Thousands of geese rise from the immense,flood-irrigated pasture. A swirling cloud of black,gray and white,their calls mute the keening wind.
Part of the vast Pacific Flyway,the ZX Ranch,Paisley,Oregon,is deluged with migratory birds each spring and fall. Today,in early April, it's impossible to accurately assess the number of geese,ducks and coots that take flight as we drive one of the ranch causeways. Along irrigation canals and the banks of the Chewaucan River,trees teem with red-winged blackbirds,while sandhill cranes walk on stilt-like legs,probing their long beaks into marsh grass. The Chewaucan Valley is a cacophony of sounding birds and lowing cattle.
Dick Mechum,general manager of the ZX,is my guide to this enormous ranch. In addition to seeing the cattle and horses,which are critical to the work here,he also wants me to experience a small part of the ranch's abundant bird life.
A remnant of an ancient,enormous lake formed thousands of years ago,the valley draws birds by the millions during peak migration.
"Most of the geese and ducks already have moved on," Dick explains. "What you see are stragglers and resident birds."
Raptors,such as bald and golden eagles,and a variety of hawks,prowl the skies looking for prey. We drive by two mature bald eagles sitting on fence posts a half-mile apart. The birds are huge,and they stare at us with complete disdain.
In the late 1800s,the Kern County Land and Cattle Company owned the ZX land. At the time,the Chewaucan River meandered through the valley bottom,regularly overflowing its banks and flooding the land. Pastures now suitable for thousands of cows were,at that time,a vast wetland and bog. Within four years,the Kern men dredged the bog,built irrigation canals and rechanneled the river. Today,the resulting meadows provide abundant cattle feed.
This rich land also attracts several mammalian species. In addition to birds,the ranch is home to mule deer and antelope,as well as cougar,coyotes,badger,bobcat,porcupine and bighorn sheep.
"Cougars key in on deer and leave the cattle alone," Dick says. "But they do come down into the valley. We had one kill a deer right between the two houses at ranch headquarters this winter."
Because of its size, the ranch has three buckaroo crews. Wade Cooper,the buckaroo boss,who's been at the ZX for more than 20 years,supervises the Red House crew. Mark Williams,the cowboss,who's been at the ranch for 25 years,oversees the group at Coglin Butte. Brian Burroughs,a relative short-timer with five years on the ranch, is in charge of the View Point crew.
'Most of the time,the three crews operate independently of one another. However,during the intense,month-long spring branding,they might be combined. Tomorrow,the crews will work together to brand and doctor more than 400 calves. The day starts early,and the hands are expected to be on time,ready to work. Mark sees to that.
"Mark's the handiest guy I've ever been around when it comes to setting a schedule and making it happen," Wade declares. "A lot of ranches don't know what they'll be doing tomorrow. Mark knows three to four months in advance what we'll be doing with the cows and where we'll be doing it. And he makes sure it happens."
Read the complete story i the March issue of Western Horseman.