run-down dorms, a former job corps site painted in leftover (but from where?) government colors, jarring the desert. I especially like the mint green building although the pukey orange is a close runner-up. Meals are provided in a common mess hall, which we share with other bird groups — an Elderhostel group of thirty-three and a small gathering of the Nature Conservancy.

Men and women are separated in the dorms and I am thankful there are only six of us women in a dorm meant for twenty-four so we can spread out and each have our own windows onto the high desert landscape.

The next morning, I find myself utilizing a skill of my father's that used to scare us kids to death – the ability to spot a mallard or a deer a hundred miles away while driving. The thing I don't inherit from him, happily, is the swerving of the vehicle that generally went along with the spotting. Oh, I could spot them all right. I just couldn't identify them.

"Over there on that willow, second branch from the top, a beautiful little yellow something singing..." Houck tells me I am doing good, as the hardest part for beginners was learning to see. I think he was being kind.

I don't know when the true transformation hits me. Maybe it was the second day, cruising around the meadowlands and waterways of the wonderful Malhuer reserve, with the profusion of shore birds — the stilts with their red, red legs, or the avocets, the cinnamon teals, or the lesser scaup. I think it may have been the ruddy ducks and their cinnamon heads and periwinkle blue bills. How could I resist anything so incongruous? Or perhaps it was the fabulous breakfast, family style, at the French Glen Hotel. Or perhaps simply enjoying the diverse and, yes, eccentric, group.

The desert is an incredible place anyway, but green and in bloom and having all these species to behold too, was exhilarating. We identified, rather, they identified 131 species. Adding to this splendid empty landscape were the afternoon thunderstorms flying across the desert — huge black roiling clouds shot through with spectacular lightning laid against fields of green illuminated in sunlight.

I was so relaxed and happy by the third day that I don't know when I realized this birding business was actually fun. OK, so I may be hooked, but I refuse to wear those goofy clothes.

The Audubon Society of Portland is dedicated to understanding, protecting and preserving wildlife with outings in botany, geology, natural history as well as birding. www.audubonportland.org.

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