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Only eight hours away, but it's a different world

The cold, pre-dawn hour is filled with the exuberant hooting of a great horned owl and the sharp smell of skunk, giving rise to one of those half-awake thoughts: Has the owl killed the skunk, and now he's bragging about it?

Great horned owls are common year-round at Eastern Oregon's Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, where we're camped. And they prey on skunks, one of the few creatures to do so. The owls are common here at Page Springs campground at the south end of the refuge near Frenchglen.

But surely it must be part of owl culture to not muck up the scent glands, right? Although owls, like most birds, don't have much of a sense of smell, which is a good piece of luck if you're likely to have skunk on the menu.

Owls and skunks are just two of the animals you'll find at the Malheur, one of the gems of the National Wildlife Refuge system. It protects an important complex of wetlands for birds (more than 320 species) and other creatures, including more than 50 species of mammals. It's only about eight hours from the Rogue Valley in sparsely settled Eastern Oregon, but it's a different world.

Ours is a quick visit just before the opening of deer season to see birds you're not likely to be seeing in the Rogue Valley now — white-faced ibis, burrowing owl, Bohemian waxwing, sage thrasher, black-billed magpie and many others. To be honest, it's also a spur-of-the-moment jaunt just to mark the changing seasons by getting out of our valley and drinking in the big sky and wide open spaces of the Great Basin.

You drive through Klamath Falls and Lakeview on Highway 140, and there's a choice on the other side of Lakeview at Adel. You can go north through tiny Plush and cross the Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge, or you can stick to 140 and dip into Nevada and catch Highway 292 north to the 205 and Frenchglen. Both routes are scenic. The refuge cuts off a lot of miles, and it has antelope, and hot springs, but it's mostly an unpaved road better suited to pickup trucks and SUVs unless you don't mind driving the family car on washboard.

The Malheur-Harney Basin is actually a northerly finger of the Great Basin, the vast, undrained expanse of arid lands running from Reno and Salt Lake City all the way south to Palm Springs. Three drainage systems (the Silvies River, the Donner und Blitzen River and Silver Creek) feed Malheur and Harney lakes, but there's no outlet.

Malheur is not actually a lake but a freshwater marsh, the largest in the American West. Its size varies according to the seasonal rainfall, and it's surrounded by thousands of acres of native meadows, ponds, rimrocks and sagebrush.

The refuge was created in 1908 as a sanctuary for birds by President Theodore Roosevelt. The unregulated "market hunting" of the day was wiping out great egrets, great blue herons and other bird species to fill the burgeoning demand for feathery plumes for the hats of the fashionistas of the day, and T.R. stepped in to stop the slaughter.

There's 187,000 acres of habitat here, almost two-thirds of it wetlands, a crucial stopover for birds on the Pacific Flyway in their spring and fall migrations. Hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese pass through twice a year, pausing to fuel up for their demanding journeys. Thousands of sandhill cranes — the refuge's signature bird, starring on T-shirts, coffee cups and baseball caps — nest here, along with shorebirds, marshbirds, songbirds, gulls, terns, ibises, herons, egrets, songbirds and others.

The most spectacular time to visit is May, when nesting season is at its height. It's also when pronghorn antelope and mule deer fawns are born.

"It's truly spectacular," says Debby DeCarlo, a birder from Forest Grove watching the grebes at The Narrows, at the north end of the refuge where Highway 205 passes between Malheur Lake on its east side and Mud and Harney lakes on its west. "I came this time for something different, but I usually come in May."

DeCarlo trains her binocular on some of the abundant Clark's grebes swimming with their chicks amid countless Western grebes and a few pied-bills. The less-common Clark's grebe can be distinguished from the Western by a black cap that doesn't extend below the eye, as it does on the Western, and by its brighter yellow bill.

These are big grebes, two feet from bill to tail, in contrast to the little pied-bills. To the north, dozens of white pelicans forage in the shallows. A flock of white-faced ibis pass overhead so low you can hear the whooshing of their wings, followed by a lone Forster's tern.

There's no camping in the refuge proper, but there are campgrounds at the Narrows RV Park, which has a grassy tent area, at Page Springs, a treed, more secluded area near a creek, and at Fish Lake up the Steens Mountain Loop Road. There are quaint little hotels at Frenchglen and at Diamond, which is a few miles west of the middle part of the refuge. There are rustic cabins and tent sites at Crystal Crane Hot Springs. The Frenchglen hotel also serves family-style dinners in a rustic dining room. On our first night it was baked chicken with herbs with vegetables and dessert for $22.

Main access to the refuge's ponds and other habitat is by the Center Patrol Road, a good, unpaved road from near Frenchglen to the Narrows. It affords views of the dams, canals and ditches used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to raise and lower water levels in the meadows and fields famed as crane staging grounds, and of sagebrush uplands where the deer and the antelope, well, play, along with ducks, pheasants and quail.

The Round Barn just east of the refuge on Lava Bed Road is worth a visit, as is the P Ranch, part of Peter French's nearly 200,000-acre cattle empire here before he was shot in 1897 in a dispute over land.

So is the refuge headquarters off Highway 205 south of The Narrows.

While early September is the prime time for autumn bird-viewing, we saw upwards of 50 species, including a strikingly dark-morph hawk that was probably a red-tail, the young grebes, a lovely little sage sparrow and two loggerhead shrikes — birds that are usually loners — fussing around in a bush.

Among the must-see sites: drying ponds, meadows along the Patrol Road, Buena Vista Pond, The Narrows, the willow thickets around Page Springs. On this visit, a three-day trip netted one day of birds and two of driving, so the smart visitor might want to plan a four- or five-day trip.

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

Willow thickets near Page Springs dam outside of Frenchglen often reward birders with flycatchers, warblers and song sparrows. - Photo by Bill Varble