Christmas Bird Counts

Written by Peter Pearsall and Rick Vetter/Photo by Rick Vetter

Christmastime is all about traditions. Getting together with friends and family, exchanging gifts and good wishes, reflecting on one year’s end and looking forward to the next—all are part of the yuletide tradition, celebrated annually around the world.

Depending on which circles one moves in, Christmastime is also about birds-live birds, in situ. Not just basted turkeys. Nor that mixed flock of “four calling birds,three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree”. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort aimed at monitoring bird population trends on a massive scale, is a long-standing tradition dating back to 1901. Born from an entirely different aim—that of shotguns trained on as many birds as one had shells for—the now-bloodless count turns an age-old maxim on its head: birds in the bush are worth infinitely more alive than dead by one’s hand, any ratios notwithstanding.

Now in its 117th year, the count draws more than 70,000 volunteer birders from across the Americas. They spend a day (or several days, contingent on their ardor) counting wild birds within a prescribed circle 15 miles across, sunrise to sunset. (Often a few hours are added after dark, to include nocturnal species). They move in flocks, much like their quarry, toting binoculars and spotting scopes and clicky metal tallywhackers for counting large, clustered groups of birds. They bicker and henpeck among themselves, among rival birders, because it is their contentious nature to question the observations of others, to remain unsatisfied until the putative bird is glimpsed with their own eyes.

As far as Christmas traditions go, counting birds makes about as much sense as the rest. That is, it does not, strictly speaking, make sense. It is an arbitrary artifact. Partly out of tradition (the shotgunning of yore was a holiday affair) and partly out of convenience (Christmastime affords people time off from work to do other things, such as watch birds), the count occurs from December 14 to January 5. This practice of citizen science is an inexact one, as amateurs and hobbyists are allowed—nay, encouraged—to participate in the count. Mistakes are unavoidable. But with enough counters involved, and with enough counts done successively in discrete areas, a fuzzy-edged census emerges, one that can be compared with those of years past and inform future conservation efforts.

On December 21 and 22, 2018, CBCs were conducted in Burns, Oregon and at P-Ranch at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, respectively. The CBC in Burns has taken place since 1998. The one in P Ranch is more venerable, dating back to 1945. Rick Vetter, FOMR Secretary, has organized and participated in CBCs for several decades now, alongside his wife Joan Suther.

Despite cold conditions during the Burns count this year, there were 16 participants and 64 species were tallied, including 5,222 California quail. These small game birds, incredibly numerous in Harney County, play a notable role in the Burns/Hines CBC. Backyard feeders concentrate quail flocks in winter, and in 2004 CBC participants counted a staggering 10,011 quail in Burns and Hines, setting a world record for the highest number of California quail found during a CBC! This broke the previous record of 6,800 set in Orange County, California in 1963. Shortly afterward that record-setting 2004 count in Burns, populations of quail and chukar crashed across southeast Oregon, resulting in a low count of 2,123 quail in 2007. They are slowly recovering, with this year’s count being the second highest since that record low count and a few shy of last year’s count of 5,581. Rick speculates that one reason for the slow recovery may be the increase of feral cats in Burns and Hines, with a total of 57 counted this year. The ceremonial town Christmas Tree is also a factor, since the city cuts one of the largest spruce or similar trees in town for free each year. These trees are the favorite roost of quail to avoid great horned owls at night.

A welcome surprise was the diversity of waterfowl at the Burns sewage pond, all crowded into a small 1/2-acre patch of open water on one pond. The Canada geese and larger ducks kept the ice from forming by moving around all night. Without the open water, participants would most likely have seen 13 fewer species.

The P Ranch count enjoyed better weather, and ended with a total of 66 species, including five different owls: short-eared, long-eared, great horned, barn, and western screech owl. Twelve hardy souls took part in this count, including an early evening search for owls.

Special thanks go to Mike and Joyce Green for hosting another post-CBC dinner at their home, where birds of the day were reviewed and awards given out for especially good bird/wildlife sightings or unique happenings.

Please consider joining us for the 2019 CBCs in Burns and at P Ranch! Due to increasing popularity of the counts, the size of Harney County and the size of Green’s home (where they have traditionally hosted a post-count dinner and party), there will be a limit of 16 people.

