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Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
May 2019

We hadn’t been to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for almost a decade, so it was about time to head back to this oasis in Eastern Oregon. From Seattle, we headed out early to beat rush hour traffic and get a jump on the 10 hour drive ahead of us. It’s a long slog, but through some beautiful (and boring) country. We were excited to see the hillsides covered with blankets of blooming yellow balasmroot, a harbinger of early spring on the dry east side. Outside of Burns, Oregon, American Avocet, Franklin’s Gulls, and White-faced Ibis poked around the flooded agriculture fields. We were shocked to see Lake Malheur completely dry at the Narrows. We thought maybe it was an unusually dry year, but later found out at the visitor center that the levels of water fluctuate year to year. All our previous visits to Malheur just happened to be very wet years.

As our usual routine, we stayed at Page Springs Campground on the southern end of the refuge. We arrived early evening, and were lucky to snag one of the few remaining campsites. A family of Virginia Rail chucked loudly from the small stream that trickled behind our campsite. Three fuzzy black chicks ran from parent to parent amongst the dense brush. Bullock’s Orioles, Yellow Warblers, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Lesser Goldfinch called loudly from the aspens around Page Springs. Despite the campground being nearly full every night we stayed there, the turn over was rather dramatic with most people only staying for one night. We were able to switch to a much better site along the river with more space between the campsites and a better view of the basalt cliffs.

We spent the next few days in and around Malheur. We enjoyed pleasant weather (a definite improvement over our last stay at Malheur where we experienced record amounts of rain), great birding, hiking, and time relaxing near the Blitzen River. We were saddened to learn the site of Sage Grouse lek had been burned in the wildfire several years ago. The birds relocated to a different site (the park ranger wasn’t freely giving the information of the new site and I didn’t press since I know this information can be sensitive especially if the new site is on private land). So no waking up at 3AM to see dancing grouse on this visit. We did have fun waking up early each morning to wander the dikes above the flooded marshes and grasslands though. Here are the places that we visited:

“P” Ranch
Great for birding in the morning with many winnowing Wilson’s Snipe over the grassy fields, clouds of Cliff Swallows hawking over the river, and Turkey Vultures roosting on the metal rungs of the watch tower. Yellow-breasted Chats and the ever present Yellow Warblers dominate the riparian areas along the waterways. Over the channelized Blitzen River, Bank Swallows swoop and tumble. Sandhill Cranes pursue the wet meadows and Cinnamon Teal dabble in shallow ponds. The Riverside Trail along the dike of the Blizten River gives glimpses into all of this, we didn’t follow the trial for a great distance even though on the refuge map it looks like it connects up to the Bridge Creek Canal Trail (it doesn’t - unless you’re willing to swim over the river). The P Ranch is a great place for early morning meandering and a great way to start the day.

East Canal Trail
This trail used to be closed to motor traffic, but was recently opened up probably for fishing access. As a concession to opening the dike to vehicles, the refuge cut off all access to the trail that continued up the along the canal. It was a shame since that trail was rather nice to walk on. Now the trail/road only goes up 2.5 miles along the canal. Still the trail holds great wildlife and beautiful scenery - open grassy meadows on one side and sagebrush covered hillsides on the other. Yellow Warblers are most numerous (though it’s hard to compare when there are so many everywhere at the refuge), but also Lazuli Bunting, California Quail, Warbling Vireo, Long-billed Curlew, and Common Yellowthroat abound. At the end of the trail, we were pleased to see two active Long-tailed Weasels scurrying under the brush. One was even bold enough to bound across the path only a few feet away from Tor.

Bridge Creek Canal Trail
Supposedly this is the link trail between the East Canal Trail and the Riverside Trial on the refuge map. While this may have been at one point, it isn’t not to the typical hiker (unless you’re willing to swim across the river then wade through flooded muddy fields… I like hiking, but there are limits to where I’ll walk). Still it’s a nice trail along a willow-lined dike cutting through two controlled flood plains. During this visit the field to the north of the trail was left dry, while the southern field was flooded to dabbling duck levels. Mourning Doves cooed from the willow trees, a single Forester Tern and a Black Tern flew over the ponds, and Mallards, Gadwalls, and Northern Shovelers all gave flight upon our approach. And a single Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher surprised us with it’s chatter from the willows.

