Malheur Then and Now: A Refuge Under Siege

egret public domain

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, founded in 1908 by Theodore Roosevelt as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds, is again under siege, just as it was at the turn of the nineteenth century, when plume hunters in southeastern Oregon shot birds for their feathers, which they sold to the millinery trade; in turn, milliners used the feathers to craft women’s hats. Plume hunters at Malheur were fond of great egrets and shot them for their “bridal plumes,” or aigrettes, the long trailing feathers that grew on the birds’ backs during breeding season. In 1885, more than five million birds were killed in the United States alone for the millinery trade—an astonishing figure, given that the U.S. population that year hovered at just under sixty million people. (That was roughly one bird killed for every person living in America.)


By the time Roosevelt founded the refuge to protect these birds from slaughter, great egrets were rarely seen at the refuge. But with the passage of the Migratory Bird Act, the rise of the Audubon Society, and a change in fashion trends, egrets eventually made a comeback. Part of that success was due to the vigilant work of Malheur’s managers and wildlife biologists.


It is ironic, then, that the refuge again finds itself a victim at the hands of armed individuals who hold themselves above the law. Self-proclaimed “lands-rights protestors,” led by Ammon Bundy, broke into the national wildlife refuge on Saturday, Jan. 2, following a rally in Burns—twenty-seven miles north of Malheur—to denounce the five-year sentencing of Dwight and Steven Hammond, local ranchers and convicted arsonists who will turn themselves in on Jan. 4 to begin serving their sentences. Bundy says the government is punishing the Hammonds for refusing to sell their land, and claims in a report issued by CNN that the refuge had been “destructive to the people of the county,” and that it was continuing to “expand at the expense of ranchers and miners in the area.”


The residents of Burns are people I know well. They are hardworking, and honest; many make their livings as ranchers. They love their country, community, and families, and they want their children to be able to safely attend school (which, this week, because of Bundy’s occupation of Malheur, is unsafe to do). The majority of citizens are law-abiding, and intolerant of tyranny and terrorists; if they are unhappy with the federal government, as they sometimes are, they don’t break the law to demonstrate their disapproval. These are the people so deserving of our time and attention, not the Ammon Bundys of the world. So go the way of the plume hunters, Bundy, and take your militia with you.

Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Renée Thompson writes about the American West. She is the author of The Plume Hunter (Torrey House Press, 2011), set in part in southeastern Oregon, what is today Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Renée’s husband Steve worked as a wildlife biologist at Malheur from 1977-1983, while Renée worked part time at Burns Clinic. Their daughters were born in Burns.

Why There Are Words–Last Event of 2015



I’m reading with six fab writers at Why There Are Words on December 10 at Studio 333 in Sausalito, and I’d love to see you there. Come for the stories, the fun, the water, wine, and beer!


Here are the particulars:


Who: Jodi Angel, Gint Aras, Jean Hegland, Yang Huang, Christian Kiefer, Renée Thompson, Josh Weil.


What: Eight-minute excerpts/stories revolving around the theme “Gift Horse.”


When: Thursday, December 10, 7:15 p.m. (Doors open at 7:00; $10 entry fee.)


Where: Studio 333, 333 Caledonia Street, Sausalito, CA 94965. (Ample, free street parking!)

Crawl the Pubs at Lit Crawl in October



Join me, if you can, in San Francisco on Saturday, October 17, 2015, when I’ll read at Lit Crawl—the world’s largest literary pub crawl—with Sacramento writers Jodi Angel, Valerie Fioravanti, Sue Staats, and Elise Winn. Our event is slated for 6:00 p.m., and will be held at Pizza Zone & Grill, 178 Valencia. Naomi Williams, host, reads earlier that afternoon at 1:30 p.m., SF Maritime Museum.


Gina Mulligan reads at 8:30 p.m. at Urban Putt, 1096 S. Van Ness. Come see her too!


In all, the evening will feature 101 readings and events, including fiction, non-fiction, poetry and more. Would love to see you there!