In Crust We Trust

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

As most of Malheur Refuge’s wildlife takes leave for the season, as many of the shrubs and grasses die back or slip into winter dormancy, the arid landscape is laid bare, somehow emptier and more desolate than before. But the grand architects of this high-desert ecosystem remain in place as they always have, humble and unassuming, right below your feet. They are known as cryptobiotic soils, or microbiotic soil crusts.

The organisms largely responsible for fostering desert ecology are not charismatic. Outwardly, their appearance does little to suggest importance in any capacity. They are not showy; they do not burst forth in flower, brighten hillsides in their profusion, or otherwise attract the eye to their presence. They scarcely rise more than a few centimeters off the ground. But they are everywhere. In fact, if you’ve spent any time at all exploring the Harney Basin shrub-steppe, admiring its spartan flora and fauna and puzzling apart the underlying glue that holds this ecosystem together, you’ve probably trod all over them.

Fragile, slow-growing and long-lived, these soil crusts are assemblages of minute organisms living commensally, a chunky mix of cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens and mosses daubed almost uniformly over the desert. Almost every undisturbed patch of non-wetland, non-bedrock substrate in the basin boasts a layer of crust, the expanse sometimes constituting thirty to forty percent of a given area’s biomass. Like most soils on earth, they are very much alive. Also like most soils, they serve absolutely essential functions in sustaining ecosystems, literally supporting them from the ground up.

Perhaps the most influential constituents of this living crust are the cyanobacteria. Unicellular, possessed of photosynthetic powers, these primordial lifeforms have a storied past on this planet, namely due to their pioneering role in colonizing its nascent landmasses some three billion years ago. At that point, earth’s atmosphere was devoid of oxygen. Not a single air-breathing organism lived above the waves. Born of the sea like all else, certain species of cyanobacteria washed ashore and slowly adapted to the environs, finding loads of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen in the newly-minted atmosphere. Under an intensely burning sun, they began photosynthesizing en masse, converting carbon and water and sunlight to sugar and fresh air. For eons they breathed life into the void. Without cyanobacteria, there would have never been any accumulation of atmospheric oxygen on earth, and hence no terrestrial life as we know it. Their expirations paved the path from sea to shore, a groundbreaking happenstance that changed the world forever.

In the desert, cyanobacteria pump out oxygen as they always have, but their keystone function is one of cohesion. That is, keeping the friable desert soil from blowing or washing away. This they accomplish by binding particles to form clods, in much the same way a plant’s root system clumps dirt together, thereby slowing erosion. These types of colonial cyanobacteria occur in filaments, essentially gossamer strands of cells strung between soil specks. When wet, these bacteria navigate the soil’s porosity, twisting and tunneling and expanding their colonies, dragging their filaments between particles like a snail’s trail of slime. As the soil dries, so too do the filaments, resulting in a rigidized, weather-resistant mass. These filaments retain their hold long after the bacteria die, and can sometimes penetrate several inches below the soil’s surface. Water is soaked up by these filamentous accretions. Various nutrients and other fertilizers are trapped in the crust’s corrugated surface. The bacteria build the soil; the xeric plants take root.

Also of importance is the cyanobacteria’s fixing of nitrogen, a trick vascular plants have yet to master. The bacteria pull nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, where it is available to searching roots. In nutrient-poor desert soils, much of the nitrogen present is put there by bacteria. It is a limiting factor to the plants’ growth. Without the crust, there would be few plants, and without plants, there wouldn’t be much around but rocks and dust.

Alas, the living crust is almost unbelievably delicate. Footsteps and truck treads and cattle hooves wreak havoc on the dormant colonies, the damage sometimes taking decades to repair. And as soon as the crust is broken, erosional processes go to work: soil dries up, breaks apart and is blown or washed away, opening rifts that weaken surrounding colonies and can eventually kill plant communities through drought or lack of nutrients. The area loses its soil stability and capacity for water retention. Desertification sets in. It is a brittle thing, this cryptobiotic crust, and the living desert depends on it.

There is a memorable U.S. Forest Service poster exhorting hikers to stay on trails, a plea for wildflowers that pertains equally well to soil crusts. Under the slogan, “Wildflowers grow by the inch and die by the foot”, it depicts a hiking boot coming down on a blossom, about to snuff out its life. If anything, cryptobiotic crust is even more fragile—so watch your step as you traverse the shrub-steppe. You’re walking over the groundwork of terrestrial life itself.

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