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We spent the first week of June in Eastern Oregon touring Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and some of the surrounding areas. This is the fourth year of drought there, and it was obvious that several key areas were lacking water. Along Highway 205 south of Burns in an area called The Narrows, no water was in sight. Two lakes, Malheur and Harney, intersect there and usually there’s water at least 15 feet deep beside the road. In years past, we have seen pelicans fishing there and both Western and Clark’s Grebes were easily seen from the road. Another location with NO water this year is in the northeast portion of the refuge along Lawen Lane, which runs into Ruh-Red Road. In previous years, we have seen Avocets feeding and Ruddy Ducks swimming happily there. This year, because their traditional nesting pond is bone dry, over 300 Yellow-headed Blackbirds flew around aimlessly and sat forlornly on fences, wondering what their options might be. Many birds will not be able to reproduce, much less survive, in a year like this. Birds do fly, of course, so my hope is that they will move to alternative sites where the conditions are better. For them, it is all about habitat options.

In spite of the unusually dry conditions, we saw an amazing number of species (108) and many individual birds going about their normal feeding and mating activities. Malheur NWR is managed for wildlife, especially birds, and it keeps many populations of birds viable. Some of our birding highlights were Great Horned Owl nests with juveniles (at refuge headquarters), Burrowing Owls (Highway 205 and Ruh-Red Road), Trumpeter Swans (Benson Pond), Swainson’s Hawks at nest tree (along Highway 205), Ospreys (Page Springs), and Red-tailed Hawks (at the cliff along Highway 205). We also enjoyed seeing some typical eastern Oregon birds such as Mountain Bluebirds, Golden Eagles, Magpies, Sage Thrashers, and Bobolinks. We also saw ducks, geese, and water birds in good numbers. I especially enjoy observing and hearing the large sandpipers—Willets, Common Snipes, Long-billed Curlews, and Whimbrels—as they perform their breeding displays. The whole valley at Malheur is alive with bird sounds and sights. Even though we were a bit late to see the migrating birds before they continued their journey northward, we were absorbed by new bird sightings at every stop along the road.

The road up Steens Mountain was open early this year, so we were able to drive part of the Loop Road and take in the incredible scenery. We had lunch and walked at Lily Lake, which we had all to ourselves. We saw several fun birds there among the newly leafed-out aspen. We got as far as Jackman Park Campground, where the road was blocked. The aspen were just budding at this high elevation. I was surprised to see a White-crowned Sparrow singing happily—what a bold bird to be setting up breeding territory at 7,800 feet, near the top of a mountain.

Each time I’ve traveled to this mecca for birds, Malheur, I’ve loved every minute (except for the mosquitos). It is a big-sky, craggy-rock-faced, sagebrush-, juniper-, and pine-scented paradise brimming with birds. What’s not to like? If you haven’t made your pilgrimage there yet, I recommend you plan a trip. Let’s hope the winter brings rain.