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Malheur protects a complex of wetlands totaling 187,000 acres in the Oregon high desert. In 1908 Theodore Roosevelt created the Lake Malheur Reservation, one of the first protected areas of its kind, to stem the near-extermination of egrets, swans and grebes by plume hunters looking to make a buck in the millinery trade, as well as the destruction of the landscape by heavy cattle grazing. Photo: Lee Rentz
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The refuge manages the habitat to contribute to the health and safety of migrating birds. 120,000 acres of the refuge are on the Pacific Flyway, one of the key migration routes for hundreds of thousands of birds annually. In these photos, hundreds of snow geese turn the sky into a flurry of black and white, and a Northern shrike takes a break on a refuge sign. Photos (l-r): Bruce Forster, Chris Pietsch
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Birding can be conducted from a vehicle, making it the perfect activity for young children and grandparents. Hopeful bird-watchers won't want to move quickly, as this scares the birds. Malheur's 42-mile auto tour route provides plenty of opportunity to view wildlife in close proximity, using the vehicle as a blind. Photo: Steven Holt
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The wide, open spaces and big skies of the high desert are ideal for spotting birds in flight. Keep your eyes on the sky for what birders call, aerial displays. This image shows a white-faced ibis. Reportedly, an experienced birder at Malheur can count as many as 100 species in a day during spring and fall migrations. Photo: Thomas Chamberlin
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This male Western tanager is beautiful in full breeding plumage. May is the best time of the year for viewing passerines as well as incidental and rare bird species, which show up in trees around refuge headquarters and old homesteads. Birds like the wet conditions of spring, but so do mosquitoes! If you visit in May, make sure you bring bug repellent. Photo: Thomas Chamberlin
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There is much more to do on a Malheur night besides sleep. This short-eared owl, like all owls, is nocturnal. Spotting owls typically means staying up late or getting up early. In exchange for sleep deprivation, you get a bonus activity — stargazing. Be sure to take a star chart. Photos: Steven Holt and Brenda Moseley
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The morning chorus of birds at the marsh is incredible, and it provides a good opportunity to challenge yourself by trying to identify a few birds by their call rather than their appearance. It's easiest to spot birds in the spring, before grasses grow tall and trees leaf out — you can use Malheur's several semi-developed hiking trails to get away from main corridors. This photo shows a black-crowned night heron. Photo: Thomas Chamberlin
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Refuge headquarters include the George Benson Memorial Museum, which houses more than 200 mounted specimens of birds, and a small visitor center and gift shop, open during the week and most weekends. The museum, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s, is a great place to acquaint yourself with the birds of Malheur before setting off into the field. Be sure to study the trees surrounding the buildings for birds, and ask the staff for recent sightings. The headquarters are also a great place to have a picnic. Photo: Lee Rentz
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The refuge is configured in roughly a "T" shape, 39 miles wide and 40 miles long. The Donner und Blitzen River flows into the refuge here, and nearby is the historic town of Frenchglen, one of the few places visitors can find lodging and food near the refuge. Photo: Brian O'Keefe

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon was one of the first refuges established in the United States and remains one of the most treasured. More than 65,000 visitors come to the refuge annually, drawn to the region’s interesting history, natural beauty, solitude and renowned diversity of wildlife — namely birds. Spring is prime time at Malheur, when 130 of the 320-plus bird species spotted on the refuge typically appear, either to nest or to rest and refuel before migrating north. A trip to Malheur is a family-friendly way to celebrate the beauty of spring in the high desert.

about author Kim Cooper Findling

Kim Cooper Findling grew up on the Oregon Coast but became a Central Oregon girl in the mid-90s, taking in the sunny skies and never looking back (expect a few wistful glances at the ocean). She is the editor of “Central Oregon Magazine” and the author of “Day Trips From Portland: Getaway Ideas for the Local Traveler” and “Chance of Sun: An Oregon Memoir.” Catch her around the state sampling microbrews, hiking river trails, taking silly pictures with her iPhone, and camping with her husband and two daughters in the family tent trailer, Brutus.

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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 tripcheck.com, call 511 (in Oregon only), 800.977.6368 or 503.588.2941.

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