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.

Winter Wildlife at Malheur Refuge

Written by Noah Strycker/Photo by Dan Streiffert

A few years ago, at dawn on an early winter’s day, my dad and I were driving out of the Malheur Field Station when we noticed something on top of a power pole.

“Great Horned Owl,” my dad said, and I mumbled agreement.

The shape was round and fluffy, grayish brown, and it had two distinct ear tufts. Having seen my share of Great Horneds on countless trips to southeast Oregon, I hardly bothered a second glance – but I should have known better than to take anything for granted at Malheur.

As we passed under the power pole, my dad simultaneously hit the brakes and exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s a bobcat!”

We eased a hundred yards down the road and gingerly opened the car doors, angling for a good view. The bobcat didn’t budge. On its high perch, surrounded by sagebrush, it was safe and seemed to enjoy the early slanting rays of sunshine.

Around us, the high desert was quiet. Winter brings a sweeping peace to Malheur, the priceless solitude that is usually reserved for inaccessible wilderness. A person fills more room in wide-open spaces, and it doesn’t take many fair-weather tourists for Malheur to get crowded. In winter, when hardly anyone visits, the landscape exudes meditative calm.

A deep chill had settled in overnight, and this bobcat curled itself into a tight ball, peering down at us with evident curiosity.

“You never know what’s around the next corner,” my dad murmured, with appreciation, as he snapped a photo. We watched the cat for a couple of minutes before leaving it to its sunrise vigil, and continued down the Center Patrol Road to see what else the day might bring.

For years now, my dad and I have made a near-annual wintertime pilgrimage to Malheur. We also go in other seasons-each has its attractions-but winter stands out.

Our tradition started when, fresh out of high school, I spent a fall season volunteering at the wildlife refuge. Having decided to defer college for a year, I called to ask if I could help the biologists with their work. They promptly set me up in a three-bedroom house at headquarters, loaned me a pickup truck, and dispatched me for bird surveys and fencing projects. I hung around the office, staffed the visitor center, and went birding every day from September through November.

That fall, I watched the seasons change in increments. The cottonwood and aspen leaves flamed out, and then the nights turned brisk. The first snow fell on Halloween, dusting headquarters in several inches of light powder; that same day, thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans streamed overhead, aiming south, in continuous flocks.

By the time I departed in mid-November, the visitor center was virtually unvisited – most days, nobody stopped by. I packed up to spend the rest of my gap year in Taiwan, Mexico, and Panama before starting college the following spring. But I often thought about those tranquil days at Malheur and wondered what it was like when winter really took hold.

The following year, my dad and I planned a long weekend at the Field Station in January. We’ve been regular winter migrants ever since.

Midwinter is not the time to see a ton of birds. A few hardy species remain year-round, sticking it out through the most desolate conditions: Golden Eagles, Common Ravens, and Canyon Wrens haunt the rimrock, and the occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits in bare willows.

But minimalism is itself a virtue, and the cold months at Malheur present a chance to set aside the usual distractions. When a landscape is laid bare, so, too, is the life within it.

Some birds, such as owls, are easier to find in midwinter. Take a slow January drive down the Center Patrol Road, eyeballing each leafless cottonwood tree and willow thicket, and you’ll invariably spot one – most likely a Great Horned, though with patience you might discover a placid Barn or even a snoozing Long-eared. Without layers of foliage, owls have nowhere to hide.

In the high desert, winter draws back the curtain, unmasks the actors, and simplifies the plot lines. Nests from previous seasons reveal themselves after the leaves drop, reminders of birds that have since flown thousands of miles to warmer climes. The birds that stay tend to be approachable in winter, when they are more preoccupied with warmth and food than avoiding predators.

Birding is also, in a way, much more civilized when the sun rises late and sets early. In December, unlike May, it’s unnecessary to rise at 4:30 a.m. to catch the early birds. You can sleep in, grab a cozy mug of something hot, and venture out without missing a thing. After a day in the field, you may return to a long, relaxing evening of editing photos and thumbing field guides.

For me, Malheur will always be special. Over the years, I made my way through college and then around the world on birdwatching projects, returning home to Oregon. My dad and I still make our annual wintertime journey to the place we’ve explored so many times together. It’s now been 15 years since our first pilgrimage, and every visit brings something new. These days, the trips also offer precious time to catch up between other adventures.

People and jobs may come and go, but Malheur, and its birds, have an enduring quality best appreciated in winter. When the snow falls, the thermometer drops to near zero, and fog freezes on the sage, my dad and I will pack up the car, head over the mountains, and see what awaits in the high desert.


Noah Strycker is a 32-year-old writer, photographer, and bird man based in Oregon. In 2015, during a quest spanning 41 countries and all seven continents, he set a world record by seeing 6,042 species of birds – more than half the birds on Earth – in one year.

Short-eared Owls at Malheur Refuge

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) is a cosmopolitan bird of the open country, found in marshes, grasslands, shrublands, and tundra across North America and in similar habitats around the world. With cryptic plumage streaked in shades of tan and brown, this owl blends in perfectly with its surroundings, particularly when perched on or near the ground. Its common name refers to the sometimes-visible tufts on either side of its rounded head, which are thought to aid with camouflage and non-vocal communication between owls.

Short-eared owls are predominately a crepuscular species, actively foraging for mice, voles, and other small prey in the dim hours of dusk and dawn. While hunting, short-eared owls employ an erratic, buoyant flight—looking almost like an owl marionette—floating low over the ground, wheeling sharply about, listening intently for prey below. Their long, broad wings make hardly a sound as they crisscross open areas in the gloaming. If telltale rustling reveals a rodent underwing, the owl stoops, banks and dives into the grass, often emerging empty-taloned but sometimes coming up with a mouse or vole.

