Bird Festival Highlights: Bird(s) of the week

Visitors from near and far converged in Burns, Oregon for the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival in mid-April. I signed up for six tours and events spread out over four days. I already featured the Downtown Walking Tour in a previous post, but this time I’ll focus on the bird-related tours.

Basin Big Day Tour – North of Highway 20

Though I have participated in this bird festival several times, this was the first time I was able to register for the Basin Big Day Tour. Eight participants, guided by Brodie Cass Talbott and assisted by Duke Tuffy, met at 6:00 am at the Fairgrounds for this tour. We returned at 7:00 pm. The goal was to see as many species as we could in that time frame.

Bird Festival

One of our first stops was in front of someone’s house, northeast of Burns. We had permission to scan their feeders for birds. We saw lots of White-crowned Sparrows here and elsewhere that day.

White-crowned sparrows

A bit farther north, we stopped near flooded fields. A few days before my arrival, snow covered these fields. That’s unusual. Our guide said the weird weather meant fewer birds were being seen, but there was more diversity. More species was what we were looking for so this could work out great for us.

Flooded fields

We drove farther north, to Idlewild Campground, hoping to pick up some forest birds. As you can see below, conditions were not great for tramping through the forest. We heard nuthatches here and crossbills nearby. Otherwise, it was pretty quiet.

We drove Forest Service roads near here with the windows down, hoping to hear more birds. When that didn’t work, we walked along a road, but the birds must have seen us coming.

Bird festival

We headed back south and saw snow-covered fields along Highway 20.

Snowy fields

But wait… is that really snow? Ross’s Geese and Snow Geese fed in the fields near the road.

Ross's Geese

Most of these were Ross’s Geese. They have a shorter, bill.

Ross's Geese

We continued south, towards Malheur Wildlife Refuge. In past years, I don’t recall seeing any snow on the hills in the background at this time of year.

Bird Festival

En route to the refuge, we stopped at this cottonwood tree where Great Horned Owls nest. Sure enough, one adult was on a nest and another was keeping guard nearby. I have many pictures of this tree in my archives because I like its shape and how it stands alone among the fields.

Great Horned Owl nest

Basin Big Day Tour – Malheur vicinity

Another tree stands alone closer to the refuge. This Western juniper tree is a favorite place for Ferruginous Hawks to nest. I saw a well-known birder’s blog refer to it as “The Lone Juniper.”

Ferruginous Hawks nested there for so many years that the weight of the nest broke a supporting branch and it fell to the ground. Rick Vetter, retired refuge biologist, asked the landowner if he could “fix” it for the hawks. Rick and recently-retired biologist, Howard Richburg, used lumber to build a platform and the birds quickly rebuilt a nest. When I say “quickly” I mean super fast. The pair were recorded bringing nest material every seven minutes. Wow!

Hawk nest

When I saw this nest in 2018, before it collapsed, there was something weird next to it. It’s hard to see, but there are two shiny, mylar birthday balloons behind the adult. Did they bring them there to decorate the nest? Who knows.

Hawk nest

We drove on towards Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters.

Bird festival Malheur NWR

Near the main building, critters converged around the feeders. In this picture you can see a rabbit, ground squirrel, White-crowned Sparrows, and Yellow-headed Blackbirds. A Spotted Towhee was also there.

Bird Festival

This feeder was a favorite of the Yellow-headed Blackbirds. I ended up visiting Headquarters on three different tours.


Our Basin Big Day Tour continued, and we drove south to Page Springs Campground. One of the volunteers had zoomed their spotting scope in to focus on a Great Horned Owl nest at their campsite.

Owl nest

Our tally for the Basin Big Day Tour was 97 species. For some of the species we only saw one bird, like the Pied-billed Grebe I spotted at Krumbo Reservoir. We did not see any of some of the regulars, like Western Grebes and Black-necked Stilts. You can find the list of what we saw on eBird here. It doesn’t include a few species, like the Prairie Falcon two of us spotted. I’m grateful some in our group tried to keep track of everything we saw. What a day!

Prairie falcon from the peak of Steens Mountain, Oregon 28 August 2019

Bird Crawl Tour at the Bird Festival

The next day, I went on the Bird Crawl tour. You drive yourself to several well-known destinations on the refuge and volunteers stamp your passport. Though I could have recruited others to travel with me, after a long day in a van with a bunch of people, I needed some alone time. It’s an introvert thing. šŸ™‚

I liked taking my time and visiting familiar destinations, like the Center Patrol Road (CPR) pictured below. I drove this road many times when I was enrolled in an immersive ornithology program years ago.

Bird Festival

This road can get a little busier during the festival, but most of the time you have it to yourself. I got some nice pictures of the Bald Eagle Nest near the P-Ranch.

Bald Eagle nest

Here’s the view approaching Buena Vista from the east. Steen’s Mountain is in the distance.

Buena Vista

A closer look reveals a couple Trumpeter Swans.

swans at bird festival

I leisurely visited the four sites of the Bird Crawl route. Here are a couple of photos of the passport.

Bird festival passport
Bird festival passport

And here’s my prize for getting all the stamps along the route. Cool sticker!

Bird festival sticker

Golden Eagle Nest Viewing Tour

Later that day, I went on the Golden Eagle Nest Viewing Tour. In the past, all the tours used to be in vans or busses. Now several tours, like this one, consist of caravans with multiple cars. They limit the number of cars to reduce disturbance, but we had several tagalongs. Too many, in my former-wildlife-biologist opinion.

Bird festival golden eagle

Here’s a closer look at the nest with an adult eyeing us warily. This is a newer nest. They used to have one nearby that measured 33 feet by 15 feet. Yes, you read that right! After many years of use, it eventually collapsed and they rebuilt two nests nearby. This is the one they chose to use this year.

Golden Eagle nest

Crane Caravan Tour

The next day, I drove on the Crane Caravan Tour. On the way, I paused to look at some of the waterfowl on the flooded fields near Burns. This spot had a lot of Pintails.


Our guide for this tour was crane expert Gary Ivey. One of our first stops was at a cattle ranch where the birds like to hang out.

Sandhill Cranes

Their distinctive bugling calls filled the air. Several participated in graceful dances, hopping with wings spread.

Sandhill Cranes

Brunch with the Birds at the Bird Festival

The last event I attended was a Brunch with the Birds at the refuge headquarters. Though windy conditions threatened to blow our picnic away, it was a wonderful way to end my visit.

As a bonus, we spotted a previously unseen Great Horned Owl nest on the watchtower. I had the only working spotting scope so everyone got to see it. šŸ˜€


I had a great time at the bird festival and hope to return in a couple of years. If you plan to go, check the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival website and register as soon as possible when registration opens. The popular tours fill up fast!

One more thing… a big thank you to the people in Burns who helped make this event possible. I especially wanted to thank Tara Thissell, Public Affairs Specialist with the Bureau of Land Management. THANKS, TARA!

Bird of the Week

9 thoughts on “Bird Festival Highlights: Bird(s) of the week

  1. That was some big birding days! Amazed at the number of Ross’s Geese you saw. Not that common in our parts, maybe get a couple in a snow geese flock.

    • Yeah, we saw a lot, considering the unseasonable weather. Hundreds and hundreds of geese use that area. It’s nice seeing Snow & Ross’s next to each other to see the differences. šŸ™‚

    • Thanks! You would get some great pictures. My camera wasn’t working right so I made due with my phone. šŸ“·

  2. Pingback: Burns Times Herald window: MW, FOWC - bend branches

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