Just a mile south of town, we headed out Hotchkiss Lane, perhaps the best-known of the local birding routes. Canvasbacks, Buffleheads, pintails, and shovelers worked the flooding fields, along with small flocks of Sandhill Cranes and the first Franklin’s Gulls of the season. We passed the Hines sewage ponds, followed by the farm that sells the giant, sawed-in-half, tractor-tire livestock troughs, stopping briefly at the bridge over the west fork of the Silvies River.
This year will be what we call a ‘big water year’ in the Harney Basin, which comprises all of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, most of the majestic Steens Mountain, and a good chunk of the Blue Mountains to the north. From the south, the melting snow on the 10,000-foot Steens will push the Blitzen River to its limits, but this won’t begin for several more weeks. In contrast, the lower-elevation Blue Mountains began shedding their snowmelt several weeks ago, and the Silvies flood plain is starting to look like a giant lake.
We continued past the flooding river, and a pulsating white blanket spread across the fields to the south. We found what we were looking for: a giant flock of geese feeding in the flooding pasture. Because it was April, we knew we were looking at Ross’s Geese, close cousins of the Snow Geese that pass through the basin earlier in the spring. To be sure, a few dozen Snows linger and comingle with the smaller Ross’s, but this spectacle was a Ross’s Goose extravaganza.
We turned down a side road and stopped at an opening in the wild-rose-and-willow-lined pasture. A few dozen geese stood a few feet from the fence, but they quickly shuffled away. From the vehicle, we could see neither the beginning nor the end of the great white expanse. Compelled to count, we hopped outside.
Remember the early stories about Passenger Pigeons that once blackened the sky by their sheer abundance? We will never get to enjoy that particular sky-blackening experience, but a sky-whitening experience invites birders to the Silvies River flood plain every spring. A true wildlife spectacle occurs here in early April, when tens of thousands of ‘white’ geese stop during their northward migration to fuel up in the agricultural fields south of Burns, Oregon.
Counting huge numbers of birds is part science and part art. One technique involves first counting 10 individuals; then counting 100 by 10s; then estimating how many 100s are present.
We reached 3,000 and realized we were only a fraction of the way through the flock. After panning completely across the field—almost 120 degrees—we silently stared at each other in disbelief. We arrived at about 35,000 birds, and that was probably conservative.
The range-wide Ross’s Goose population has exploded in the last few decades. Wrap your brain around these numbers:
- As of 1990, the highest number recorded in the Malheur region was 4,000.
- Estimates over this April 2019 weekend exceeded 50,000 in the Silvies flood plain.
- Current figures estimate the range-wide Ross’s Goose population at around 2 million.
- The Pacific flyway estimate is over a half-million, and biologists estimate that 90% of these stop in the Harney Basin to refuel each spring.
Like the flick a switch—and with no warning—our swath of feeding geese erupted into a swirling white cloud. One end lifted first, with the rest progressing in a smooth orchestrated wave. Once aloft, in a sort of managed chaos, they churned over the flooded pasture before alighting again across the landscape. Patches of a few hundred here and a few thousand there remained, while thousands more headed in other directions.
It’s not just alliteration. The Malheur region is magical. I feel lucky to live so close to this resplendent oasis in Oregon’s corner of the Great Basin. Watching swarms of bright white geese on the Silvies flood plain can only be described as ineffable. If you have not yet enjoyed this experience, meet me at Malheur next spring for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.
Thanks to former refuge biologist Gary Ivey for input on Ross’s Goose populations. Additional data were mined from the following sources:
Littlefield, C. D. 1990. Birds of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Oregon. OSU Press.
Jónsson, J. E., J. P. Ryder, and R. T. Alisauskas. 2013. Ross's Goose (Anser rossii), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America, A. F. Poole, Editor. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, NY. https://doi.org/10.2173/bna.162