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.”
Ecologist and wildlife guide Steve Shunk joined me as we sat alongside a not-so-camouflaged lineup of vehicles filled with folks who similar ideas oh how best to begin their day.
We were drawn to an intriguing show as male sage grouse puffed up their chests and strutted in quick-step back and forth displays with tail feathers fanned out in impressive display.
Nearby, Shunk pointed to a group of smaller, drabber females or “hens” that watched the male or “rooster” grouse go to such great lengths to win over their favors.
Shunk noted, “ We have our own mating rituals – we get all primped up and wear fancy clothes and go out on dates – but to do what these birds do;distend their bodies and make the odd sounds is just something that most people don’t have any perspective on. There’s just nothing like coming to see it in person.”
Every now and then a real battle royal would break out between two male sage grouse – Shunk offered that dominance is the key word in order to understand the bird’s behavior.
“If you’re a younger male and you want to challenge the older male, you have to go right up to him – stare him down and wait to see what happens.”
What most often happened was a flurry of feathers and dust as the birds went round and round across the sage covered flat.
And within seconds it was over – and usually the older, larger male assumed his victorious position near the females.
Sage Grouse were once common species in the high desert, but today half has reduced their habitat. So refuges and protected wildlife areas are critical to the bird’s survival.
“There are at least a dozen leks scattered around the refuge,” noted Shunk. “Not just upland but even higher because the birds need the open sage flats. Also, the sage has to be very low and on an open flat.”
That’s because the grouse need to be able to see predators that might be approaching the lek – coyotes and bobcats and foxes are common species that hunt the grouse.
Shunk added that the sage grouse strutting is an incredible way to start a day’s adventure at Malheur Refuge: “If people are willing to get up early, yes we’ll start here – I love being up at sunrise. To come up here and see this and then travel thru the wetlands, it’s a nice diverse nature experience.”
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.
You’ll appreciate the short, easy hiking trail around the overlook, as well as the restroom. This viewing area also offers wheelchair accessibility.
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.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson Carey Goss said the birds are waiting for you to enjoy: “You’ll see a lot of large flocks, like snow geese, sandhill cranes and that’s why people get excited about this place when they see those large numbers of birds in one little area – being able to drive for miles on a tour and see those opportunities is very unique.”
This area is remote and rugged. Plan on traveling long distances on gravel roads, and make sure your transportation is reliable and your spare tire is in good shape.
In fact, this area is so remote I suggest carrying two spare tires if you’re planning to travel the back roads much. It’s also a good idea to carry plenty of food and water (it can get pretty hot during summer months).
That said, some areas are wheelchair accessible. The refuge is heavily signed and restrictions are plentiful, so heed where you’re going and tread lightly.
Remember that the refuge is full of marshy areas that are ideal breeding grounds for hungry mosquitoes. If you go between April and November, take plenty of insect repellent.
And remember that hiking is restricted only to designated and signed areas. In fact, a good rule of thumb is to hike only on roads that are open to automobiles.
The John Scharff 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!