For the Birds: Harney County Migratory Bird Festival

For the Birds
Photo by Shannon Fritts.

Since the writing of this article, the 2020 Harney County Migratory Bird Festival has been officially canceled because of the Coronavirus pandemic. 


Each year, over a million birds travel along the Pacific Flyway in the spring, some migrating all the way from Patagonia to breeding grounds in the Arctic. But this is a mere shadow of the number of birds flying a century ago. Habitat loss and fragmentation, drought, fewer and changing food sources and human encroachment have all influenced the reduction in bird numbers.

This means the areas still left to support migratory birds are critical to their survival and the high desert of eastern Oregon. One example is Harney Basin, it’s designated one of the three most important areas in the West for birds to stop, rest and feed before continuing on North. Harney County is the epicenter of this migration with its abundant water, healthy riparian areas, ranches that focus on improving wildlife habitat and protected areas like Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Diamond Outstanding Natural Area, Steens Mountain and the bird-rich Catlow Valley.

Residents take pride in working to protect and preserve migratory birds and their efforts show in the yearly festival.

Anyone interested in birds needs to experience the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival as thousands of birds travel this segment of the Pacific Flyway. Malheur Wildlife Refuge is critical for providing safety and security for the birds but surrounding BLM, USFS, and private ranch land also play an important role in welcoming hundreds of species.

Registration is key to getting a spot on the many tours being offered as well as some of the more place-based activities. The Harney County Migratory Bird Festival website provides a huge amount of information about the history of the event, the unique high desert landscape, the importance of the Pacific Flyway and the exciting opportunities for beginner and advanced birders the weekend has to offer.


Participants MUST pre-register for tours and fee-based activities. There are plenty to choose from.

Tara Thissell, Communications Specialist for the Bureau of Land Management’s Harney County office, says tours are only one way to experience birds during the weekend.

“We have bird sighting lists, maps that can show you where you might see a specific bird, like a burrowing owl for example, and plenty of hikes and walks we can recommend as well,” she said.

Here’s a list of some of the tours:

Birding By Bike—Half the Wheels and Twice the Fun: A flat 12-mile bike ride lead by an expert on local birding hot spots.

Birding Silvies River Flood Plain: A two-hour tour lead by a professional using a small van, so everyone has a window seat.

Birding the Hot Spots: A three-hour tour of some of the best local spots, lead by a BLM wildlife biologist

Birds of Prey: A seven-hour jaunt focusing on bald eagles and other raptors as they search for prey, lead by biologists.

Birds Untapped-Diamond Craters: Guided by Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator and paired with a local birder and microbrewery owner. It tours the Diamond Craters Outstanding Natural Area and the Diamond Swamp at Malheur NWR, ending at Steens Mountain Brewing Company for lunch and a flight of tasty beers.

Catlow Valley Sage Grouse Overnight: A chance to see a sage grouse lek-mating ground on Roaring Springs Ranch, a private ranch working to protect sage grouse. This trip’s overnight is at the historic French Glan Hotel.

Forests to Wetlands & Habitats in Between: A day-long Harney Basin excursion that covers ecology as well as habitat needs in the Basin.

Hey! What’s That Bird?: A great experience for beginners.

Tara Thissell said tours that are full often have unexpected no-shows, so ask to be placed on a waiting list if the tour you want seems full.

Other activities

The weekend also offers a great variety of experiences that don’t involve tours and should be available for folks with limited mobility. From fun projects for kids—including building a bird house, to painting paper mache birds for all ages—to a workshop that helps folks understand and use the eBIRD phone app, there’s something for everyone.

Just as fun to experience is an art show where high-quality gifts are just begging to be bought.

And to add a flavor to this historical cattle country, be sure to show up April 17th at the Burns High School Foyer at 5:30 for samples of succulent beef, presented by the Harney County Cattlewomen.

One of the weekend tours also features a private ranch working to improve wildlife habitat with the added yummy benefit of lunch by the cattlewomen.

Ken Kaufman, author of the Kaufman Field Guide and field editor of Audubon magazine, will be Friday night’s keynote speaker.

“Ken is really well known as an expert birder,” added, Thissell. “He’ll be around most of the weekend, so people will have a chance to meet him as well.”

Two other highlights of the weekend include live bird demonstrations.

“The High Desert Museum in Bend is bringing live birds,” said Thissell. “They’ll have a special station on Saturday in the high school gym, so people can see the birds up close and ask questions of their handlers. In addition, a local falconer will provide a presentation Friday night and will also be available Saturday in the gym with her bird.”

Falconry is an ancient way of training and hunting with birds of prey that becomes a way of life, not just a hobby. If you’ve never been to a presentation on falconry, then be sure to add this to your weekend list.

This part of Oregon happens to be a favorite of mine. The wide-open spaces, the abundance of water in this high desert location, and the attraction it provides for all wildlife, not just birds, makes any trip to this region exceptional.

Spring, with its moderate weather, tons of wildlife, and fascinating geology is the perfect time to visit. With a wildlife parkway right through town and the interesting history of Burns, OR provided on a walking tour of downtown, the Migratory Bird Festival has something for everyone. MSN