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Spring Flies In on Migrating Wings

WE lived in Whitney Valley, in the Blue Mountains of northeast Oregon and took care of a hay and cattle ranch there for 8 1/2 years. The valley and the ridges around it are a paradise for birds.

The north fork of the Burnt River comes east, down the mountain, turns toward the south, slows in the valley. Halfway down the valley, Camp Creek, flowing from the north, joins the river. Below Camp Creek a hundred yards, Dry Creek carries water into the river in the spring and early summer. Below that a quarter of a mile, Trout Creek comes from the east, from its own small, beautiful, wildlife-supporting valley, and flows into the river.

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More than a dozen springs and seeps surround the area, and there are several year-round marshes in the valley. Above the irrigated meadow to the west is a forest of lodgepole pine, ponderosa pine, Douglas fir, and western larch, with groves of aspen and willow bush where there is moisture enough to support them. East, the ground is drier and supports sage brush and sparse pine and juniper trees. The wide variety, from marsh to semiarid, provides ideal habitat for a large variety of birds.

Spring was announced not only by the slow disappearance of snow and the steadily warmer days and nights, but also by the return of migrating birds. They started coming back in March, even when the weather was still very cold.

One night in mid-March, I sat up late writing, and I heard the insistent call of a killdeer near midnight. It was 14 degrees below zero. I thought the bird would freeze. But two days later, four of them called and wheeled about over the snow.

This small, gentle bird of the phalarope family, incidentally, is misnamed. Its distinctive, two-syllable call does not say "Kill deer, kill deer." It says, "Shakespeare, Shakespeare," though at times, I'm just as sure it says "John Donne, John Donne."

Canada geese also came at night. At midnight and 6 degrees below zero, some of them flew up and down the valley, calling. In the next few days, as we went about our duties and peregrinations for pleasure, we were pleased that the big geese had once again taken up residence in the valley.

Warmer water from the springs and seeps melts off the snow in ever-larger areas. The birds make their living in these melted-off areas until the warmer weather of spring clears the entire meadow.

The next morning was full of sunshine. A robin perched in the budding willows below the house and spoke melliflously of springtime sunshine. Two Canada geese flew down the meadow, curved gracefully above the shop and landed at the edge of the seep below the house. They walked about and then stood face-to-face, honking loudly at each other, speaking of the future of their species. We were sure this pair nested somewhere on our side of the river, perhaps even closer than we could guess. We didn't look for their nest. We got within 50 yards of them and were thrilled by that closeness.

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One early spring, our daughter Juniper crept across the garden and watched the geese from behind several bales destined to be mulch, a scant 25 yards away. Several years of good manners earned us tolerance that few others might have.

Juniper, her sister, Amanda, and I set off across the meadow below the barn, crossing open ground and patches of snow. They carried their toboggans, and headed for the north-facing hill to see if there was enough snow for one more day's sliding. I carried a shovel. Springtime runoff was doing a good job of irrigation, but I cleaned a few ditches to get water farther down them.

Various pairs of geese watched us, ready to fly if we came too close, going back to their business of feeding and courting when it became clear that we were going by. Red-winged blackbirds flew into the willow bushes, perched, and sang their fluid, running-water sounds of spring. Usually, we saw very few yellow-headed blackbirds in the valley, but that spring, there was a flock of more than 40. They are very bright. Their call is very like the red-wing's, but much louder and a little rusty.

At dusk, we knew the snipes were back. They flew high into the sky and came down fast, zigging and zagging. They stick out two feathers in their tails to vibrate in the wind and make a hoohoohoohoohoo sound. I heard this sound all across the valley, but I had to consult a bird book to find out how they make it, because I could barely see the birds as they headed for the ground. Snipes are about 10 inches tall, with long beaks for probing about in mud for worms, insects, and small crustaceans. They live i n the marshes and along the edges of marshes.

Early one morning, we heard the sandhill cranes call from far up the valley along Camp Creek. They flew down the valley, crossed the highway, and over our house, calling. My wife, Laura, said they came to say hello and let us know they were back. They also like marshes and their edges. They stand about five feet tall, and their wings span as much as seven feet. We had one pair in the valley, except for one year, when we had two.

Mallard ducks flew just above the river, curving with the bend of the stream, and then settled into the water. Six cinnamon-teal ducks paddled about in a temporary pond in the low ground in the pasture south of the house. They were usually quieter than mallards, perhaps a little less shy, though all the ducks in the valley kept a good distance from us.

I never knew when the blue herons returned. When I finally got across the river and up to the west boundary, they were already there, nested high in a dead lodgepole. I heard the deep croak of a great blue heron and turned to look. Apparently, there had been a confrontation in the air between the heron and a raven, and the raven was leaving, posthaste. The heron lowered itself through dead branches where I thought it couldn't fit, legs extended down, wings arched above, a very graceful settling into the nest.

I fixed a hole in the fence near Dry Creek, and a western meadow lark serenaded me from the top of a pine tree. "Welcome back."

Reports came in. Amanda and Juniper saw mountain bluebirds off in the sagebrush east of the county road. Then I saw two of them flying from post to post in the corral.

When the swallows arrived and began to build their nests in the barn and under the eaves off all the old buildings, we knew they were all home again, all that I have named and at least a dozen other species, and spring had fully settled into the valley.

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