Memorial Day Weekend: "Going to Malheur?"

For most Americans, Memorial Day Weekend has special significance. First and foremost it is a time when we pause to remember friends and family who are no longer of this world. For many it is the unofficial start to the summer camping season. In Indiana, it’s all about the Indy 500. For school kids it marks the home stretch of the academic year…only two weeks to go!

For  birders, the focal point of this three-day weekend is often a traditional rendezvous at a favored hotspot. In California, they head for the desert oases in Death Valley. Many Washington birders go to a group campout at Wenas Creek or opt to scour the small isolated towns and parks on the Palouse for vagrant warblers. In the Midwest, lakefront migrant traps at Pt. Pelee, Ontario, Crane Creek, Ohio, and along the southern tip of Lake Michigan are sure to attract many birders during this long weekend.


Wilson's Snipe are a common sight atop old wooden fence posts as you make the drive south through flooded pastures along Hwy 205 between Burns and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

In Oregon, we go to Malheur. Specifically, “Malheur” refers to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which lies south of Burns, Oregon at the northern end of the Great Basin. Fed by water from the Blitzen and Silvies rivers, the basin between Steens Mt. to the south and the Strawberry Mtns. to the north fills with spring run-off, resulting in one of the largest freshwater marsh complexes in the world. The refuge, which encompasses 187,000 acres of managed wildlife habitat, is home to hundreds of thousands of breeding ducks, herons, ibis, gulls, terns, and various other marsh birds. By approaching the refuge from the north along Hwy 205 or by making a drive down the Central Patrol Rd., which bisects the southern section of the refuge, you are sure to enjoy amazing close-up views of dozens of species of wetland birds. 

After taking in the waterbird spectacle, birders interested in finding less-expected birds turn their attentions to the refuge’s headquarters. A semi-circle of large trees shades several stone buildings and the sloping lawn in front of the refuge office. There is also a display pond that can be viewed from one of several benches on the deck in front of the building. In addition to larger trees, there are sections of fairly dense understory, which provide cover for birds that are inclined to stay closer to the ground. Situated at the base of small hill, this collection of lush vegetation must be a welcome sight to passerines that have spent the previous several hours migrating over thousands of square miles of mostly treeless high desert.


Eastern Kingbirds nest near Malheur NWR headquarters.

This cooperative bird was photographed near the office

during Memorial Day Weekend 2008.

Vagrants, not the human variety, but birds that have wandered far off their expected migratory routes, occasionally turn up among the swarms of more expected migrants passing through. The headquarters trees have hosted many state firsts as well as several species of eastern warblers that occur somewhat regularly in Oregon. Tennessee, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided, Blackpoll, Black-throated Blue, and Black-and-White warblers are all annual or nearly so in either spring or fall migration. Less expected visitors have included among others Yellow-throated, Cape May, Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Worm-eating, and Hooded warblers. Once in a great while something utterly unexpected shows up, as was the case on 28 September 1993 when a Streak-backed Oriole appeared at Malheur headquarters. 

Less specifically, “going to Malheur” involves sampling a much broader landscape along with certain cultural experiences. Informally, this includes the desiccated Alvord Basin on the east side of the Steens Mt. and the Catlow Valley south of the tiny community of Frenchglen, which lies at the south end of the refuge. Anyone serious about finding vagrants, one of the primary attractions at this time of year, will invariably find their way farther south to the hamlet of Fields, which is another 50 or so miles beyond Frenchglen. Upon arriving in Fields, you may be in need of sustenance. The burgers and a milkshakes served up at the combination store, gas station, post office, and tiny café are well worth the wait on this busiest of weekends. Less than 20 people make Fields their full-time home, but during Memorial Day weekend you are likely to find at least twice that many birders wandering around.


If you can't get it at Fields, you probably didn't need it anyway. This small building houses the local post office, a store, and a cafe, and you can fuel up on gas. Richard Smith discovered Oregon's first Gray-cheeked Thrush hopping around behind this building on 22 September 1984 while I and others were inside the cafe ordering dinner.

North and south of Fields, several small creeks flow down out off the Steens and the Pueblo Mtns. These narrow ribbons of riparia have yielded some good finds, but the crown jewel among the more southerly oases is the woodlot at Fields. The dense stand of willows across the road from “town” has hosted rarities too numerous to count. Strays like Baltimore Oriole, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Waterthrush, and American Redstart are, to some degree, expected. Like Malheur headquarters, several species have made their first and only Oregon appearances at Fields. Such discoveries include, Bell’s and Philadelphia vireos, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and LeConte’s Sparrow. I found my first vagrant, a Magnolia Warbler, in the woodlot on 14 June 1980.


In addition to providing a haven for vagrants, the Fields woodlot attracts many expected migrants, like this male Wilson's Warbler, photographed there on 25 May 2008.

Beyond the birding, there is a spiritual component to visiting this corner of the universe. While Harney County ranks as Oregon’s largest county (and one of the nation’s largest) in terms of land area, it is also listed as the 38th least-populated county in the United States (persons per square mile). It is an easy place to get away from it all. Harney County is overwhelmingly unforested, so there is little to block the expansive views. This is a place where one gains a full appreciation for the concept of “big sky.” To the untrained eye, the high desert is a monotonous panorama of sagebrush and, well, sagebrush. However, a closer look reveals a diverse shrub-steppe plant community enlivened by a rich assortment of desert birds (including five species of sparrows), mammals, lizards, and insects. The high desert is painted in an inviting array of bright and subtle hues. The smell alone can be intoxicating, particularly after the occasional thunderstorm. I spent eight years away from Oregon (1991-1998) and among the things I missed most were the sights, sounds, smells, and quiet of this landscape.


