Birding in the Owyhee

Longtime Oregonian Alice Elshoff cherishes the Owyhee Canyonlands. Here, she shares why birding there is a particularly unique experience.

Alice Elshoff hikes in Oregon’s high desert.

My husband introduced me to birding when we were first married and the two of us have been birding around Oregon now for several decades. As it turns out, and unbeknown to many, the Owyhee country is a wonderful place to bird.

Over 110 neo-tropical migrants pass through this part of the planet as they migrate around the globe. You’ll find woodpeckers, bluebirds, burrowing owls, chukar, cranes and quail. This area has one of the highest concentrations of hawks, eagles and falcons in the West, rivaling Idaho’s famous Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey National Conservation Area. It’s no wonder. Important nesting habitats are found in western juniper, quaking aspen, and conifers. And the volcanic ledges and buttes of Oregon’s Grand Canyon make excellent nesting sites for many species.

Greater sage-grouse. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

And of course, there is the Greater sage-grouse. The desert “canary in the coal mine,” this imperiled bird’s health mirrors that of the sagebrush ecosystem it depends on. Here in the Owyhee, you’ll find some of the most critical breeding ground and habitat for this species in the entire West. It is a special treat when I’m able observe their leks from afar and witness the magnificence of this bird’s wooing dance through my binoculars.

There aren’t many things that keep me up at night. But one is knowing what is at stake in the Owyhee. To know that right now at any time oil and gas development, mining or other development can take hold in the Owyhee leaves me breathless. If that happens, the birding here will never, ever be the same. We will have lost it, forever.

Burrowing owl. Photo: Nick Dobric

That’s why permanently protecting this place is one of the best ways I can think of to leave a legacy for future generations. To know that our daughters and sons — and daughters and sons many generations from now — will be able to experience the wonders of the Owyhee as it is today is one of the greatest gifts we will ever give.

Is there anything so soothing, so comforting, so lovely as the long, lilting call of the Canyon wren? Yes. Permanent protection for this incredible place and all the birds who call it home.

— Alice Elshoff