Benson Pond
On a clear day the snow-capped Steens can be seen above the pond where ducks, a nesting Trumpeter Swans, noisy Soras, and loud Yellow-headed Black-birds live. At the edge of the pond, large old cottonwoods and willows are home to Western Kingbirds, Tree Swallows, and Yellow-rumped Warblers. A vociferous Northern Harrier cruised over the ponds edge. Near the small cabin tucked into the cottonwoods a pair of American Kestrels took residence a snag shared with European Starlings. In the crook of one of the large cottonwoods, a Great Horned Owl protected its soft downy nestling.

Center Patrol Road
Walking has all the benefits of seeing the details, but Malheur is large with a lot of ground to cover. The Center Patrol Road is the best way to cover a lot of ground, but not necessarily the best way to see everything. Driving the road is best done at dusk or dawn, when the birds are most active, but some birds such as ducks, Willets, and Long-billed Curlews can be seen feeding during the daylight hours.

Malheur Headquarters
We stopped by the headquarters to get information about the grouse lek and to check out the birds in the area. In the past, the headquarters always seems like a great place to see migrants when all other parts of the refuge can seem a little slow during the heat of the day. The feeders they put out are great at attracting both Red-winged and Yellow-headed Blackbirds, but Lazuli Bunting and American Goldfinch can eek out a living on the periphery of the blackbird dominance. Forester’s Terns and Franklin’s Gulls pass overhead often and a nesting Red-tailed Hawk stood sentinel in a snag over the visitors center. Likely due to the milia overtake, the visitor center got a big makeover with a large lounge area that looked like a place to cuddle up during a winter storm. The gift shop area was removed to it’s own separate building, but everything else at the headquarters was as I remembered including the lawn pocked with many Belding’s ground squirrel burrows.

Diamond Crater Outstanding Area
For a change of pace, we drove out to this geologically interesting spot. Dry grasslands and sage surrounding these old lava flows and craters. Walking around one of the craters, we came upon a rather large rattlesnake trying to heat itself in the dark lava rock under the warming day. Say’s Phoebes and Canyon Wrens called from the basalt crater walls. Horned Larks and Lark Sparrows sang from the nearby sage. A pronghorn trotted in the tall grass. One of the craters was filled with a small marsh pond, where a group of bachelor Cinnamon Teal floated.

Pete French Round Barn
When we visited the barn during our last visit, it was flooded at the time from the records amount of rain. This time we could actually enter the barn and see the interesting restored woodwork of the (bastard) Pete French. It’s a pretty cool barn, made even better by the large pond adjacent to the land. American Avocets, Wilson’s Phalaropes, Black-neck Stilts, Ruddy Ducks, Eared Grebes, Long-billed Curlews, and Willets picked and dove amongst the reeds and shallows of this pond. This relatively small pond, when compared to the many through out Malheur, seems highly productive with birdlife.

It was wonderful to get away from the daily work life ritual and enjoy this magnificent area, which made it even harder to cut our vacation short when our difficult old cat was miserably sad back home. We left only half way into our vacation, with a lot of want and desire still burning within. On the way out of Malheur, we spotted a Ferruginous Hawk. If we didn’t have to leave early, we likely wouldn’t have seen this uncommon hawk. A consolation prize to a shortened vacation. I’m already looking forward to our next trip.

Pictures (click on thumbnail to enlarge)

