The “Oregon Outback” is a colloquial term that geographically encompasses much of south central and southeastern Oregon, including parts of Klamath, Lake, and Harney Counties (and possibly more, depending on who you ask). It is mostly high desert plateau (~4000′ above sea level), with a few small mountains here and there. Vegetation is overwhelmingly sagebrush and juniper, with some open ponderosa pine forest in the western portion. Despite being overwhelmingly arid, the Outback contains several large lakes, often surrounded by seasonal marshland.
While the “high desert” label might seem to imply an inhospitable environment for wildlife, this area is teeming with birds and is a great place to catch fall migrants. This September, I visited migrant traps in Harney and Lake Counties.
Part 1 – Malheur NWR
Famous for its spring migration, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge also has quality birding from mid-September through October. Fall migration is generally more diffuse than spring migration, so the show is typically a little exciting. But it is still worth the visit.
Migrant Yellow Warblers were making their way through Malheur when I visited in mid-September
Malheur NWR Headquarters is a remarkable passerine migrant trap. It’s located smack-dab in the middle of sagebrush country and contains numerous mature deciduous and coniferous trees and shrubs. That it simply provides a place for birds to land makes it popular with our avian friends. Throw in the fact that many of the trees and shrubs provide edible seed and berries, and we now have a food source. Headquarters is also adjacent to a large pond that provides both water to and attracts insects for our friends. The combination of these factors makes HQ a veritable bird magnet.
A Wilson’s Warbler grabs and shakes a small moth. Immediately after this shot was taken, it dropped the moth, swooped down, and caught it before it hit the ground. Too bad that I didn’t have my camera in video mode.
This Nashville Warbler was one of the neater migrants found at HQ
Warbler-palooza! A relatively large movement of migrating Orange-crowned Warblers was also underway during my visit.
This Willow Flycatcher was calling from high atop a pine
Townsend’s Solitaires are thrushes that are typically found in high-desert juniper woodlands in the fall and winter
Malheur NWR HQ contains the most tame California Quail I’ve ever seen. Most run for their lives when they get a whiff of a human.
All of the hummingbirds that breed in this area migrate south (Harney County’s winters are some of the coldest in the Lower 48). By mid-September, most have moved on, though a handfull were still hanging around.
Black-chinned Hummingbird (female)
Rufous Hummingbird (hatch-year male)
Like most areas with ample open spaces, raptors are abundant on the refuge as well. Red-tailed Hawks and Great-horned Owls are not terribly difficult to find, and the latter are common at HQ. In addition to what is shown below, I found a pair of Osprey hunting near the pond as well.
A Great-horned Owl hoots away just before dusk
A Northern Harrier hovers over its prey
Migrant sparrows were relatively easy to find in the shrub and grass surrounding HQ’s Marshall Pond. White-crowned and Savannah Sparrows were the most abundant. Lincoln’s Sparrows were also in the area. Many of the regular wintering sparrows, including American Tree and Golden-crowned, had not yet arrived.
White-crowned Sparrow (immature). Many, many of these recently arrived from their breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska.
Vesper Sparrow, heading south soon
Unfortunately, shore birds had significantly thinned out by the time I arrived. I did not see any Black-necked Stilts or Sandhill Cranes.
Part of a flock of 1000+ migrant Northern Shovelers
Many thanks to Tim Blount for accompanying me for much of this weekend, and for correcting my original ID of the Vesper Sparrow.
Part 2 – Cabin Lake Campground
Cabin Lake is in northwestern Lake County and has neither a cabin nor a lake. And to say it’s a campground would be a bit of a stretch. You are technically allowed to camp there, but there are no cooking areas or restrooms. There is a ranger station on the premises, though it appears to be abandoned. Cabin Lake does have a few useful things, though, including water guzzlers with photo blinds. It’s also conveniently located on the interface of two ecosystems: the ponderosa pine forest the east Cascades and the sagebrush land of Central Oregon. (The trees literally stop at the eastern boundary of the campground.) Thus, species of both habitats are present.
Red Crossbill (female). Males are variable hues of red or orange (see the photo below).
Cabin Lake is one of the most reliable spots in the state for Red Crossbill. Crossbills feed on pine cone seeds and frequently visit the campground’s water guzzlers.
There were well over 200 crossbills in the area this weekend
Cassin’s Finch (immature male). These are the interior West’s version of the Purple Finch, and can be found in high-elevation coniferous forests.
Mountain Chickadee. These are the dry, interior forest analogue of the Black-capped Chickadee.
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Audubon’s subspecies) in basic plumage
Cabin Lake was not as productive as it usually is. Many of the cool species that I typically see there (Lewis’s Woodpecker, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Green-tailed Towhee, etc.) were absent this weekend. Pinyon Jays were around, but didn’t come close and pose for photos. Oddly enough, I managed to see a couple of unexpected birds that I grew up around…
White-breasted Nuthatch, probably the lest-abundant nuthatch in Oregon
American Goldfinch. Goldfinches are common in general, but not so much in the high desert. This individual was all alone and appeared to be lost.
Central Oregon campgrounds are typically full of chipmunks. I don’t know what species this is, but they’re bold little guys. I was eating a sandwich in the photo blind and one of these guys foraged for crumbs between my boots.
Finally, I’d like to give “big ups” to the East Cascades Audubon Society for maintaining the Cabin Lake guzzlers and photo blinds.