Malheur National Wildlife Refuge was the site of the infamous armed occupation earlier this year, but it has been famous among wildlife lovers—especially birders—for a lot longer. It is an important part of the Pacific Flyway, used by over 320 migratory and resident bird species, many of whom travel as far north as the Arctic and as far south as South America.
In the late 1800s, “plume hunters” were decimating the birds in their quest for feathers to be used for ladies’ hats. For example, photographers William L. Finley and Herman T. Bohlman discovered that most of the egrets were wiped out on Malheur Lake one year, and the beautiful species, also known as white heron, still had not recovered 10 years later. In response, the photographers teamed up with the Oregon Audubon Society to propose that a bird sanctuary be created in the area of Malheur, Harney, and Mud lakes.
In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt joined the conservation effort by creating what was known at that time as the Lake Malheur Reservation at the site of the three lakes. Through the years the refuge has been expanded, and now covers 187,000 acres of diverse wetlands, riparian (stream) areas, meadows, and uplands in the center of the southeastern quadrant of the state, just south of Burns.
My wife Krista and I loved our recent trip to the refuge, and we spotted over 90 species of gorgeous birds, including great horned owls, burrowing owls, short-eared owls, sandhill cranes, golden eagles, long-billed curlews, American white pelicans, black-necked stilts, American avocets, pheasants, yellow-breasted chats, red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, and cinnamon teals.
Good places to stay in the area include the historic Frenchglen Hotel, which is an Oregon State Parks adjacent to the refuge that we enjoyed very much, the historic Hotel Diamond in nearby Diamond, and the lovely Page Springs Recreation Site (for camping) in the Blitzen Valley, managed by the BLM.
Unfortunately, the warmer, drier weather in recent years means that the lakes are a fraction of what they once were, but the available water resources are well-managed to support the many bird species that depend on it. Drive or hike up the Center Patrol Road with your binoculars handy for some of the best sightings.
The armed occupation last year damaged the Refuge Headquarters, but it and the Malheur Field Station, marked on the map, are once again open for visitors. Stop and say hello or click the links below for additional details or to plan your adventure!