Bird List
Canada Goose PS,PR,BP,HQ,EC,BC,DC,RB
Trumpeter Swan BP (1 nesting)
Cinnamon Teal PR,BP,HQ,EC,BC,DC,RB
Northern Shoveler BP,EC,BC,RB
Gadwall BP,EC,BC,RB
American Wigeon PR,RB
Northern Pintail PR,EC,DC,RB
Redhead BP,RB
Ring-necked Duck CR
Bufflehead RB
Common Merganser CR
Ruddy Duck RB
California Quail HQ,EC
Chukar DC
Ring-necked Pheasant PS,BP,EC,BC
Pied-billed Grebe BP
Eared Grebe RB
Eurasian Collared-Dove BP
Mourning Dove PS,BP,EC,BC
Black-chinned Hummingbird PS
Virginia Rail PS (parents with 3 chicks)
Sora BP,EC
American Coot BP,EC,DC,RB
Sandhill Crane PS,PR,BP,EC,BC
Black-necked Stilt RB
American Avocet RB
Killdeer BP,HQ,RB
Long-billed Curlew BP,EC,BC,RB
Wilson's Snipe PR,EC
Wilson's Phalarope EC,RB
Spotted Sandpiper PR
Willet BP,EC,RB
Franklin's Gull HQ
Ring-billed Gull HQ
Black Tern BC (1)
Forster's Tern BP,EC,BC
Double-crested Cormorant BP
Great Blue Heron HQ
Black-crowned Night-Heron CR (1)
White-faced Ibis BP,HQ
Turkey Vulture PS,PR,EC,BC,DC
Osprey PS,BP
Northern Harrier BP,EC,BC
Cooper's Hawk PR (1)
Northern Goshawk DC (1)
Bald Eagle PR (nest with 2 nestlings)
Golden Eagle Roadside
Red-tailed Hawk BP,HQ,DC
Swainson's Hawk Roadside
Ferruginous Hawk Roadside (Malheur NWR)
Great Horned Owl PS,BP (parent with chick)
Belted Kingfisher EC (1)
Lewis's Woodpecker BP (1)
Hairy Woodpecker PS,CR
Northern Flicker PS,PR,BP
American Kestrel PR,BP (nesting),HQ
Prairie Falcon BC (1)
Pacific-slope Flycatcher DC (1)
Say's Phoebe EC,DC,RB
Western Kingbird BP,HQ
Loggerhead Shrike CR (1)
Warbling Vireo EC (1)
Stellar's Jay Roadside
Black-billed Magpie PS,EC,BC
American Crow PS,PR,BP,EC
Common Raven PS,PR,HQ,EC,BC,DC,RB
Horned Lark DC
Northern Rough-winged Swallow BP,HQ,DC
Tree Swallow PR,BP,HQ
Violet-green Swallow PS
Bank Swallow PR,BC
Barn Swallow BP,RB
Cliff Swallow PS,PR,EC,BC,RB
Bushtit EC (2)
Rock Wren PS,DC
Canyon Wren PS,DC
House Wren PS,PR,HQ
Marsh Wren BP,HQ,EC,BC
Blue-gray Gnatcatcher BC (1)
Ruby-crowned Kinglet PS,PR
American Robin PS,PR,BP,HQ,EC,BC
European Starling PR,BP,HQ
Cedar Waxwing PS
Lesser Goldfinch PS (2)
American Goldfinch PR,HQ
Chipping Sparrow PS
Lark Sparrow DC
White-crowned Sparrow EC
Vesper Sparrow PS
Savannah Sparrow PR
Song Sparrow PS,PR,BP,EC,BC
Spotted Towhee EC
Yellow-breasted Chat PS,PR,EC
Yellow-headed Blackbird BP,HQ,EC
Western Meadowlark PS,BP,HQ,EC,BC,DC
Bullock's Oriole PS,BP,EC
Red-winged Blackbird PS,PR,BP,HQ,EC,BC,DC,RB
Brown-headed Cowbird PR,HQ,EC
Brewer's Blackbird PR,HQ,RB
Orange-crowned Warbler EC
Common Yellowthroat PR,BP,EC,BC
Yellow Warbler PS,PR,BP,HQ,EC,BC (many everywhere)
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle's and Audubon's) PR,HQ,EC,BC
Black-throated Gray Warbler PS
Townsend's Warbler PS
Western Tanager PS,EC
Black-headed Grosbeak PR
Lazuli Bunting HQ,EC
House Sparrow HQ
Critter List:
Mule Deer
Black-tailed Jackrabbit
Nuttall's Cottontail
Yellow-bellied Marmot
Long-tailed Weasel
Belding's Ground Squirrel
Least Chipmunk
Bat (large) sp.
Western Rattlesnake
Gopher Snake
Western Fence Lizard
Tree Lizard
Pacific Treefrog

PS: Page Springs Campground
PR: Malheur NWR--P Ranch
BP: Malheur NWR--Benson Pond
HQ: Malheur NWR--Headquarters
EC: Malheur NWR--East Canal Trail
BC: Malheur NWR--Bridge Creek Canal Trail
CR: Malheur NWR--Central Patrol Rd.
DC: Diamond Craters
RB: Pete French Round Barn SP


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page updated: 5/27/19