Birding at Malheur

Craig Miller


Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

Carl Axelsen, member since 1999

You folks at ONDA really have your stuff together. Such a well-planned opportunity to comment, since figuring out how to connect with the gummint is off-putting. You make it work for me.


Wind and Birds in Quaking Aspen

Wind and Birds in Quaking Aspen


Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Oregon’s first desert wilderness

Steens Mountain: Oregon’s first desert wilderness

On October 30, 2000, Congress passed the Steens Mountain Cooperative Management and Protection Act, finishing the work that had taken ONDA and the other members of the Steens-Alvord Coalition decades  

Steens Mountain is a land of startling contrasts: dramatic u-shaped

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It's all about the birds

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is primarily managed to protect birds - like this Virginia Rail mother and chick - and to provide bird-watching opportunities.

Greater Sandhill Cranes

A common sight on the refuge in the spring, summer and early fall, pairs Greater Sandhill Cranes begin arriving in February and March. Over 240 pairs have established nesting territories on Malheur.

Craig Miller

Giving back

ONDA volunteers have pulled unneeded fences off the refuge for more than 20 years.

A Place for Songbirds

The Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is home to shorebirds, waterfowl and songbirds, like this Marsh Wren. Major songbird migration begins in late April and reaches its peak in mid-May.

Craig Miller

About Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Located roughly 30 miles south of the city of Burns in southeast Oregon, the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a vast wetlands surrounded by high desert habitat. This varied terrain provides food and cover for numerous bird species.

It is one of the most productive waterfowl breeding areas in the United States and as many as 320 species of birds – well over half of all bird species found in Oregon – have been recorded on the refuge.

What to Expect

What birds you are likely to see at Malheur depends on when you visit.

March and early April brings an influx of Sandhill Cranes, Snow and Ross’s Geese, Tundra Swans, and colorful waterfowl such as Northern Pintail, Ruddy Duck, and Cinnamon Teal. Shorebirds and neotropical migrants arrive in late April and May, and you can expect to see specialties such as American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, American White Pelicans, Yellow-headed Blackbird, Western Tanager and Bullock’s Oriole at this time. Some birds, such as American Bittern, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Virginia Rail and Bobolink, can be a challenge to find, but with enough time and attention, you are likely to be rewarded with glimpse of these secretive (but vocal) denizens of the marsh.

When to Visit

March, April, and May are the best months to see the greatest numbers of birds in their most colorful (breeding) plumage. In late May, mosquitoes begin to outnumber the birds; this lasts through mid-August, but this is also when downy young fledglings of marsh species can be observed. The southbound migration peaks during September and attracts many birders. In October, hunting season begins; birds and birdwatchers become scarce until the following spring.

Where to Go

First-time visitors will not want to miss a visit to the refuge headquarters. While there, be sure to visit the Friends of Malheur visitors center and check out what birds are being seen where and pick up a bird checklist.

For a good overview of the refuge’s terrain, drive the Center Patrol Road from the headquarters down to P-Ranch at the south end of the refuge, stopping for birds along the way. Don’t miss Benson Pond, where you can usually see Trumpeter Swans, or Frenchglen, a rustic historic town that has a hotel, a small store, and a good variety of birds.

At 187,757 acres, you cannot adequately cover the entire refuge in a single day. Fortunately, many lodging and camping options are available within a half-hour of the refuge.

What to Bring

Outside Burns, restaurants are few and far between, so be sure to stock up on food, supplies and water.

Expect unpredictable weather conditions – it can snow in May! Bring plenty of clothing layers, as temperature extremes are the norm.

Bring binoculars, sunscreen, mosquito repellent and a bird identification guidebook, such as The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Western North America: Second Edition.

Going with Expert Birders

Each spring the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival offers guided tours in and around the refuge.

That festival is coming up on April 5 to 8 in 2018, and most of tours are already sold out, but you can still stop in at “Bird Central” at the Burns High School to pick up a hot spot map. If you want to get in on the tour action next year, a Bird Festival Membership will allow you to register a week before the general public.

Another ongoing option is to join the folks at the East Cascades Audubon Society for a birding outing. They have a “Wednesday Birders” trip to Malheur scheduled for June 13, 2018.

