The Birds Are Back At Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Spring migration has brought new occupiers to southeast Oregon—flocks of both birds and birders.

In the high desert of southeast Oregon, a long winter is over—and, like the Ross’s Geese and Sandhill Cranes that descend on this area each spring, birders are arriving in flocks. On the weekend of April 8–10, several hundred enthusiastic birders inundated the city of Burns, population 2,700, for the 35th annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.

“One man came all the way from Hawaii!” said Chelsea Harrison, executive director of the Harney County Chamber of Commerce, who I found smiling at the festival’s headquarters at Burns High School. Birders streamed in and out, admiring displays of artwork in the gymnasium and scanning a big board of sightings.

In the parking lot outside, passenger vans and school buses lined up at the curb, ready for field trips to local hotspots. Because most of the trips sold out this year, many birders struck out on their own, creating amicable traffic jams next to fields full of stately Long-billed Curlews and American Avocets.

Locals appreciate the influx—bird lovers contribute millions of dollars to the economy here each year—and businesses all over town had hung up prominent “Welcome Birders” signs. Motels, restaurants, gas stations, and stores kept busy assisting binocular-toting visitors.

It was a different sort of occupation than the bizarre, 41-day takeover of the nearby Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in January and February. That’s when a group of disaffected out-of-towners walked onto the refuge, armed to the teeth, in a vague, threatening beef with the federal government. Those people have left, most of them for jail, but not before doing considerable damage.

At the refuge’s headquarters, occupiers smoked in all of the rooms, overflowed the septic system, trashed offices, bulldozed over Native American artifacts, stole computers and cameras, dismantled a Great Horned Owl nest, and prevented biologists from doing two months of work. Employees are now back on the job, working out of trailers during the cleanup. But while the refuge itself is open to birders, Malheur’s headquarters—which boasts the highest all-time bird list of any site in Oregon—will likely remain closed to the public until July.

Today, the most powerful outcome of the occupation stands in stark contrast to these insults: a countermovement of support for the refuge, which has been a gem in the national wildlife refuge system since its establishment by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

“The donations are still coming in,” said Tim Blount, executive director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, when I ran into him during a field trip. Before the occupation, the group had about 200 members; now it has thousands. A campaign called GOHOME, which encouraged people to pledge each day during the takeover, also raised more than $135,000 for four supportive organizations, including the friends group and the Burns Paiute tribe.

On a more personal level, Blount’s binoculars and camera, which he kept in an office at headquarters, went missing during the standoff. More than 150 people in the birding community pitched in to a GoFundMe effort and raised enough to replace his gear; he also plans to use the funds to help purchase a pair of binoculars for refuge volunteers.

Registration for the bird festival hit record numbers this year, according to Carla Burnside, Malheur’s archaeologist and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson for the refuge. “We had a lot of people register who didn’t even plan to come, just to show their support,” she said. “About 67 percent of this year’s attendees had never been to the festival before.”

Since the occupation, life—both avian and human—has moved on. Most of the chatter over the weekend revolved around which migrants were showing up. The fields around Burns were filled with hundreds of thousands of migrating birds; a significant proportion of the total populations of several species pass through here each spring. “I saw a Marbled Godwit!” exclaimed Marcia Cutler, from Corvallis, when she spied me in the high school parking lot.

Birder Paul Sullivan, who retired from a career at Xerox, told me over a burger that he has been coming to southeast Oregon since the late 1970s. “When I first saw this area, I was amazed by the landscape,” he said, with a glint in his eyes. Sullivan had driven five hours to get here, and this was his 81st birding trip to Malheur.

I can relate. There’s something magical about Malheur and its surrounding landscape. When I was 11 years old, almost 20 years ago, my dad shepherded me to the festival in Burns for a long weekend, and that trip helped spark an all-consuming interest in birds that has since taken me around the world. I’ve returned to the refuge in every month of the year, on dozens more weekends, and even spent three months volunteering at headquarters after I graduated from high school.

Of all the places I’ve seen—and I birded in 41 countries last year—Malheur remains my #1 favorite birding destination. Its harsh, spare landscape perfectly frames the beauty of the migrating flocks that pass through the desert. Next year, I will give the keynote talk at the festival—a fun homecoming to the place where I first found inspiration in birds.

On the outskirts of Burns, I stopped next to a flock of nearly 50,000 Ross’s Geese carpeting a grassy field like fresh snow. Suddenly, a Bald Eagle swooped over and startled the flock into the air. The geese took flight in an overwhelming blizzard of wings and honks. For a minute, they totally blotted out the sky, and the nonbirder standing on one side of me had the same plastered expression of awe as the hardcore birder on the other side.

The birds have returned, like we knew they would—a takeover of nature to be enjoyed by all.