For migratory birds, the Upper and Lower (pictured) Chewaucan Marshes in Lake County are one of the most important wetlands in Oregon. Traditional flood irrigation of ranchers’ hay pastures spreads waters from the Chewaucan River across the historic marshes every spring, providing habitat for waterfowl, shorebirds and other waterbirds moving north in their annual migration. The marshes also provide nesting habitat for 6,000 to 8,000 ducks, according to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s breeding bird surveys, and support high densities of nesting waterbirds, including sandhill cranes and white-faced ibis.
The Chewaucan River and marshes drain into Lake Abert, a hypersaline terminal lake a few miles downstream that, during fall migration, attracts some of the largest concentrations of shorebirds in the intermountain West.
Lake Abert, easily viewed by passing motorists on Highway 395, expands to more than 35,000 acres when full but has been nearly dry in recent drought years. The Chewaucan Marshes, which cover about 30,000 acres of private land, are largely invisible to the public.
For birds, this interconnected system of high desert wetlands – freshwater and saline, public and private – plays a critical role in sustaining a diversity of species across seasons, making it one of the most important habitat complexes in the Pacific Flyway.