See Desert Wildlife in Spring

Author: Scott R. Bowler  |  Published: April 5, 2022  | Category: How-To

What’s to be seen during the vernal hinge of the year?

Spring, of course, means snow melts, lake ice thaws and rivers flow stronger. As soils thaw, latent seeds sprout, perennial plants green-up, and the first insects hatch out. To take advantage of these changes, animals move into different habitats to find fresh food. They are also looking for and reuniting with mates and many are looking for a safe place to give birth.

If you want to find birds and wildlife, you have to go to their sources of water, food and shelter. For tips specific to birds, large mammals and small mammals, see below and for desert wildlife-watching tips in your inbox year-round, subscribe to ONDA’s e-newsletter.



John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

John Cunningham, ONDA member and volunteer

Restoration is hard slow work. It takes hold, or it doesn’t, in fits and starts. The immensity of the need can be discouraging, but we must carry on. I am so thankful ONDA carries on.


Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

Ryan “Dirtmonger” Sylva, ODT thru-hiker 2017

“To me, it’s a thru-hike in an isolated place that promotes a conversation in land management, ethics and usage. Hiking across a vast and remote landscape and having a random and chance encounter with cowboys and hunters to discuss how ‘all of us’ should treat the land, how we all have a responsibility, no matter our political leanings, really showed me the pulse of the people in rural areas, especially here out west.”


Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape

Cottonwood Canyon Riparian Soundscape

White-faced Ibis

Barb Rumer

Snow Geese

Craig Miller

Looking for Birds

Large flocks of migrating Snow and Ross geese are moving through the desert now, plus swans, a great variety of ducks, white-faced ibis, and plenty of songbirds.

Any oasis with water and sheltering plants will be a great place to watch for birds, and the more varied the habitat, the more diverse the species count you can find there.

Here are seven places to look:
  • the Warner Wetlands on the west side of Hart Mountain
  • the Silvies River wetlands and pastures around Burns in Harney County
  • Malheur and Harney Lakes, Krumbo Reservoir, and the many ponds in the Donner und Blitzen River basin, which forms the heart of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
  • Fields Station, at the south end of the Alvord Desert on the east side of Steens Mountain
  • most of the upper Crooked River
  • all of the various forks of the John Day River
  • the Owyhee River and Succor Creek canyonlands

Bighorn Sheep

Zachary MacCoy   Website

Volunteers on one of ONDA's mule deer surveys

Mule Deer

Devlin Holloway

Looking for Large Mammals

Mule deer, elk, bighorn sheep and pronghorn — which can collectively be referred to as ungulates, which means hooved mammals — are leaving their sheltered lower elevation winter ranges and heading for upland thickets, cliffs and grasslands, per their preferences. The females of each species are likely to be pregnant now, ready to drop their babies in a sheltered, watered, and richly-pastured area.

Who is found where depends upon their preferred habitat: deer in brushy areas, elk in woodlands for shelter and grasslands for forage, bighorn sheep on and around steep rocky areas, and pronghorn in sagebrush and grasslands. Looking for them is often a matter of finding a migration corridor and exploring.

Good places to explore for moving herds include:
  • Places with canyons leading up into highlands, such as Degarmo Canyon on Hart Mountain
  • the big canyons with creeks on the west side of Steens Mountain
  • the upper reaches of the Crooked River
  • Silvies River
  • Summer and Abert Lakes up to the highlands of Winter Rim

As you drive, watch for deer and elk crossing signs — these will be in known corridors for seasonal movements, thus well worth exploring and, of course, places to slow way down at dusk and dawn.


Will Thompson, USGS


Looking for Small Mammals

It’s also fun to look for rodents and lagomorphs (hares, rabbits and pikas), as these busy little critters seem to be even more busy in spring.

For rodent-watching, watch for bushy-tailed wood rats (also known as pack rats) in cliffs and rocky outcroppings, and hollow or broken trees. Beaver, our largest rodent, create very obvious dams, lodges and big wetlands, and can be found throughout our riparian areas, but are especially obvious in several notable areas where ONDA volunteers have worked for decades.

Here are four places to look for beaver:
  • along Pine Creek on the south side of OR 218 east of the John Day River adjacent to the Clarno Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
  • on Bridge Creek north of Mitchell adjacent to the Painted Hills Unit of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument
  • in the lower sections of Rock Creek on U.S. Hwy 26 as it flows down into the John Day River
  • all over the upper Crooked River

For lagomorph-watching, pika are occasionally abundant in talus slopes and rock plies, usually facing north, where they can stay cool while foraging; look for small piles of neatly clipped and stacked “hay.” Pygmy rabbits are increasingly rare now, but you can sometimes still find groups of them in rich, brushy riparian zones. Jackrabbits (hares actually) are moving all over the sage lands now, too, and they’re amazing to see when they are frolicking in the warmer sunshine, or perhaps running away from you—“mad as a March hare” is an apt descriptor. Look for their prints in spring snows and muddy ground.

Since many of these small mammals are nocturnal, it can even be possible to observe them at night, if you have a good full moon.