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Adventure in the high desert

Aurora the owl's body stiffens in cat-like concentration as she eyes the morsel in Jim Dawson's hand. Her bright, orange eyes blaze like a science fiction robo-bird, but she is no movie creature. She's a Eurasian eagle-owl (Bubo bubo), the world's largest owl, and she's quite real, thank you.

As Dawson extends the owl munchy here at the High Desert Museum near Bend, Aurora stretches to snap it up, and the fantastic eyes blink almost as if she's savoring the snack.

"Watch your shoes," Dawson says. "When she goes to the ground she likes to nibble on your shoes."

Aurora flies back and forth in her mews, a structure built to house a raptor, eventually landing near Dawson's feet and nibbling them as if to confirm his warning. He lifts her on a thick leather glove — her toes are bigger than a man's fingers and end in fearsome talons — and places her gently back on her perch.

There's more to Central Oregon than Mount Bachelor and skiing, even in winter. The High Desert Museum might be one of the region's best-kept secrets, at least for people who don't live near Bend. It bills itself as the only place in the American West that tells the story of Oregon's high desert, and who's to argue?

It's three miles south of Bend on Highway 97, just a half-day's drive from the Rogue Valley. Where else are you going to meet five species of owl, eagles, hawks, otter, bobcat, lynx and butterflies up close and personal, all in one stop?

And that's just the critter component. The museum also is home to exhibits devoted to pioneers, American Indians, Oregon forests, art and much more.

Aurora is just one of the raptors, or birds of prey, that have wound up at the museum as teaching birds after being injured, usually through contact with humans. None can be released into the wild, although Dawson, the museum's curator of living collections, envisions releasing some (outfitted with transmitters) in the museum's 135 forested acres in an innovative outdoor exhibit.

The facility is home to a great horned owl, the smaller American cousin of the Eurasian eagle-owl that Dawson rescued as a chick from a parasite-infested nest in Arizona. There's Marie the Harris's hawk, a peregrine falcon, an aplomado falcon and other raptors, many of which are used in educational show-and-tells.

"What kind of beak does she have?" a staffer asks youngsters as she holds Marie on a glove.

"It's hooked," a tot says.

All the better to rend flesh from bone if you're a raptor.

The museum was founded by Donald M. Kerr nearly 30 years ago and has grown to attract 150,000 visitors a year despite budget crunches and other challenges. Attendance has actually increased for three years in a row under Museum president Janeanne A. Upp. At a time when museums are struggling, attendance is up 15 percent over 2008.

Part of the reason is surely the museum's approach to exhibits. A recent show called "Sin in the Sagebrush" featured a frontier gambling saloon complete with the human stories of the young women prostitutes who were a fixture of the Old West. Visitors could play faro or poker, inspect gamblers' cheating devices and even interact with the "working women" and ask about the reality of their lives behind the stereotypes. The exhibit is now touring the West.

A high-desert homestead circa 1880 offers the chance to join in building a log cabin and do chores on this re-creation of a vintage ranch. There's a well, a stove, a root cellar and history re-enactors. Try your hand at old-time tools at a 1910 sawmill.

Don't miss the otter den, open daily from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Kids will be delighted, and those who believe in reincarnation may well decide they'd like to come back as a river otter.

A butterfly exhibit that opened last month boasts 100 species of live butterflies living in a climate-controlled space visitors can enter and roam at will. Tiny, winged jewels fly, float in the air, rest and interact with colorful flowers. Check out such exotics as the three-tailed tiger swallowtail, the green-spotted triangle, the scarlet Mormon.

Don't forget to check your friends' backs on the way out to be sure nobody is inadvertently hitchhiking into the Central Oregon winter.

An exhibit of American Indian history since native peoples were extirpated from their lands by whites differs markedly from the kind of interpretation that shows only traditional cultures. This one thoughtfully examines reservation life, Indian culture, education, the U.S. government's misguided attempts at assimilation and even today's Indian gambling casinos in impressive depth and detail. The exhibit was curated with the help of tribal members from around the region.

There's way too much to list everything going on here. Visit the museum's website at www.highdesertmuseum.org.

Reach freelance writer Bill Varble at varble.bill@gmail.com.

Aurora, a Eurasian eagle-owl, the largest owl in the world, seen at the High Desert Museum in Bend. - Submitted photo / High Desert Museum