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A Refuge for Birds – Both Common and Rare

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Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of Buena Vista ponds by Peter Pearsall

Malheur Refuge is an oasis in the high desert of southeast Oregon, attracting up to 25 million migratory birds each year. With more than 95 percent of wetland habitat along the Pacific Flyway now lost to development, the Refuge is a crucial resource for birds on their globe-spanning journeys.

Some of the species found here are year-round residents, but the majority pass through on their way to other areas, using the Refuge as a stopover site.

Most of these migrants are expected species. Occasionally, however, birds will show up at Malheur Refuge far outside of their normal range, blown off course by bad weather or driven by the lack of food resources or suitable habitat.

Whatever the reason, many vagrant or accidental species have shown up at the Refuge over the years, much to the delight of birders. Here are few of the highlights.

The blue grosbeak seen in spring 2022 at Malheur Refuge caused quite a stir. These seed-eating birds winter in Central America and the Caribbean and breed across the southern and midwestern United States. Malheur Refuge is further north than their usual range. Photo by Sivilla Rhoads.

Black-and-white warblers are more commonly encountered on the East Coast during spring migration. Individuals found at Malheur Refuge are vagrants, exploring far outside their normal range. Photo by John Works.

The common crane that visited Malheur Refuge in spring 2022 was the first record of this Eurasian species in Oregon. Photo by Lynn Fox.

Common redpolls are small seed-eating birds of the boreal forest that range widely in winter, sometimes showing up considerably further south than usual. This species is considered rare in winter at Malheur Refuge. Photo by Steve Shunk.

Yellow-throated warbler is a vagrant at Malheur Refuge, with just a handful of records over the years. These birds are more commonly encountered on the eastern half of the country. Photo by Steve Shunk.

The striking painted bunting ranges further east but on very rare occasions, it turns up in the western U.S. This species is a vagrant at Malheur Refuge, observed just a handful of times. Photo by Steve Shunk.

Of these two blue buntings at Malheur Refuge, one is uncommon (the lazuli bunting on the right), and the other is very rare. The indigo bunting breeds across the eastern U.S. and American Southwest and is an accidental species at Malheur NWR. Photo by Steve Shunk.

Flammulated owls are forest dwellers, migrating to montane conifer forests across the western U.S. to breed each summer. On very rare occasions, these owls descend from ponderosa pine forests north and west of Malheur Refuge to spend time in the large trees at Refuge Headquarters. Photo by Steve Shunk.

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