Believe it or not: mantises kill hummingbirds

mantis kills hb


Did you know it really is possible for a praying mantis to kill a hummingbird? I had read this some time ago, and today, when I found a mantis on our feeder for the second day in a row, I decided to quickly videotape the escapade, because it’s intriguing, and then to verify via Audubon that mantises are indeed carnivores. And it turns out that yes, they absolutely will kill and eat hummingbirds, although they have to very hungry to do so.


Mantises are effective predators because they have rapid reflexes, and because their forearms and legs have spikes that will pin prey down. That said, I didn’t want to kill the mantis, since it gorges (in early spring, at least) on aphids devouring my roses, and on pests from the garden. Audubon logically points out that the mantis might also one day serve as food for a different bird in our yard. So, like yesterday, I gently relocated the mantis with a wooden spoon, moving it to a pot of basil, and will remain vigilant to ensure it doesn’t return to the feeder again tomorrow. If so, off to the marigolds, buddy!


Meanwhile, here’s a video of my encounter with the mantis:


P mantis and hummingbirds

Identifying Feathers, Part 2

feather 1I’ve talked about identifying feathers before, but I can’t help wanting another go at it, because it’s a fun topic and pastime.

After having found feathers in the pasture from great blue herons, great egrets, turkeys, mourning doves, Steller’s jays, scrub jays, northern flickers and western bluebirds, I came upon this beauty last week, and suspected it came from a Cooper’s hawk, sharp-shinned hawk, or maybe a rough-shouldered hawk. Safe guesses, all, since these birds frequent our neighborhood.

feather 5To figure out which feather I had, I consulted BIRD FEATHERS by S. David Scott and Casey McFarland. This book is a gem, and has helped me identify every feather I’ve found on the Wren Ranch, with the exception of two very small, very delicate specimens, which I assumed belonged to an Anna’s, calliope, or black-chinned hummingbird, but I was wrong about all three. (This story continued another day, when I’ve actually figured them out.)

The key to identifying this feather was to begin with the birds that frequent our yard, pasture, and feeders.

feather 2I started with the page featuring feathers from the sharp-shinned hawk. Not a match, however, as there is no white stripe that extends fully about an inch or so from the top.

feather 3It’s not a Cooper’s, either–again, no white band near the top.

feather 4But when I turned to the next page, I knew I had a match. See how the white band extends across the quill? And then there’s that pretty little swath of light brown on the right side that flares a bit in the middle. There is also a slim band of white at the top of the feathers in Scott’s book, and on the feather I photographed, although it isn’t clearly visible. This is the feather of a red-shouldered hawk, which is also the hawk that cries, cries, cries in the pasture. (It’s their nature to complain, I suppose.)


Grover Hot Springs Getaway

gateway to grover


Every year, Steve and I plan a getaway to Grover Hot Springs State Park. Sometimes we take off in the middle of June; sometimes it’s early September. Last year we missed our trip, as there was a forest fire near Pollack Pines that had closed Highway 50. We despaired, as it would have been our first outing with our new Minnie-Winnie, an outrageously ridiculous camping trailer that we’d bought to save our backs.


This year, though, we made it. Left on Sunday, returned on Wednesday. Burned a mess o’ road to and fro. Okay, not a mess, exactly. More like 240 miles.


Creek behind camp


Steve and I are big talkers. “Try something new, we say. Give Chester or Mt. Lassen a whirl.” But then we spend a few days at Grover and it pulls us in, just as it’s done for thirteen years now (minus that year with the fire). There’s so much to do! So much to see! This is the view from Space 47, directly adjacent to Space 48, the camp we enjoyed in those foolish years when we employed a two-man tent.




Here’s our routine: After setting up camp, we take Donner for a walk. She swims in the creek, runs in the meadow, and tears up the landscape with an inaugural “butt scoot,” which Steve and I heartily encourage. While she’s running, I take photos. This is a plant called Equisetum—commonly known as horsetail—which, when fully grown, makes a handy whistle. Just pull it apart and blow.




The snow plant’s scientific name, Sarcodes Sanguinea, translates roughly to “bloody flesh-like thing.” It’s actually a root parasite, but it got its name because it was once thought that it bloomed only in ice and snow. Not true. It’s blooming here in early June, and there isn’t a snowflake in sight. Just ask you-know-who (hint: black nose in photo).


