This week, travel east of the Cascades to discover a different sort of spin on the phrase “sagebrush romance” as I discover a unique wildlife encounter. But a word of caution: you must rise well before dawn to catch up with this featured wildlife show and then make it the start of a long day’s journey to enjoy many other unique sights at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

When daylight cracks the horizon, Oregon’s Malheur Wildlife Refuge is a marvel! That’s especially true along Foster Flats Road when a bit of sagebrush romance is underway. It is a stunning strutting show as more than two-dozen sage grouse meet on a communal breeding ground called a “lek.”

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Lake Malheur Reservation, an 81,786-acre preserve and breeding ground for native birds. This designation followed decades of neglect and misuse that included draining and diking historic marshes and heavy cattle grazing that denuded stream banks and eroded soils.

Unrestricted bird hunting–not only by settlers for food but by market hunters who killed egrets, swans, and terns for feathers to adorn women’s finery–decimated the local bird population. Protection for wildlife continued to expand, and by 1940 Malheur National Wildlife Refuge stretched thirty-nine miles in width and extended forty miles in length.

At 187,540 acres, today’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an oasis in the middle of Oregon’s arid high desert country. It consists of marshes, ponds, meadows, uplands, and alkali flats, diverse habitats that attract a wide variety of bird species that arrive at peak numbers each April through June.

During the spring migration, more than 250,000 ducks–mallards, pintails, teals, redheads, canvasbacks, and ruddy ducks, among others–join more than 100,000 geese and 6,000 sandhill cranes. In the deeper marshes, gulls, terns, ibises, herons, egrets, and cormorants find ideal nesting habitat. The refuge is primarily located in the lush Blitzen River valley, the surrounding sage uplands and basalt rimrocks, and the immense bodies of water that collect the Blitzen’s outflow. I like to begin each visit at the refuge’s visitor center, with its interpretive exhibits and bookshop. The visitor center overlooks Malheur Lake, and the trees and shrubs offer homey habitats to many migrating songbirds each spring.

The adjacent Benson Memorial Museum contains nearly two hundred mounted specimens of local birds in one of the buildings constructed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s and 1940s. CCC workers constructed the buildings with volcanic rock that was mined from a quarry on the refuge. Head south from the visitor center on the forty-one-mile-long automobile tour route. In about twenty miles, you’ll come to the Buena Vista Overlook, where you’ll find an outstanding view of the Blitzen River valley with towering Steens Mountain as the backdrop.

In addition, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a wealth of wildlife viewing opportunities – many are located in Eastern Oregon including 25 different state managed areas. Water is a magnet to wildlife, and along this route you’ll need to slow down to savor the spring season that’s bursting with birds. You’ll be rewarded with views of migratory waterfowl. Sandhill cranes and shorebird species, as well as songbirds such as warblers, vireos, and tanagers, use the many wetland areas, including Krumbo Reservoir and Benson Point.

The John Scharrf Migratory Bird Festival is held during the first full weekend in April following Easter and offers non-stop birding activities as well as historical and cultural information sure to entertain you and your family. So whether you’re a beginner or a life-long wildlife enthusiast, the Burn’s based festival has something for everyone.

Spend an amazing weekend witnessing the spectacular spring migration in the Harney Basin of Southeast Oregon. View thousands of migratory birds as they rest and feed in the wide-open spaces of Oregon’s high desert. From waterfowl to shorebirds, cranes to raptors, wading birds to songbirds, you’ll see it all!

Editor’s Note: Grant’s Getaways is a production of Travel Oregon brought to you in association with Oregon State Parks, Oregon Dept. of Fish & Wildlife and Oregon State Marine Board. Episodes air Fridays and Saturdays on KGW Newschannel 8 and Saturdays on Northwest Cable News Network.

about author Grant McOmie

Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.

In this Grant’s Getaway

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These maps and directions are for planning purposes only. You may find that construction projects, traffic, or other events may cause road conditions to differ from the map results. For travel options, weather and road conditions, visit, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.

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  1. Louise says…

    Planning on coming to Eastern Oregon the first week in October. Am wondering if there will be birds in the fall as well. Any other wildlife viewing ideas would be welcome. I told my husband we are going to the wilderness, we’ll have to keep the rental car tank full I hear. Hope the Hell’s Loop road will be open.

    Written on September 12th, 2010 / Flag this Comment
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