The road seen in this image runs south from Hwy 78 down the east side of Steens Mountain through the Alvord Desert to Fields. When traffic is really heavy you might pass 3-4 other vehicles along this route, which covers about 70 miles.


This uninhabited (at least by humans) desert scene captures the essence of the Harney County landscape. After looking at this image, it's not hard to understand why the occasional stand of trees is loaded with birds.

Ultimately, birding is also a social activity to be shared with folks who have a similar passion for exploration, discovery, travel, and meeting friends in expected and sometimes unexpected places. A Memorial Day trip to Malheur is sure to be marked by reunions with a cast of people who you rarely see anywhere else. One such person for me is Dr. Steve Herman. I’ve known Steve since being introduced to him by David Fix in 1977. Now retired from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, he taught summer college-credit ornithology classes at the Malheur Field Station for many years. In all the years that I’ve known him, we’ve never encountered one another outside of Harney County, even though neither of us resides there.

In 2007, I coordinated an effort to honor Harry Nehls with a Lifetime Service Award presented by the Oregon Field Ornithologists. I solicited stories, anecdotes, and recollections about Harry from several other birders. In his tribute, Steve Herman offered the following about Harry:

It was 1988, I believe, that I found myself standing six feet away from a Flammulated Owl in an evergreen shrub on Malheur HQ. I had been there for a few minutes when I said, “I wonder where Harry is?" From right behind me came his familiar chuckle; when I turned around there he was, the smile, the chuckle again, and few words. I go there now as much to see Harry as I do to see birds. 


If you happen across Harry Nehls (left) or Dr. Steve Herman (right) during a visit to Malheur, stop and make their acquaintance, you'll be glad you did. This wonderful photo was taken at one of their favorite places--Malheur NWR headquarters. Photo provided by Steve Herman.

Steve’s comments capture part of the essence and importance many of us place on making this annual trek. The birding is fantastic, the scenery is magnificent, and the company of birding friends makes it an experience that I look forward to each and every year. I hope to see both of these fine gentlemen again next weekend.  

We encourage you to share your own Memorial Day Weekend birding traditions in our “comments” section.

All photos except the one of Harry Nehls and Dr. Steve Herman were taken by David Irons.


Irons, you just wrote the best thumbnail of the Malheur Experience ever. And what a great shot of Harry Nehls and Steve Herman, two highly influential people in my life.

I first visited Malheur on a Portland Community College bus trip in April 1975. It got dark outside Bend, where there were still trees, and so, a couple hours later, we made our way to the bunks at the Field Station in the dark. I awoke, went outside, and experienced what remains the single most intense visual shock of my life as I gazed out upon an essentially treeless Great Basin landscape, with mighty snow-covered Steens Mountain in the distance, enlivened by the songs of Sage Thrashers—oddly interrupted, now and again, by the whinnies of Soras that seemed to come from somewhere in the sagebrush. I soon learned that the rails were in the expansive nearby marshes one cannot see from there.

One of my simplest memories from Malheur is walking up the south Coyote Butte at the Field Station with Dr. Herman, pausing for many minutes at the crest, and hearing a Sage Sparrow sing beneath the auburn sky. We said nothing of the bird, neither of us acknowledging it. As we strolled back onto the grounds, we saw a Barn Owl sitting on a railing in the twilight. Steve suggested that, just possibly, that owl sat there at the same time each evening. It was a suggestion that really opened my eyes to the truth that many creatures DO have their rituals and routes, and to this day, when I see an eagle hanging out on a snag or watch “the same Great Egret” hunting the next day at the same spot along a slough, I can’t help remembering that surpassingly minor moment of epiphany. The best teachers use the most trivial instances to impart understanding. Both Steve and Harry can do that at the drop of a lens cap. Later, at the Field Station, someone asked what we’d seen and heard, and Steve mentioned offhandedly that we had listened to a Sage Sparrow. The acknowledgment coming only at that point seemed appropriate, and it was one of many moments I savor from my friendship with him. Steve, if you’re reading this, do you recall that sparrow, if only dimly?


Did anyone discover what the Gray-cheeked Thrush was hoping for?


Oh, come on, Dad! Give Irons a break. He drives that truck all day, serving food to people who thrill to the merest chickadee, and is hammering at the keys long after Letterman is done with his dumb jokes. (But I saw that typo, too. Thought the Noble Content Editor would correct it. “Hope to it,” Dave…or maybe just leave it for posterity… ;>})


To answer the original question, the Gray-cheeked Thrush was hoping to be discovered and enjoy the perpetual fame of being Oregon’s first of that species. Thanks to Richard Smith, it got what it was hopping for.
The ongoing support of the Fix clan is greatly appreciated. Every editor needs a good editor (or two).


I M pleased to C that another error has been Fix’d :o)


Great post, Dave. There have been several wonderful posts about Malheur NWR this spring. I have put together a small list of Malheur 2009 blogs, plus some of my photos from Malheur at:



آه! أخيرا وجدت ما كنت أبحث عنه. احيانا يستغرق الكثير من الجهد للعثور على قطعة صغيرة مفيدة حتى للمعلومات.


b78JI6 HHIS I should have tohghut of that!


We are planning a trip to Malheur Refuge for Memorial Weekend. Where can I download a Birders list? Or should I make my own?

Thanks for your help!



وكانت فكرة جميلة جدا! فقط أريد أن أقول شكرا لكم على المعلومات التي لديك المشتركة. فقط الاستمرار في كتابة هذا النوع من آخر. سوف أكون القارئ الموالية. شكرا مرة أخرى.


Este artigo foi extremamente interessante, especialmente porque eu estava à procura de ideias sobre assunto nesta quinta-feira passada.


Oooh I can’t wait for posts on your trip! I have been down there twice and both times were amazing. I hope the fdlooing is not too bad!


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