Fallen pine above camp


This is a fallen Ponderosa. If you read my first novel, THE BRIDGE AT VALENTINE, you might remember that the cracks in the bark of this pine smell like vanilla, or maybe butterscotch. This guy’s good-smelling days are long gone, however. He now smells like dirt and dry needles.


Steve watching deer


It takes a lot to wear Donner out. And when I say “a lot,” I mean 4.2 miles, uphill. Here’s Steve, resting. He’s also watching two does, which he hopes will walk on over.


Steve and Donner


Donner doesn’t like deer; she would like to chase them off. Steve tells her it’s not a good idea. Mama will get mad and start to yell, and no one wants to hear that.


Ren and Steve Selfie


This is a photo that Donner took. It’s MamaDada, she says.


View above camp


There are no poor views at Grover. This is just above our camp.


Morning coffee


So we had this idea that sleeping on a mattress in a Ridiculous Trailer That Resembles a Box would feel like snoozing on a cloud. Mostly that’s true, but if you’re novices, like us, it takes some practice to ensure that when leveling your trailer your head and feet are at approximately the same height. If not, you will begin to slip from your mattress to the refrigerator around 2 a.m. When this happens, you will need a pot of strong coffee the minute you and your husband wake up.


bfast table set


To get the day properly started, I decide to make French toast. The Ridiculous Trailer has an oven, stovetop, and microwave, but I can’t quite shake the delight of cooking in the open. So Steve helps me schlep all the fixin’s to the Great Outdoors, while Donner sets the table.


French toast fixins


Four eggs, milk, butter in a pan. One loaf of sourdough bread.


Donners tower 2


Donner’s job is to protect the Eaters-of-the-Toast from Would-Be-Intruders. That’s anyone with a dog on a leash, a kid on a scooter, or a bear cub come down from the woods.


Donners Tower


A dog’s job is never done.


Donner pensive


Okay, I lied. Sometimes a dog’s job IS done, but what’s the fun in that? Let’s take a quick nap and then start over. Please see above.



Nesting Season at the Wren Ranch



Remember this fellow back in January, when its tuxedo was alive with fungi? It wasn’t much more than a photo-op then, and nothing we particularly paid attention to, aside from its decoration. But on Sunday, when I pulled the green-waste bin from in front of the wood pile, a black flash caught my eye—a bird I thought was a phoebe.


“It came from down here,” I said to Steve. Stymied—because phoebes don’t frequent wood piles—I bent for a closer look, and to my astonishment (and almost indescribable pleasure), I found this cavity.


May_11_ladder-back woodpecker


It turns out this nesting hole doesn’t belong to a black phoebe at all (they build nests on ledges sheltered by an overhanging surface, or under a bridge, or niche in a wall), but to a Nuttall’s woodpecker. According to A Field Guide to Nests, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds, Nuttall’s generally choose nest holes in trees trunks, at heights of two to sixty feet from the ground. This little hole, however, is no more than 20 inches from top to dirt, and so it’s brilliant—because who would think to look for woodpecker babies here? Not scrub jays, we hope, nor American crows, both of which dine on baby birds.


We’ll keep an eye on it, and if we’re lucky, Steve will snag a photo. Meanwhile…


May_10_robin's nest


…there’s a new robin’s nest in the grapevine beside the house…


May_11_hummingbird nest


…and an Anna’s hummingbird nest under construction in this nearby redwood. You have to look hard, but trust me, it’s there (little brown clump, mid-right); not yet as large as a walnut shell, but nearly doubling in size each day. As I stood to take this photograph, the little female flew up, cotton fluff in her beak, and hovered as she waited for me to retreat. Which I did. Slowly, quietly, respectfully, giving her the widest berth possible in which to complete her job.

