A Tetherow Safari: Exploring Wildlife on the Golf Course

By Jesslyn Gillespie


On a Friday morning in June, I set out on a safari. It’s a dream many people share—to travel the backroads of a foreign landscape and experience breathtakingly close encounters with wild animals—but scoring a check on my bucket list was not my intention. I was in more danger of tripping over an errant ball than a sleeping lion.

My location was not the Serengeti, but the fairways of Tetherow.

A golf course safari may sound unconventional, but Tetherow itself is far from ordinary. Nourished by the glacial waters and reborn forests of Bend, Oregon, our backyard is a paradise for a spectacular variety of animals and foliage that you won’t see anywhere else. Wildlife is always a welcome guest here—and often an interesting one.

I was not alone in my adventure. Dylan Brandt, Tetherow Member and professional safari guide, generously agreed to drive me around the holes and photograph what we found.

The sun had just broken the horizon when Brandt appeared with a large camera and an even larger thermos of coffee.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said immediately. “Coffee troubles.”

Five in the morning didn’t feel late to me, but he was the one who chose the hour, and for good reason. There is truth to the idiom the early bird gets the worm. The skyline was already peppered with songbirds and the occasional brown bat.

As the cart puttered along the first holes, we kept our eyes on the green. I spotted robins and maybe one cottontail. There were no chipmunks, though, and that surprised me. Anyone familiar with the High Desert knows that small mammals are plentiful in these parts. In addition to chipmunks, there is a stable community of rabbits, golden-mantled ground squirrels, and mice. Summer means a constant flurry of tails darting under boulders and large ears poking out from tall grass.

Maybe the most recognizable are the yellow-bellied marmots. Marmots are the largest squirrel in Oregon and probably the laziest: equipped with stubby legs and wooly underfur, they hibernate in winter and can be dependably found in the warmer months outside of Tetherow’s Pub, The Row, sunbathing by the first tee or snacking on the landscaping.

Brandt and I circled Hole 2 before heading for the lake by Hole 3—or the “watering hole” for our safari purposes.

We crossed the bridge and dipped down to the tee box. The lake was in the center of the green—a crisp blue. Its banks were bristled with reeds and wildflowers. The water itself was dominated by birds: robins, airborne swifts, and a pair of ring-necked ducks mulling in the shallows. Damselflies rippled the otherwise calm surface.

Before we reached the water, though, Brandt stopped the cart.

“See that?”

He pointed to a depression in the brush. A large animal may have spent the night there. Nearby was some scat, too. Coyote by the looks of it, he said.

Brandt explained that it was too late in the day to come across the more exciting predators. Many are nocturnal; they had cleared out well before sunrise. The apex predators in the High Desert are the cougar and American black bear, although they avoid the course. Smaller hunters like bobcats, grey and red foxes, raccoons, and coyotes do prowl the links, but are of little danger to people. Owls and other raptors are common, too.

Brandt didn’t pull out his camera right away—he had two mornings before ours to photograph the birds—but a pair of dancing wrens eventually cajoled a few pictures out of him.

He took his time setting up, careful not to disturb the little muses.

“It’s a delicate balance between getting the shot and not affecting the wildlife. If we feel like we’re changing their behavior, we move on.”

It’s hard not to be charmed by the birds. They are the singing neighbors of every Tetherow home and particularly beloved throughout Central Oregon. The Oregon Cascades Birding Trail follows over 1,200 miles of scenic highways and byways, allowing hobbyists and professionals to experience a region rich with waterfowl, game birds, raptors, and songbirds.

Tetherow shares our community’s passion for birds. The course was the first in Oregon to be certified as a signature sanctuary by Audubon International. Depending on the season, Members and guests can wake up to the coo of morning doves, bike alongside a covey of California quail and their striped chicks, watch ospreys and swifts dive-bomb the lake, or hear the evening song of the great horned owls on the Clubhouse roof.

The birds have free roam of 160 acres—nine of which are lakes and wetlands, and nearly half of which have been left natural or were re-naturalized. The course has also been adorned with 80 bird boxes and some bat boxes and snags.

Eight boxes are specifically designed for the Lewis’ woodpecker. It is Tetherow’s privilege to help protect this unique and endangered species. It is a beautiful bird, distinguished by a long beak, pink breast, and emerald back. Unlike other woodpeckers that burrow into bark, the Lewis’ woodpecker, as the Cornell Lab of Ornithology says, “forages like a flycatcher and flies like a crow.”

After the wrens moved on, Brandt and I sipped lukewarm coffee and recounted that morning’s avian highlights. Quail tittered in the brush. Ravens called out from a nearby neighborhood. Barn swallow chicks huddled on the ground, endearingly awkward as they wobbled about instead of daring to try out their new wings. The swifts were much more agile—they are aerial acrobats, built like stunt kites and famously capable of going ten months without ever touching the ground.

The birds were fun, but we had our photographs and morning was now in full swing. We decided to call it a day and return to the Clubhouse.

We were barely to the bridge when I happened to glance back and see something move by the far end of the lake. Three deer were just now making their appearance.

Freshly energized, Brandt sped us back to the lake, nearly throwing our thermoses from the cup holders.

“Great spot!”

He slowed the cart as we approached the opposite bank, parked, and crouched to set up the camera. Brandt prefers to be on the same level as the animals. Not only does it reveal some good angles, but to him it feels more respectful.

There are three species of deer in Oregon: Mule, black-tailed, and white-tailed. Often we will see solitarily bucks, new mothers and their fawns, and small herds passing through Tetherow. Pronghorn and elk are also native to the region, although elusive on the course.

The three we saw that morning were mule bucks. Usually, male deer do not congregate, but these individuals were too young to compete, equipped with gangly legs and small, lopsided antlers.

If they were nervous about our presence, they didn’t show it. We watched them drink, playfully kick at each other, and run just for the fun of it. Our golf cart garnered some serious mileage in search of a clear shot. On the rare occasions when one or two stood still for longer than a minute, the resulting image was picturesque, the early light catching the golden velvet of their antlers.

The bucks remained near the lake even when the greenskeepers arrived on their mowers. Later, one of the employees would tell me that their nonchalance was normal.

“It’s their domain at that hour. Bambi and Mom live here, too.”

Brandt and I watched the bucks for forty minutes before returning to the resort.  Brandt got his photographs, but we agreed the best experience was watching the deer go about their morning routine. All three had distinct personalities. It had been a snapshot into the secret side of nature.

We said our good-byes at the cart barn. My Friday was off to a good start. It’s not every day you get to explore wildlife with a professional tour guide, and I am very grateful for Brandt’s generosity and guidance.

The tranquility of that morning would eventually break with the rising heat. The rolling greens, once quiet, become a little community of cottontails, songbirds, and painted lady butterflies—not to mention golfers. Everyone lives and plays around each other with respect. This cohabitation of wildlife and people, bonded by the enjoyment of a beautiful golf course in summertime, is just another thing that makes Tetherow so special.