A dozen or more Red Crossbills hovered about the water hole in front of me, inspiring even the most casual birdwatcher. Every few minutes, they’d be replaced by a fresh wave of Ponderosa Pines towering above. Despite being tight and chilly, I huddled on, my gaze fixed on the little doorway in front of me, unwilling to turn away for even a second. I had lately had the good fortune to add this species to my life list. I could only see three males and one or two females on the tallest branches of a neighbouring evergreen by contorting my neck and straining against the early morning light. I was now surrounded by a flock of birds so near that I could see the individual feathers of the birds in front of me.
I was peering out from a rustic log cabin picture blind onto what seemed to be an unusual site for a birding hotspot: a little, cracked cement bowl overflowing with water. Weathered tree branches had been skilfully embedded in the surrounding lava rocks around the outer rim to assist both perching birds and photographers.
Cabin Lake is near the community of Fort Rock in central Oregon. The convergence of forest and desert attracts birds from both environments. Migratory species like warblers and flycatchers take advantage of the area’s limited water supply. Recognizing the importance of this rare transitional zone, the US Forest Service established a water guzzler in the 1940s. The Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife jointly operate photo blinds and guzzlers.
You’ll pass Fort Rock, a horseshoe-shaped stronghold, on your way to the blinds and neighbouring campsite. The huge, donut-shaped ash ring produced when magma collided with the waters of ancient Fort Rock Lake may be seen here.
Turn off the main road nine miles north toward the ranger station. The first of two blinds at Cabin Lake may be found in the area immediately behind the building. Place your vehicle near the split-log fence that divides the area from the road that leads to the campsite. A wood cottage blind erected in the 1970s sits within the barrier, behind the concrete bowl and overflowing pool. A second blind is 100 yards distant, under a little hill. This prefabricated building was built in 1984. Two of its windows look out over another water guzzler and concrete basin. The others are looking out at the scenery.
The Red Crossbills have had their fill, but the pool is far from empty. Thirsty Yellow-pine Chipmunks scamper over the rocks, stopping every now and again to drink. Bees swarm at the river’s edge, and the noises of birds and other creatures waiting to drink and bathe in the only water for miles can be heard from the forest and sagebrush desert.
The view from both blinds is about as near as one can go at 15 feet. The White-headed Woodpeckers are first in line for a drink and seem to own this spot. Northern Flickers show briefly before disappearing into the neighbouring trees.
The noisy ruckus of Pinyon Jays may be heard from above. They fall slowly but steadily, one or two at a time. Pinyon Jays are very gregarious birds, with groups of fifty or more, and there is plenty of opportunity to photograph them. You may also spot the more lonely Clark’s Nutcracker if you wait long enough. To shoot these secretive members of the jay family, you must be swift.
Other frequent species that stop here, like the Northern Flicker, are Pygmy and White-Breasted Nuthatches, Spotted Towhees, Western and Mountain Bluebirds, Morning Doves, and Robins. The unofficial checklist also includes migratory warblers, flycatchers, and other Pacific Flyway visitors such as Williamson’s Sapsucker, Lewis’ Woodpecker, and Green-tailed Towhees.
Depending on the weather, the water supply at Cabin Lake is abundant from March or April through October or November. Visiting birders will view a variety of species throughout the dry months of summer, which last until the end of September.
Before you go, make a visit at neighbouring Fort Rock State Park. You may stroll within this spectacular horseshoe rock formation and see nesting species such as Violet-green and Cliff Swallows, Prairie Falcons, and Great Horned Owls. As you stroll around the perimeter, look for whitewash on the high rock wall. That’s a dead giveaway you’ve discovered the White-throated Swift colony. These birds are commonly observed throughout the summer, but by the end of September, they have migrated south. You should plan your visit appropriately.
Summer Lake, located south of Fort Rock on American White PelicanOregon Highway 31, is also worth a visit. During the autumn migration, there are a lot of snow geese here. But that’s not all: strong storms on the coast often sweep marine birds inland. The lake is home to American Avocets, Black-crowned Night-Herons, and nesting American White Pelicans in the summer. The Central Oregon Audubon Society started construction of a photographic blind at Summer Lake in July. It is expected to be finished in March.
Cabin Lake, with its viewing blinds and water supply, offers something most of us can only see in our own backyards: a close-up look at the species we care about and value. It is, certainly, a remote and rustic setting. However, the magic of Cabin Lake brings people back year after year.
To get to Cabin Lake, travel south on Oregon 97, 30 miles from Bend, to La Pine. Then drive another 30 miles on Oregon 31 to the Fort Rock turnoff (Christmas Valley byway). Continue 5 miles to the town of Fort Rock. Turn left (north) on Cabin Lake Road and drive 9 miles to the ranger station and campground in Deschutes National Forest.
Statewide Rare Bird Alert:
To Report sightings:
Central Oregon Audubon Society /Bend
P.O. Box 565 Bend, Or 97709
Bend Chamber of Commerce
The Birder’s Guide to Oregon, by Joseph E. Evanich, Jr. This is the definitive guide to birding Oregon statewide. Published by Portland Audubon Society.
Watchable Birds of the Great Basin, by David Lukas. This book highlights 80 bird species found in this region. It includes color photos, descriptions, history, and the location of each species. Published by Mountain Press.
Joanna Linsley-Poe is a writer based in the Pacific northwest. For the past three years she has served as a trail monitor for the Prescott Bluebird Recovery Program.