Somewhere in an Oregon valley

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I'M irrigating the ranch I take care of in the mountains of northeastern Oregon. This morning I cross the river and ride the motorcycle up the meadow close to the river, changing the flow of water in ditches to soak dry ground. Then I ride up onto higher ground, where the meadow gives way to timber. My dog is with me, and I keep an eye on him and insist that he stay close to me. Ducks, geese, herons, cranes, swans, hawks, eagles, owls, snipes, coyotes, deer, elk, and many other kinds of animals are at peace here. I don't want the dog to bother them, and I try not to disturb them as I go about my work.

I head for the ditch that comes out of the timber onto the lower meadow. From a spring near the end of that ditch, alarmed by my approach, two eagles take to wing. The first one is carrying a varying hare. The eagle can't gain altitude, and he drops the hare in the grass. I turn and head away from them and then stop and watch. The second eagle drops and tries to pick up the animal, without success. I'm far enough away now that the eagle stays with the hare, and the first eagle returns. My dog wants to go investigate, but I talk to him until he knows he won't.

The eagles are brown. They're probably golden eagles. They could be immature bald eagles. Bald eagles don't develop white heads and tails until they mature. That they can't carry the hare could mean they're immature, though varying hares can be quite heavy. That two of them hunt together probably means they are a mating pair and therefore mature and therefore golden eagles. If I could get closer, I could tell for sure what they are, but if I get closer, they will abandon their prey and flee. I'm thrilled enough that I've seen two eagles this closely. I don't need to know for sure what kind they are.

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We head down the ranch, passing along the edge of the favorite territory of about 30 Canada geese. They know us. We probably get closer to them than anyone else will, because, when they start to get too jumpy about us, we stop or move away from them. This area can wait for irrigation. The geese walk away from us. A few take to wing. But two of them get as low to the ground as they can and run for the river. They cross an area where the grass is short, and I see about 10 little puffs of yellow between them, the first hatch of goslings this year. Many geese nest in this area, but I've never seen their eggs. When all the goslings have hatched, I'll irrigate the area, but until then, it belongs to the geese. I'll err on the side of caution and be content with observation from a distance.

I know where the sandhill cranes nest, but I've never seen their nest, and I don't intend to. And if you ask me where it is, I'll simply say, ``Somewhere here in the valley.''

I've seen a great blue heron's nest up in a lodgepole thicket, but I don't work in that area, so I give it a wide berth.

What are the fruits of my consideration? Last spring I rode along one side of a point of timber that reaches out into the meadow. When I cleared the point, I was quite close to two sandhill cranes that were involved in their courtship. He leaped into the air and came down on two flaps of his wings, then jabbed his beak into the ground while she went on feeding. I watched them for several minutes. They allowed their feeding and jumping to take them away from me until high ground stood between us. I made no effort to follow them. I had been too richly rewarded to think of changing my policy of going about my business and allowing them to go about theirs.

Spring progresses into summer. When the goslings first hatched, the parents were particularly cautious, but as the goslings grow, the parents relax a little. More than once I have to slow down to allow the full-fledged young to move out of my way so I can ride through.

Elk, about 80 of them, two different times, trot up close to me at dusk to do a little observing of their own. Perhaps they wonder what drives me to keep working until I have to use the headlight to find my way off the meadow.

I've been close to eagles, ospreys, hawks, owls, and coyotes, more by their intention than by mine. I conclude that my ethic of trying to allow the wildlife first rights to the territory has been rewarding for the animals and more rewarding for me than I ever expected it would be.

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