Late May. Dale and I are spending the morning a few miles south of Burns, Oregon. Grey clouds hang over this vast expanse of flat valley. We’re parked on the side of a long, straight gravel road that passes miles and miles of green pasture and shallow wetlands. It is wide open country, hardly a tree to be seen. The horizon line is interrupted by a far off ranch and a few shade trees. Farther off, slightly higher areas go into sage. Many miles away we see snow on the Steens Mountains.
Dale and I have been listening to willets, curlews and snipe court and call in the early morning sky; red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds sing from nearby gnarly fence posts and cattails; barn swallows zip over the shallow ditch, foraging for insects. So much for us to watch, sketch and photograph.
Way down the road, blurred by ‘the vapors’, a see a dark mass moving towards us. We call heat waves ‘the vapors’ because they have so little to do with it being hot. It was close to freezing earlier in the morning and the breeze still gives a cold bite to the air. Moisture seems to cause the vapors as much as heat does.
Slowly the motion far down the road separates into four cowboys on horseback, six dogs, and over 100 black cows, one cream cow, a couple of rusty cows plus their calves. The cowboys are dressed for a chilly ride: thick jackets, chaps, warm hats -- three men and one woman. They slowly move the herd towards us.
At first I keep looking for birds, then I realize it is the herd I should be watching. With the help of the dogs, the four cowboys just mosey the herd along. The mellow lowing of cattle mixes with a sky full of bird calls. About a quarter of a mile ahead the lead cowboy opens a gate into a large pasture. The pasture looks to be a mile square. With the assistance of the dogs, every cow and calf turns into the pasture.
Once inside the pasture, the herd is still kept together and nudged well into the large field. Any cow that moves off is quickly brought back. It just takes a short command and two of the Australian shepherds spring into action chase a stay back. Another command, and the two dogs drop in their tracks and wait.
Now three dogs run along the edge of the herd, tightening up that edge. On command they drop into the grass, waiting for their next job. The cowboy’s job seems to be a steadying influence and to give orders. The dogs do the scurrying.
The cowboys spread out, one of each side of the herd. One cowboy in particular is frequently going in tight circles on his horse. I’m puzzled. Is the horse miss-behaving? Is the cowboy training him? The other three riders sit quietly.
Finally the cowboys leave the herd and release the dogs from their patient waiting. While the cowboys head back to the gate, the dogs race about, full of delight. Australian sheep dogs are a joy to watch; eager to run; eager to obey; eager to work; full of nervous energy.
We intercept the cowboys when they reach the road. Craig is in charge. Yes, the maneuvers with his horse were part training and part keeping the horse under control. His horse is young, “Full of go, and not enough ‘Whoa’.” One of the dogs is a youngster too.
The main reason for keeping the herd gathered is to make sure all calves and their Mamas got together. If they are just dumped into the pasture, any that are separated will concentrate on getting back to where they came from. This way they have a chance to pair up and settle into their new home.
By the time the cowboys head back down that long gravel road, several calves are nursing and many of the cows graze. An hour later, the cows and calves are scattered over a large portion of the pasture. One little black calf spots some black-necked stilts and tries to chase them. Off he gallops in their direction, only to see the little birds fly up out of reach.