How to Help the Refuge

The easiest way that you can help support the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is to spend money in Harney County. Buy groceries, fill up your gas tank, grab a meal at a local restaurant or spend the night at local hotel. In small communities on the edge protected lands, dollars spent by birders, hikers and other eco-tourists make a difference. You can even sneak in a bit more birding, as there are some great birding opportunities in and around Burns!

You can also watch for stewardship trips on the refuge when we announce our stewardship trip schedule each February. Our next fence removal trip is in September 2018.

And, you can join ONDA, or continue to support our work financially. ONDA volunteers have helped to protect, improve and maintain the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a variety of ways. For more than 20 years, we have led restoration projects, including fence pulls, on the refuge. We participated in the highly touted collaborative management plan adopted in 2013 that brought environmentalists, ranchers, and the Burns Paiute tribe to the table. Following the armed occupation of the refuge headquarters in 2016, we rallied over 1,000 volunteers for projects on the refuge and nearby lands.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place and we hope you find this guide to birding there helpful. If you visit, we’d love to see some photos from your trip! Use the hashtag #OregonHighDesert, or email a few favorites to us at

Lodging Options

Malheur Field Station: Dormitory, kitchenettes and mobile home accommodations located just 10 minutes from the headquarters. (Please note that they are not accepting reservations in April 2018 except for self-contained RVs due to a facility issue, but hope to be up and running again in May.)

Page Springs Campground: A 36-spot campground located at the south end of the refuge at the base of Steens Mountain.

Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort: A variety of accommodation options, including tent sites, RV spots and cabins, located at the south end of the refuge.

Additional Resources

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – Plan Your Visit

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – Trails Brochure

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge – Map

Friends of Malheur – Spring Arrival Dates

Birding at Malheur

A guide to watching migrating birds at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for first-time visitors. Few events will put you in touch with the rhythms of the natural world quite like watching a migration. Oregonians are lucky to have one of North America’s great animal migrations right in our backyard. Each spring and fall...

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Ten Springtime Adventures

Have the longer days and warmer temps led you to experience bouts of day-dreaming and window-gazing? Put that wanderlust to work! Plan on your trip to the desert, and get out there! With flowers blooming, birds migrating and roads drying out, spring is just about the best time to explore southeast Oregon. Here, we...

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Aaron Tani, Sage Society Member

“It feels good to support ONDA on a monthly basis, because I know they never stop supporting our public lands. ONDA works to help make our lands a better place for the future, and I feel like I’m a part of that every month with my support.”

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Species Spotlight: Mountain Mahogany

By LeeAnn Kriegh Trees live their lives on a different timescale than ours, so it helps to slow ourselves down to fully appreciate them. Certainly, a shrubby little tree like curlleaf mountain-mahogany (Cercocarpus ledifolius) isn’t going to catch our eye if we’re racing past along the trail. But take time for a closer look,...

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Ten Winter Adventures
in the High Desert

Five for No Snow, Five for Snow. Winter in Oregon’s high desert can look and be quite different from one year to the next. In winter 2017, copious snowfall covered much of the sagebrush sea with feet of fun for skiers and snowshoers. The 2018 winter season lent itself more to hiking than snow...

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Craig Terry, ONDA member and stewardship volunteer

“The people I have had the privilege to share time with each season keep me volunteering again and again. Who else but those ONDA staff leaders would make fresh coffee at dawn each morning or pack a watermelon all day to serve as a reward under a juniper in a steep canyon?” Craig, who...

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Jeremy Fox on Steens Landscape

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Wind and Birds in Quaking Aspen

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Wildhorse Lake

Wildhorse Lake fills the bottom of a deep cirque with high surrounding walls on three sides that give way on one side to an open view of the horizon beyond. This treeless bowl is streaked with tiny creeks and even tinier rivulets that flow only after there’s been rain. You’ll start out by heading...

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Steens Mountain Summit

On your way to the top of Steens Mountain Summit trailhead, you’ll pass by two amazing viewpoints that involve short walks—Kiger Gorge and the East Rim—and we recommend stopping at both of these viewpoints and hiking up to the summit as well. The first stop along the drive is the Kiger Gorge Viewpoint parking...

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