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Malheur Lake in Eastern Oregon is one of nature's wonders. The lake is highly variable, ranging in size from nearly no water up to 125,000 acres. Technically, Malheur Lake is a 'playa' lake - a temporary body of water covering an ancient dry lake bed. Located about 25 miles southeast of the town of Burns, Malheur Lake is one of the main features of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR), a well-known breeding grounds for several species of water-loving birds. The 185,000-acre Refuge is a regular migratory stop for over 250 species of birds. Trumpeter swans live in the refuge all year; other birds, such as sandhill cranes, egrets, and great horned owls nest here. Situated strategically on the Pacific Flyway, more than 320 bird species and 58 mammal species have been observed at MNWR.
Fish species in Lake Malheur include common carp, redband trout, mountain whitefish, redside shiner, mottled sculpin, longnose dace, bridgelip sucker, tui chub, brown bullhead, and sunfish, providing a ready supply of food fish for the breeding birds. In recent years, the proliferation of carp - an introduced species from Europe - have nearly taken over the waters, altering the environment by eating the pondweeds consumed by the birds and roiling the bottom sediments. Efforts are underway to remove these invasive fish to keep them from disturbing the ecological balance.
Malheur Lake receives water from the Blitzen River to the south, lesser amounts from the Silvies River on the north, and Silver Creek from the west. The lake has no outflow but loses water via ground seepage. The lowest point in the Harney Basin, nearby Harney Lake forms a virtual twin to Malheur Lake. Malheur and Harney Lakes are remnants of pluvial (from rainfall) Lake Malheur, which dried approximately 8,000 years ago. In fact, in extremely wet years, the two lakes merge into one. Malheur Lake is fresh water; Harney Lake, being lower and smaller, is saline-alkaline as it receives the most trapped minerals which are left behind when the water evaporates. The average water depth is about 18 inches but in very wet years, some areas may be as deep as 10 feet.
There is no organized recreation at Malheur Lake, and motorized boats are strictly forbidden, as is fishing. Every effort is made to assure that breeding grounds for the many birds that reproduce here are kept undisturbed. Currently, the US Army Corps of Engineers has undertaken a project in conjunction with wildlife experts to construct an artificial one-acre island on the lake to facilitate the attraction of the Caspian terns away from the Columbia River. Caspian terns have become a problem on the Columbia; the nesting birds devour so many young salmon that they are affecting the salmon population. In addition to Caspian terns, the island would provide potential nesting habitat for many of the MNWR's nesting birds, including ducks, geese, American white pelicans, cormorant, multiple gull species, and others.
Malheur Lake and the adjacent Malheur National Wildlife Reserve are a nationally-famous bird watching mecca. The MNWR's riparian habitat supports the highest known densities of willow flycatcher, up to 20 percent of the population of white-faced ibis, and significant breeding populations of American white pelican, cinnamon teal and redhead. Fully 20 percent of Oregon's breeding population of greater sandhill cranes and up to half of the world population of Ross' goose use the MNWR and surrounding private lands during spring migration. Audubon Society chapters across the West regularly plan birding excursions to the MNWR, which has special observation points available for the best views. The Malheur Field Station provides interpretive tours, a museum with examples of animals and birds past and present visiting the Refuge, and even lodging and a cafeteria for visiting groups. Some facilities for individuals are available, and the Refuge maintains a few RV sites which may be reserved. A series of week-long learning workshops, operated by Elderhostels, Inc is held on-site each summer covering such subjects as the ecology of the great Basin, geology, birds, butterflies and wildflowers.
Many other points of interest to nature-minded visitors are available within the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Although fishing is not permitted on Malheur Lake, there are two places within the refuge where fishermen can wet a line. Fishermen are requested to carefully release any of the redband trout they might catch, as the trout is somewhat rare. The redband is a unique subspecies adapted to the Malheur Lake Basin ecosystem. In these closed, high-desert basins, redband trout have evolved to survive in environments with vast extremes of both water flow and temperature. A boat launch on the Blitzen River provides access to the river and to Malheur Lake and is the best place to put in a canoe or kayak.
Animals frequenting the MNWR include the white-tailed jackrabbit, black-tailed jackrabbit, muskrat, mink, raccoon, long-tailed weasel, beaver, coyote, mule deer and recently reintroduced mountain sheep. The Refuge is open year-round on designated roads and trails. Some of the hiking trails are quite popular, while others are considered strenuous. All visitors should make sure to bring enough drinking water, as there is little water available. Outside the reserve, the Donner und Blitzen River is designated a Wild and Scenic River to its headwaters in the Steen Mountains. Bighorn sheep inhabit the high canyons of the Steen Mountains, and wild horses graze in the rive basin. Visitors to the area are certain to see a variety of wildlife. A good pair of binoculars is a necessity.
The town of Burns offers all types of lodgings for visitors to the area, including hotels, motels, private cabins and campgrounds. Camping is widely available on Bureau of Land Management lands around the county. Several galleries and shops offer displays of arrowheads, agate, fossils, thunder eggs and artifacts. Harney County Historical Museum features the county's Old West roots, with early cowboy photos, ranching facts, handmade quilts, and a turn-of-the-century kitchen exhibit. Each spring, the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival proves the perfect venue for art exhibits, birding seminars, expert-guided tours and slide presentations, along with crafting sessions and fun activities for every age. Some real estate is available in the area, often with acreage.
So, make the trip to Malheur Lake. It's not like any other lake you've ever visited. In fact, it's for the birds! Binoculars? Check! Bird Guide? Check!
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