he Source's "Best of" issue has always been a challenge for me. When it comes to birds and birding, there are so many birds and so many wonderful places to go birding in and around Central Oregon, I simply can't decide what to call the "best" trip. There are the warblers along the Deschutes River, the waterfowl on the high lakes, and Crane Prairie Reservoir for bald eagles and osprey, to name a few.
The wonderful diversity in the forests provides habitat for accipiters; Cooper's hawks and bold goshawks are a great drawing card. But, going out on the desert and rim rocks of the sagebrush sea will also give you sage grouse, lots of sparrows, the western meadowlark—the Oregon state bird, falcons and golden eagles.
For me though, I go to Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area as often as I can and then, in late summer, on to Lake Abert—Oregon's only salt lake. Leaving Bend, head south on Hwy. 97, then switch to Hwy. 31, south of La Pine. As you head down the old Horse Ranch grade, the magnificent image of Fort Rock comes into view.
Fort Rock is an ancient maar (mud volcano) that stands tall on the bed of an ice age lake, at one time covering the land from where the pine forest ends today all the way out to Highway 395.
Fort Rock has prairie falcons, white-throated swifts, American kestrels and rock wrens, and at sunset you can watch barn owls fly out to hunt gophers to feed their young waiting in the nests in the clefts high up on the rock face.
Continuing south on Hwy. 31 will take you to Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area, operated by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. All the inland shore birds are there, including the ibis and thousands of yellow-headed blackbirds trying to out-shout their cousins, the Red-winged blackbirds.
Take a drive on the patrol roads and you can fill your life list with waterfowl and shore birds galore. The Northern harrier, once known as the marsh hawk, will show off its aerodynamic skills flying just over the grasses and tulles, preying and pouncing upon voles, mice and small birds.
The Great Shorebird Migration
From there, proceed to Lake Abert. If you go in mid-August, you'll be on time to see the Great Shorebird Migration. Tens of thousands of shore birds, including snowy plovers, eared grebes, Wilson's phalaropes, red-necked phalaropes, American avocets, killdeer, northern shovelers, White-faced ibis, Clark's grebes and black-necked stilts all make an appearance.
Lake Abert, aka Abert Lake, is a large, shallow salt lake in Lake County, approximately 15 miles long and 7 miles wide at its widest. The lake was named in honor of Col. John James Abert by explorer John C. Fremont (the Pathfinder) during his 1843 expedition into Central Oregon.
No fish live in the alkaline waters of the lake; however, its dense population of brine shrimp feeds all those shorebirds (and once supported a viable brine shrimp fishery).
The Chewaucan River supplies water to the lake. Historical irrigation rights divert water from the river to the point where, in 2016, the lake died of thirst. This caused severe problems for the thousands of shorebirds that depend on it for food, many that fly non-stop from here to their winter homes all the way to South America.
At the moment there's a ranch at the end of the Chewaucan River, removing water that should be going to keeping the lake alive. For some unknown reason the needs of the ranch overrule the needs of the millions of birds that depend on it for their livelihood – and no one seems to care.
There are many pullouts along Hwy. 395 where you can set up a tripod and scope your binoculars to view the spectacle. Or, join other birders on a field trip with East Cascades Audubon chapter.
Don't forget the barn owls at For. Rock on your way back to Bend, especially if it's about sundown.
Pull into the parking lot, get your camp chair(s) out and sit yourself down east of the rock face, about halfway to the irrigated hay field. Facing the rock at about dark time, you'll see adult barn owls coming out of their nests, flying right over you as they head out to the hay fields to begin their night of hunting.
You'll know when they're coming back with food for the nestlings because you'll hear the kids start hissing and calling to their parents, "Hurry, hurry! We're starving to death!" Barn owls are white when viewed from beneath and will be easy to see as they fly by silently. You'll know they've arrived at the nest when the hissing and squealing sounds come to an abrupt end; the adults are shoving gophers and mice down the owlets' gullets.
I hope you'll make the trip to Lake Abert. This last winter sent a magnificent flow of water down the Chewaucan that has brought life back to the grand old lake. But with all the demands on water for irrigation the lake may (unfortunately) die again, and perhaps you'll tell your children and grandchildren that you saw the last Great Shorebird Migration from Oregon's only salt lake.