Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Thank you, Joseph, Oregon!

Joseph, Oregon sits below the Wallowa Mountains
Joseph sits over the rise below these Wallowa Mountains. February 2, 2013 by Greg Gillson (camera phone).

Last month I visited Joseph, Oregon. The "excuse" was a rare Siberian bird called a Little Bunting. Though I and most others who chased this bunting in the remote NE corner of Oregon never saw the rare bird, we had a good time and saw other winter specialty birds of the area.

You are to be excused if you have never heard of Joseph, Oregon. It has a population of barely 1000 and is quite isolated in the corner of Oregon next to Idaho and Washington state. This rural community feels the impact of the economy like most other small towns that formerly relied on agriculture, stock animals, and timber. But it has reinvented itself as an artistic location for bronze works. The city also sponsors four festivals, July-October: a rodeo in July, Bronze, Blues, and Brews in August, Alpenfest in September, and an Oktoberfest.

Rather than a closed community wary of outsiders, Joseph is friendly and welcoming--even to forty or more birders per day that descended upon the town during the first couple of weeks following the report of the Little Bunting.

The area where the Little Bunting was seen was in the middle of the residential area of town, maybe 6 blocks long and 3 blocks wide. Most of the side streets had 3-4 inches of snow on them. Birders would spread out and wander from one backyard feeder to the other in an effort to locate birds, keeping an eye out for the bird.

As I walked down the snow-covered residential street with my binoculars and camera dangling from my neck I heard: "Have you seen the bunting?" This was the greeting I received several times over the course of 2 days. The greeting wasn't from other anxious birders searching in vain. No, it was from local residents, pulling up in their vehicles beside me. Typically, I'd stay and talk with them 5-10 minutes--stopped in the middle of the road with their windows down. If I said the men were in flannel shirts and driving big pickups with country music on the radio, would that be stereotyping? Nevertheless, that's how most of the locals appeared. Traditionally, many birders tend to dress sloppily in layers and old beat-up cars--again a stereotype (however, in recent years there have appeared what might be called "Yuppie birders" with fancy clothes, cars, and expensive optics). There was a definite difference in cultures here--but a friendly one

"There's another bird feeder just down the street," or "My feeder is just down the street, be sure you stop by and look," or "I think I may have seen the bunting at my feeder a couple of day's ago, but I'm not sure." Friendly.

"Welcome birders!" read the sign on the coffee shop. As if we were an expected convention group or there for one of the town's festivals. Except for the coffee shop, the birders visiting during the two or three weeks following the Little Bunting sighting probably didn't bring much income to the town. Most restaurants, gas stations, and motels were 10 miles away in the larger town of Enterprise.

But with all the "no trespassing" signs and people who never greet you as you pass on the street in the major towns of western Oregon, this welcoming small town was a joy to visit. Thanks, you residents of Joseph, Oregon. It was a joy to meet you and your beautiful town.