Books, Books, Books…And a Little Writing Too

book 4

I’ve been incommunicado of late, working on a new novel and reading, reading, reading. I finished ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr a few weeks ago, and enjoyed it so very much; it’s a splendid book, but it does take a bit of hanging in to decipher the changes in dates. Once you’re roughly one-quarter of the way through, however, you’ll have it, and upon finishing the last sentence will understand why Anthony Doerr this very day won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

book 2
March and April were gifts from the Book Gods, giving us THE ANIMALS by Christian Kiefer, and THE OTHER JOSEPH by Skip Horack.

book 3

I’m well familiar with these authors’ previous works, and can promise that their newest books will not disappoint. Kiefer’s stunning inclusion of a chapter from the point of view of Majer, a blind grizzly, will leave you simultaneously weeping and rejoicing–despondent over the novel’s inevitable conclusion, while thrilled with the author’s original thought and voice. Horack’s effort is no less impressive: how can you not a love book that incorporates missing fingers and mail-order brides? You can’t, and you won’t. You’ll go crazy over this book.

book 1

THE GREAT GLASS SEA by Josh Weil is on order…

book 5

…as is BETWEEN YOU & ME (Confessions of a Comma Queen) by Mary Norris, a woman who has for the last three decades worked for The New Yorker’s copy department.  As a comma abuser, I’m in desperate need of Norris’ help — let’s see if she’ll land a hand.

Cleaning Day at the Wren Ranch



Over the weekend, Steve and I noticed the white-breasted nuthatches checking out this box, in which they’ve nested several times in the past (competing with Bewick’s wrens and western bluebirds, whichever claims dibs first). Even though we emptied the box year before last, we could see small twigs protruding from the entrance, which meant it was crammed to the top. Mom and Pop Nuthatch were painstakingly emptying the box, twig by twig, and so we gave them a hand today, and emptied it for them.




Here’s the long view of what all those twigs looked like.




And here’s the short view; it’s about two inches deep in there.




As long as we were emptying nesting boxes, we decided to tackle the box in back on the west side of the yard. This little box was chock-full too; it’s another nuthatch favorite.




While Steve was replacing the box on the tree, two red-shouldered hawks flew over, crying, crying, crying, before landing in the gray pine just to the right of these scrub oaks.




After Steve reattached the box to the tree, I asked him to bring his ladder over, so we could check out this cavity, carved by an acorn woodpecker. The good news is there’s more than plenty of room to raise a family in there, which also brings bad news: the entire trunk is hollow, which means it could (and probably will) come down in the next big wind storm.




Here’s another cavity in the same tree. It’s not as suitable a nesting spot, because it isn’t as deep. There’s an acorn stashed at the bottom, though, a treat for a rainy day.




Here’s a closer look.




Once we’d finished the nesting boxes, I took a moment to photograph these periwinkles, which are blooming perhaps five weeks early. We had the driest January on record this year, and today, February 15, we may have broken a record for the warmest. Even the bluebirds were sweating.




The azaleas like the sunshine, too. But honestly, it’s difficult to enjoy the warmth and beauty of this early spring, because the variables are so unknown. I’m a little worried the insects that nesting birds depend on will hatch too soon, and that by the middle of summer, Folsom Lake will resemble a teardrop in the palm of a giant’s hand.




Donner, however, holds no such worries. She lives in the moment, content to soak up the sun, let her eyes go droopy, and wait for a squirrel to swing by.

A Year in Compliments — Erich Kepner

IMG_9059 (2)


Today is Erich Kepner’s birthday, and a great day to compliment him on his devotion to our daughter Maya and their son Dillon Wyatt. Erich is the original good sport, willing to take on almost any project with a can-do spirit and a tool box. In the handful of years since Maya and Erich purchased their house, Erich has added a deck to the back porch, landscaped the front yard with drought-tolerant plants, and torn down a rickety shed. Before long, a mini-castle will stand where that old shed existed, and in it he’ll store his lawn mower and power tools, and some sort of cook stove, where he’ll whip up ribs and grilled corn and Texas toast for Maya. He’s good to their dogs, too, ensuring Country and Delilah get a daily run, or a game of fetch in the back forty.


We’re super proud of you, Erich, and wish you all the best on this birthday, and all your birthdays to come.