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The Crooked River Wetlands are rapidly becoming a local favorite for wildlife viewing

I'm not really much of a bird watcher.

In the interest of full disclosure, I took an ornithology (bird watching) class in college.

It met a requirement for a biology credit that I needed and had the added benefit of a field trip to Eastern Oregon.

I went to college on the low budget plan. That means that I frequently did not have books for all my classes.

As you might expect, not having a book for an ornithology class was somewhat problematic.

Consequently, I broke down and purchased a used book, which was about 30 years older than the books that we were expected to have for class.LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A long-billed Dowitcher is one of the shore birds that inhabit the wetlands during the summer months.

That meant that everyone else had a book with full color photos, while my book had black and white photos and artists renderings.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A female mallard duck and her ducklings swim in one of the ponds at the Crooked River Wetlands late last week. The Wetlands are a great place to see wildlife, with large numbers of water fowl, as well as other wildlife, readily in sight. The Wetlands complex has more than five miles of hiking trails and 15 ponds, although some are currently dry. Most of the waterfoul in the complex hatched their young weeks ago, although there are still a few young ducklings that have recently hatched.Needless to say, I was not always successful at bird identification. However, I got the last laugh. It turns out that my copy of the book is now a collector's item, and is worth far more than the books everyone else purchased.

Following college, I have only had one other experience with real bird watchers.

A friend from the class lived in West Seattle. He is now a well-known bird watcher and travels the world adding birds to his list. However, at the time we were young and although interested in birding, he had not yet become terribly serious about the hobby.

Anyway, I went to visit him, and ended up on a bird watching cruise around the San Juan Islands.LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - A Baird's Sandpiper feeds in the shallows of one of the ponds at the Crooked River Wetlands Complex. As many as 200 different species of birds are visible over the course of the year at the wetlands. In addition, deer, skunk, racoon and other wildlife are also visible from time to time in the complex, which is located just outside of the Prineville city limits.

Prior to the trip, my friend pointed out that there would be some serious birdwatchers on the trip, but that if the weather was bad, they would spend most of the time inside the ship's cabin.

Sure enough, we left the dock and the weather was terrible.

It poured rain and the wind howled. The two of us stayed on deck, with my friend looking for sea birds while I talked and watched the scenery.

After a while, he pointed out a bird. I wish I could remember the species, but as we get older memories seem to fade. Anyway, he said that the bird was common, but that it had a lookalike that was quite rare in the area. He suggested that we could have a lot of fun if the next time I saw one of the common birds, I should yell, "Isn't that a (insert bird name here)?"

So a few minutes later, I saw one of the common birds, pointed and yelled out, "Isn't that a (insert bird name here)?" Bird watchers poured out of the ship's cabin, looking to get a glimpse of a bird that was never there, while I pointed off into the distance.

About a half hour later, we did it again. Both of us thought that the response was incredibly funny, but by the time the cruise ended, I was like a pariah to the rest of the bird watchers after crying wolf one time too often.

In fact, the last time I pointed out a bird, my friend said that he thought it really was the rare bird, but no one else bothered to come out of the cabin to verify the sighting.

Since then I have photographed birds, but I'm not really a bird watcher.

So, anyway, that gets us to today.

So you want to take a hike, see some wildlife, but not have to leave town?

The Crooked River Wetlands are your answer. Located just out of town on Highway 370, more commonly known as the O'Neil Highway, the complex utilizes a series of ponds and lakes that both expanded the city's wastewater capacity and provides wildlife habitat and hiking trails.

The wetlands are also expected to improve riparian and instream conditions in Crooked River.

To reach the wetlands from Prineville, turn right on O'Neil Highway immediately after crossing the bridge over Crooked River on Highway 126. Proceed down Crooked River for three miles, then turn right on Rimrock Acres Loop Road.

The complex offers a large parking area, a covered picnic area, more than 5 miles of hiking trail, including 3.25 miles of paved trail.

The area encompasses 120 acres with 15 lakes or ponds, restrooms and 13 covered educational kiosks.

Groundbreaking on the project was in April of 2016, while the grand opening ceremony was one year later.

Since that time, the maturation of the wetlands has been significant.

Native plants have sprung up in and around the ponds, and wildlife is literally flocking to the area.

Although many of the birds that visit the wetlands are seasonal, over the course of a year, birdwatching enthusiasts can expect to see nearly 200 species of birds.

In addition, deer, skunk, raccoon and other mammals frequent the river bottom portions of the complex.

The Crooked River Wetlands Complex is open 365 days a year from dawn to dusk.

My interest in the wetlands complex began just over a year ago when I covered the first Wetlands Waddle run and walk for the sports section. While photographing the race, I noticed that the ponds had the potential for some good photography and that there were plenty of good hiking trails.

More recently, I purchased a new camera and used the wetlands to get used to the camera. Since then, I have made a habit of heading out to the wetlands if I want to take a short hike, or take a few photos without spending a lot of time.

The wetlands are especially alive with wildlife in the early morning and late evening. However, no matter the time of day, plenty of wildlife is available to view.

This spring was especially nice as the ponds filled with goslings, ducklings, and baby coots, whatever their proper name is.

As summer has progressed, most of the young waterfowl are nearly grown, but there are still a few ducklings present in some of the upper ponds.

The wildlife is somewhat used to people. However, they are still leery and tend to fly away or at the very least, swim to the far side of a pond when startled.

So for the best viewing, some stealth and quiet is recommended.

I prefer the upper ponds near the parking area because they have more vegetation, providing cover for some of the more shy birds. However, all of the ponds have life.

Around the edges of the complex there are also a number of manmade bird nests, which are mostly filled with swallows.

Whether or not bird watching is your thing, the wetlands are rapidly becoming a Prineville treasure. And it is only going to get better. The ponds are still young and the vegetation is still growing.

I highly recommend the area to anyone with even a modest interest in birds, or to anyone who would like a secluded, but easy walk with some beautiful scenery.

The only thing I worry about with recommending a favorite place is a problem that former New York Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once recognized when he said about a nightclub "Nobody goes there anymore, it's too crowded." I hope that doesn't become the case at the wetlands.


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