Harney County is located in the “high desert” (over 4000′ above sea level) of Southeast Oregon, at the Northwest tip of the Great Basin. It is mostly arid grassland, with sagebrush and scattered juniper being the dominant vegetation. It’s the 9th largest county in the U.S., but only has a population of about 7,400. Doesn’t sound like the most exciting place in the world. And if your definition of “exciting” is high-end shopping and an evening at the theatre, it is not where you want to be. But if you’re into Sandhill Cranes, Long-billed Curlews, and vagrant warblers, Harney County is the bomb-diggity. Certain areas of Harney contain two elements that birds find very useful: water and occasional patches of trees. (Both of which are generally in short supply in much of the interior west… particularly the former.) Waterfowl and shorebirds make use of the large lakes and seasonally-flooded fields during the breeding season. Migrating passerines roost in the clumps of trees and shrubs that grow along these bodies of water. The result is more species of birds in one spot than you’re likely to see anywhere else.
I spent the equivalent of three full days in late May at two sites in Harney Co…
Part 1 – Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
The legendary Malheur NWR is hands-down the best overall birding spot in the Pacific Northwest. It is roughly 30 miles south of Burns, sandwiched between two large lakes on the north and the town of Frenchglen on the south end. (See map.) One of the most popular spots is Malheur Headquaters, located on the bank of Malheur Lake. The water attracts waterfowl and shorebirds, and the many trees attract migrants and vagrants. Highlights from HQ this May included…
Warbling Vireo (abundant at HQ)
Townsend’s Warbler (one of my favorite winter yard birds)
Black-chinned Hummingbird (by far, the must abundant hummer)
Calliope Hummingbird (uncommon migrant)
Stunned Western Tanager that collided with a window. (It recovered.)
The shore area of HQ (Marshall Pond) offered several interesting species…
American White Pelican
Black-crowned Night Heron
Immediately south of HQ is arid grassland that contains much of what one would expect in such an area:
In a highland juniper forest area just south of Frenchglen, we found a pair of (likely breeding) Blue-gray Gnatcatchers. A very uncommon species in this area…
Benson Pond is another hotspot on the refuge. Unfortunately, I took fewer photos at this spot than I did at HQ.
Eastern Kingbird (regular breeders in Eastern OR)
A blurry Lazuli Bunting
Page Springs Campground, near the south end of the refuge, is a riparian/marshy area that is usually good for Yellow-breasted Chat. Sometimes, migrating Ash-throated Flycatchers can be seen in the junipers along the hillside above the campground.
Numerous vagrants visit the refuge each spring. Early June is peak time for Eastern vagrants, so Memorial Day Weekend is always unfortunately a little early. But we always manage to find a few.
Rose-breasted Grosbeak, HQ
Black-and-white Warbler, Benson Pond
Part 2 – Fields
Fields is a tiny (not “small”) town in Southern Harney Co, just north of the Nevada border. It is the embodiment of “out in the middle of nowhere.” But the center of town has an oasis area with trees and a pond, so migrating birds love it. The residents are also very friendly and accommodating of us staring at their trees for long periods of time.
Great-horned Owl chick
We found one vagrant at Fields:
Horrible photo of a Tennessee Warbler
For more information on recent sightings in Harney Co, check out Tim Blount’s Harney Birder site.