Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Pacific Region

Birding Opportunities

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Over 320 species of birds and 58 mammal species have been observed on the Refuge. Located on the Pacific Flyway, Malheur's abundant water and food resources provide resting, nesting and feeding for many resident and migratory birds. The following chronology will help you decide when to visit and our bird arrival list provides more insight on when specific birds are in the area or search for the arrival date of a specific species.

Spring Migration

In spring many migratory birds nest on the refuge while others stop over on their way to northern nesting areas, making it a popular birding site in the west. The Silvies River Flood Plain near Burns provides excellent birding opportunities in March, April and sometimes in to May as large flocks of migrating waterfowl feed on grazed and flood irrigated meadows, before continuing on their jouney northward.

We are often asked, "When is the best time to visit during spring migration?" The response depends on whether you would like to see large concentrations of birds or a lot of different species. The following summary of spring migration chronology should help you plan your visit to the area.

March - April

In early March, following the long, cold winter, only a few spring migrants have arrived in the area. These include greater sandhill cranes, tundra swans, northern pintails and white-fronted, snow, Ross' and Canada geese. Sage grouse begin displaying on their leks. Lesser sandhill cranes begin arriving in early March along with other species of ducks. Waterfowl numbers increase in the area through March and, depending on the weather, usually reach their peak late in the month.

During this early spring period the majority of the birds can be found feeding in flooded meadows around the town of Burns. Usually the best birding areas include the meadows along Hotchkiss and Greenhouse Lanes and Potter Swamp Road near Burns. The Double-O Unit of Malheur Refuge is another good birding spot. Depending on water conditions, good viewing may also be found along Highway 20 between Burns and Buchanan. These areas continue to provide good birding through April, but locating birds on a given day may take some scouting in order to find the concentration areas. Migration in the Blitzen Valley on the Refuge is much less spectacular because the area is outside the major migration corridor. However, the Blitzen Valley is the best place to see local trumpeter swans and to view greater sandhill cranes.

As time progresses, more and more species arrive in the basin. American white pelicans, double-crested cormorants, western grebes, long-billed curlews, and American avocets are some of the birds that arrive in late March. More marsh birds, shorebirds, and passerines species show up as spring progresses into April, while numbers of migrant waterfowl decrease.

In early April, the Harney County Chamber of Commerce and local agencies sponsor the "The John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival." The festival begins on Friday evening with presentations on migratory birds. Tours of the area are given on Saturday and Sunday, including tours to eagle roost sites. Although the festival occurs after the late March peak for waterfowl migration, birds are usually still present in large numbers, and many additional species can be seen.

May - June

Major songbird migration begins in April and reaches its peak in mid May. Refuge Headquarters, Benson Pond and P Ranch are the best places to look for passerines.  Many warblers, vireos, tanagers and buntings concentrate in these areas. Most of the refuge's rare bird sightings have been at these locations. By early June songbird migration wanes, leaving the refuge to the many local breeding species.

July - August

Southbound shorebirds begin arriving from their high latitude breeding grounds to fuel up for their extended journeys south. The Double-O unit of the refuge and Harney, Mud, and Malheur Lakes provide excellent feeding for shorebirds on receding mudflats and alkali playas. They are best viewed at pond and lake shores in the Southern Blitzen Valley, the Double-O unit and at the Narrows. Least and western sandpipers and both species of yellowlegs are common. Unusual shorebird species to watch for include solitary, pectoral and Baird's sandpipers, as well as, marbled godwit and ruddy turnstone.

August - October

Over 200 pairs of greater sandhill cranes nest on the refuge each year. In September large groups of cranes begin congregating in the grainfields on the refuge.  Cranes from northern latitudes join Malheur birds to feed before continuing on their journey to California's Central Valley where they winter. Early morning and late evening are the best times to view these birds. Ask at the Visitors Center for grainfield locations.

Warblers, sparrows and other songbirds reach their autumn peak at Malheur from mid August through late September at Refuge Headquarters, P-Ranch and Page Springs. Joining the regular visitors are more unusual species, such as American redstart, indigo bunting and the possible eastern vagrant.

Many of the marshes and meadows dry up in the fall, driving concentrations of ibis, gulls, terns, pelicans and herons to cluster around the remaining pools of open water to feed on trapped fish. Ducks concentrate in open water areas at the display pond at headquarters and Benson and Knox ponds north of the P-Ranch.

Malheur also hosts an array of raptors. Swainson's and Red-tailed hawks are present and bald eagles and rough-legged hawks begin arriving in mid October.  Watch for raptors on power poles and in open fields and stay alert for the occasional merlin or peregrine falcon.

In addition to the abundance of birds using the refuge, mule deer are common. Refuge headquarters and the southern Blitzen Valley favorite viewing areas. Pronghorn antelope are also in the area, and elk are occasionally observed.

November - January

Warblers have gone south for the winter, but some sparrows remain. Careful observers may find American tree sparrows along snow lined roads, and if they are lucky, longspurs or snow buntings.

Many species of ducks, geese and swans use the refuge in winter, but their numbers are reduced compared to other times of year because of cold temperatures and few areas of open water. Check the display pond at Headquarters, the Blitzen River, Knox Pond and the Narrows. Search for Barrow's and common goldeneyes, and mergansers, as well as, the rare Eurasian widgeon. One of the highlights of winter are the large groups of tundra swans which are present in October and November, usually at Knox Pond. Hundreds can gather in one area and their voices carry long distances. Resident trumpeter swams may also be seen. Both species of swans may remain through the winter, but in smaller numbers.

Many raptors over winter in the area. Look for rough-legged hawks, and golden and bald eagles.

Last updated: September 21, 2011
September 21, 2011