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Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Central Oregon Marshes
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Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge


Most of southern Oregon is sagebrush desert or mountains, but in the middle of the state, there is a broad sagebrush basin surrounded in the far distance by mountains. The mountains collect snow in the winter, which melts and flows into the basin during spring and summer. The resulting shallow ponds and marshes provide habitat for huge numbers of migrating waterbirds, and the trees and shrubs at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters attract an amazing variety of migrant landbirds. Activity on the refuge is driven by seasonal rhythm of the migrations. Spring and fall are the busiest seasons, and winter is quietest. The refuge has a small museum with a wonderful collection of stuffed birds and bird eggs from the area.

Link to Map.

malheur national wildlife refuge
Birding the headquarters area (view north).


Malheur is a large refuge located along the pacific flyway in the northern Great Basin desert. The refuge, about 40 miles long and 39 miles wide, includes about 187,000 acres of wetlands, riparian areas, meadows, and uplands. The refuge supports more than 320 species of birds, 58 species of mammal, 10 species of native fish, and a number of reptile species. The abundant water and food in the desert provides a place for migratory birds to stop, rest, and feed before continuing on their annual journey.

malheur national wildlife refuge
Birding the headquarters area (view south).

Birds are always present on the refuge, but the migrations are the busy times of year (spring busier than fall), with some species nesting during summer, and a few species over-wintering.

Spring is the busy time of year at the refuge, as many species using the Pacific Flyway stop here and in the farm fields around Burns. In February, ducks, geese, swans, and Sandhill Cranes begin to arrive. In March and April, waterfowl are abundant and Sage Grouse are displaying. Shorebirds arrive in April, and songbird numbers peak in late May when waterfowl migration is waning.

Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Rufous Hummingbirds at a headquarters feeder.

During summer, Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, and a variety of ducks and shorebirds nest on the refuge (more than 130 species), and other species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and songbirds are common during June and July. Shorebirds return in early July to feed on the mud flats and alkali playas. Mule deer and pronghorn antelope also occur on the refuge.

During fall, Sandhill Cranes stop to feed in September and October before moving south to California, but most species of ducks and geese migrate to the west of here. In November, Tundra Swans can be found in abundance. By late November, most migrating birds have headed south.

malheur national wildlife refuge
Birding a deep-water pond on the refuge south of headquarters (view northeast).

During winter, temperatures drop, the wetlands dry out, and most ponds freeze over. Some, however, remain open and provide food and water for wintering wildlife. Local populations of ducks, geese, and landbirds, including a variety of raptors and Black-billed Magpies, winter on the refuge.

A complete list of birds and mammals on the refuge is available Refuge Headquarters or on the Internet.

malheur national wildlife refuge
A shallow-water pond with lots of ducks on the refuge south of headquarters. This refuge is a good place for a spotting scope (view east).


The refuge is located southeast of Burn, Oregon (south-central Oregon). Refuge Headquarters is located on the south side of Malheur Lake, about 32 miles southeast of Burns, on Highway 205.


The refuge is never locked, but it is a day-use area. The museum is open daily from dawn to dusk, and during summer, the Visitors Center at refuge headquarters is open daily 8-4.

Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Banded Eastern Kingbird




Ducks, geese, swans, shorebirds, raptors, warblers, swallows, and vagrants during migration. The refuge website provides a detailed chronology of bird activity at the refuge.

Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Boys hiding in the grass

Spring: Migrating waterfowl begin to arrive in February, Sage Grouse lek, and shorebirds arrive. Mule deer and pronghorn antelope remain on the refuge all year.

Summer: Nesting Sandhill Cranes, Trumpeter Swans, ducks, and shorebirds. American White Pelicans, shorebirds, egrets, herons, coots, grebes, ducks, and songbirds are common. Migrant shorebirds return in July.

Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
Wilson's Snipe blending into the background

Fall: Migrating Sandhill Cranes. Most migrating waterfowl travel closer to the coast during fall, bypassing central Oregon and the refuge. Tundra Swans arrive. By late November, most migrating birds have passed.

Winter: Wintering species include a few ducks and geese. Tundra Swans over-winter. Wetlands dry out and most ponds freeze over. Some ponds remain open and provide food and water for wintering wildlife. Common Ravens, Great Horned Owls, hawks, eagles, and Black-billed Magpies share the refuge with mule deer and pronghorn. During mild winters, some songbirds over-winter.

Birding Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

For More Information

Contact refuge personnel at 36391 Sodhouse Lane; Princeton, Oregon 97721; 541-493-2612 or visit their website. A bird list is also available online (or snatch a PDF copy here).

Happy birding! All distances, elevations, and other facts are approximate.
copyright; Last updated 150706

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