Desert Birdwatching at Lake Abert

Haley Tobiason

Author: Haley Tobiason  |  Published: May 17, 2024  | Category: Where-To

This article originally appeared in the Spring + Summer 2024 Desert Ramblings


If you’re a new birder wanting to catch a fresh cast of characters or a long-time bird admirer wanting to dive deeper, Lake Abert should be the next stop on your adventure itinerary.

Tucked under the towering Abert Rim, sitting 30 miles north of Lakeview in eastern Oregon, this glittering blue body of water is not your average lake: it is super salty! As Oregon’s only hypersaline lake, Lake Abert is a special and unique ecosystem home to many bird species that you’d be strapped to find anywhere else in the state. Living in its salty waters and shores are hosts of alkali flies and brine shrimp that attract hundreds of thousands of birds every year to refuel and rest at this desert oasis along their grueling seasonal migrations. This massive influx of birds every summer, coupled with Highway 395 winding alongside the lake’s eastern edge, make Lake Abert perfect for birders of all interest and skill levels.

Scattered along the highway around Lake Abert are gravel and dirt pullouts, which you can take advantage of to stop and get a better glimpse of the birds along the shores.

TRIP DETAILS

WHAT: The lineup of bird species you may encounter as you venture alongside the lake include American avocets, Wilson’s phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, eared grebes, black-necked stilts, willets, Western and least sandpipers, snowy plovers, long-billed dowitchers, Northern shovelers, gulls and more. ONDA has a handy species checklist you can reference and try your luck finding, with over 200+ birds that frequent the area.

WHERE: Birds tend to group up on the north end of the lake, but through peak migration season you will see a variety of species all along the lake.

WHEN: You can find a few birds at Lake Abert as early as June, with avocet typically being the first species to arrive. However, late July through early September is the optimal time to see the most species at peak abundances. As the saying goes, the early bird catches the worm, which is why many birders head outdoors at dawn. Aim to start your adventure earlier in the day, as birds come out to eat in the morning. At Lake Abert specifically, the heat and sun reflection on the lake (“heat shimmer”) can make birding more challenging later in the day.

HOW: To have the most enjoyable and comfortable birdwatching experience, make sure to bring binoculars, a hat and sunglasses, plenty of water, protective clothing or sunscreen and bug spray to ward off the deer flies you’ll meet out there. For some extra excitement, bring a spotting scope, camera and download eBird on your phone.

DRIVING DIRECTIONS: Take US-20 East to Riley, Oregon. At the junction before the gas station, turn right onto Highway 395 and follow for about 70 miles, where you will come upon Lake Abert. Alternatively, take US-97 South through La Pine and turn left on OR-31 South. Stay on OR-31 for about 120 miles, passing through Summer Lake and Paisley. In Valley Falls, take a left to merge on to Highway 395, and you will come upon Lake Abert after about 5 miles.

 

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