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The Observer Paper 10/22/14

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Action heats up at birdwatching paradise

It is certain that more sandhill cranes will be appearing at Ladd Marsh. Presently about two pairs are there, but within the next few weeks many more will arrive. Ladd Marsh often has 50 to 100 sandhill cranes in the spring, many of which can easily be seen at the Tule Lake Nature Area. - Photo/JIM WARD
It is certain that more sandhill cranes will be appearing at Ladd Marsh. Presently about two pairs are there, but within the next few weeks many more will arrive. Ladd Marsh often has 50 to 100 sandhill cranes in the spring, many of which can easily be seen at the Tule Lake Nature Area. - Photo/JIM WARD
Pronghorn antelope have not raced across the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area for at least a month.

Still, the hearts of excited wildlife viewers are zooming to rates of at least 120 beats a minute following the annual opening of Ladd Marsh’s Tule Lake Nature Area.

Pintail ducks, tundra swans, white-fronted geese, sandhill cranes and more than 100 other bird species can now be seen there. The nature area, free and open to the public, opened for its fourth year earlier this month.

Although visitors are encountering a virtual aviary, they probably will not see pronghorn antelope. The five or six pronghorn that had been staying at Ladd Marsh year round mysteriously disappeared about a month ago, said Dave Larson, manager of the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area. The pronghorns rarely could be seen from the Tule Lake Nature Area.

Whether the pronghorn will return is uncertain. But it is certain that more sandhill cranes will be appearing at Ladd Marsh. Presently, there are about two pairs. Within the next few weeks, though, many more will arrive. Ladd Marsh often has 50 to 100 sandhill cranes in the spring, many of which can easily be seen at the Tule Lake Nature Area.

The cranes are a major attraction.

“They’re big and active,’’ Larson said.

The birds are particularly entertaining this time of year, Larson said, because of their mating dances.

Sandhill cranes can often be seen near lower Ladd Creek where Peach and Airport roads meet. The birds begin flocking there when lower Ladd Creek floods each year due to snow melt.

The sandhill cranes now at Ladd Marsh are likely ones stopping while en route to northern nesting sites. The cranes that will nest at Ladd Marsh will arrive later, said Trent Bray, owner of the Bobolink, a La Grande birding supply store.

The likelihood that Ladd Marsh will have more sandhill cranes and other birds this year is great because of the wet winter the region experienced, Bray said. The added water will attract more waterfowl and shorebirds.

The added water also means Ladd Marsh will likely be well hydrated through late summer. In recent years, many ponds and creeks there have dried up before fall because of drought.

The Tule Lake Nature Area is the only part of the Ladd Marsh Wildlife Area that is open to the public.

The centerpieces of the Tule Lake Nature Area are a one-mile auto tour route on an improved gravel road and a one-mile walking trail that circles a wetland.

Most of the auto tour route follows a straight path that takes motorists north for about a mile along a stream. The route ends at the site of the old Willowdale School, which now houses the headquarters of the Grande Ronde Bush Pilots radio-controlled airplane flying field.

The foot trail starts in the same general area as the auto route. Walkers can leave their vehicles in a gravel parking area. The walking trail is level and not difficult to complete. Larson noted, though, that it is unimproved and that conditions can change daily.

The significance of the Tule Lake Nature Area cannot be underestimated. Until the nature area opened in 2005, almost all of Ladd Marsh had been closed to the public except during fall and winter hunting seasons. The only areas open had been Glass Hill west of Peach Road and a nature trail on the south end of Ladd Marsh.

Bray compares the Tule Lake Nature Area’s auto tour route to a viewing kiosk in which people never have to get out of their vehicles. He explained that at most viewing kiosks, people look at wildlife from platforms in a restricted area. Not at Tule Lake, though, where everyone can drive into the area.

Bray, a regional editor for Oregon Birds, adds that a wonderful thing about the auto wildlife tour route is that everyone can enjoy it regardless of their physical condition. He sometimes drives the route instead of walking because it lets him see more birds.

“I like to use my truck as a blind,’’ he said. “Birds get used to your vehicle. When you get out, they see you as a predator.’’

The Tule Lake Nature Area is on land owned by the City of La Grande and managed by the ODFW. The City of La Grande provides wastewater for its ponds.

The Tule Lake Nature Area can be reached by driving to the Peach Road turnoff on Highway 203, just east of Hot Lake. Next drive north for about a mile on Peach Road until reaching a road turnoff that has a gate and an identifying sign. This is where the Tule Lake Nature Area’s auto tour route begins.

New features accessible to visitors this year include a restroom at Peach Pond about a quarter mile north of Tule Lake on Peach Road.

The site is attracting a growing number of out-of-state visitors, Larson said. People coming last year included a couple from the Midwest who found out about the nature area via the Union County Chamber of Commerce. The couple liked the nature area so much they extended their La Grande visit a day so they could go see it again, the biologist said.

The Tule Lake Nature Area will remain open through Sept. 30. It is open each day a half hour before sunrise until a half hour after sunset.

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