The beautiful, elaborate courtship displays performed by male short-eared owls during spring evenings are a sight to behold, complete with wing-clapping and hooted songs. In North America, this ground-nesting species breeds in open areas across the northern United States and Canada, including at Malheur Refuge. Local abundance is often tied to rodent populations: In years of high rodent production, short-eared owls can be particularly numerous at the Refuge, while in low years the species is virtually absent. Most short-eared owls overwinter in the United States and Mexico; a few have been known to remain at Malheur Refuge all year.

While widespread and commonly observed, this species is suffering population declines largely due to habitat losses to agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation, and development. According to the Western Asio flammeus Landscape Study (WAfLS)—considered the largest short-eared owl project in the world, spanning eight western states—short-eared owl populations are experiencing long-term, range-wide, substantial declines in North America, and the National Audubon Society Climate Program has classified the species as “Climate-Endangered”.

Efforts are underway to monitor this species in eastern Oregon. Klamath Bird Observatory partners with WAfLS to assess population status, trends, and threats against the short-eared owl; last spring, WAfLS launched its first set of short-eared owl citizen-science surveys in Oregon, with many of the survey locations near Malheur Refuge. You can read last year’s survey report here.

If you’re interested in making a valuable impact as a citizen scientist, sign up and participate in a WAfLS survey near you! Participating only requires two visits and many of the survey locations are close to Malheur Refuge. Visit the website for details and contact your Oregon state coordinator with any questions.

Support FOMR on Giving Tuesday!

Dear Friends,

The holiday season is upon us! We at Friends of Malheur Refuge hope that you are surrounded by all the comforts that you hold dear as winter stills the landscape and 2018 draws to a close.

Nestled in our corner of the vast expanse that we call home, it is a time for reflecting on the year behind us and looking ahead to benchmarks in the coming year. With the support of our membership through generous donations of time, talents and money, we are proud of our many accomplishments in 2018. From involvement in the Annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, the granting of a $1,000 scholarship, sponsorship of the Refuge’s Feather Studies art-in-education program, hosting our annual Carp Derby, opening the Crane’s Nest Nature Center and Store in its new location at Refuge Headquarters and more – there is so much to be proud of.

In 2019, the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will turn 20 years old! For this very special birthday we are looking forward to working with you, our Friends volunteers, and the Worthy Brewing Garden Club to put in our new Pollinator Garden just outside the Nature Center! Much like the buds in our spring garden, we will look towards that which nourishes our organization and find new and beautiful ways to bloom.

As you may know, much has changed for us over the years, including the needs of our Refuge and the capacity in which we serve to support it. One important lesson we have learned through the good times and the tough moments is that we can do more together. For that reason, we are continually grateful for our Friends – you are our greatest gift.

#GivingTuesday is a global day of giving. On the Tuesday following Thanksgiving, you’ll have the chance to support this Friends group in its mission to conserve, enhance, and restore habitat for wildlife at Malheur Refuge, as well as provide wildlife-dependent educational and recreational opportunities for the public.

Please keep Friends of Malheur Refuge in mind for your end-of-year giving. Your contributions will help us celebrate 20 years of service to the Refuge and grow in new ways.

Thank you, and happy holidays!

Janelle L Wicks, Executive Director
Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

The Kinglet’s Golden Rule

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

“I am gladdened to know that a population of these wraiths of the forest thrives. When I’m  in the warmth of my cabin and hear gusts of wind outside that moan through the woods and shake the cabin on wintry nights, I will continue to marvel at and wonder how the little featherpuffs are faring. They defy the odds and the laws of physics, and prove that the fabulous is possible.”

-Bernd Heinrich, Winter World (2003)

In 1847, a German biologist named Carl Bergmann noticed a pattern among warm-blooded animal species. He found that, in general, larger species tend to occur in colder environments, while smaller species appear in warmer ones. The examples are legion in the Northern Hemisphere: Kodiak bears in Alaska, gray wolves of the tundra, polar bears and moose and ravens throughout the sub-Arctic-all among the largest species in their respective clades. Gyrfalcons, great gray owls, and snowy owls are similarly outsize for their ilk, and are all found at northerly latitudes. Bergmann’s “rule”, as it came to be known, is based on a simple law of thermodynamics: smaller objects lose heat faster than larger ones, due to their higher surface area-to-volume ratios. Heat is absorbed and lost from exposed surfaces. Bodies retain heat, and bodies with more volume retain more heat. Thus, an animal with a lower surface area-to-volume ratio radiates less body heat per unit of mass, and hence stays warmer in cold climates.

Bergmann’s rule is more of an empirical generalization, a biogeographical principal that not invariably, but in most cases, holds true. It applies mainly to homeotherms, those animals that regulate body temperature internally. A 2003 Israeli study published in the Journal of Biogeography found that, out of a sample size of 94 bird species and 149 mammal species, about 72 percent of the birds and 65 percent of the mammals followed the rule. Of course, rare is the rule that’s lacking in exceptions, and Bergmann’s has more than a few. Of all these rule-flouters, though, nothing tops the wee golden-crowned kinglet in its arrant, crest­ waving flagrancy.

In the coniferous forests of North America there reigns a lively little king, a ruler that lives above and beyond Bergmann’s rule of biogeography. One of the smallest passerines, the golden-crowned kinglet is hummingbird-sized, olive­ gray in plumage and gregarious in nature. Small flocks pass through trees as quickly and subtly as the breeze, pausing briefly to zeet-tzeet-tzeet! ” at one another before disappearing into the foliage. They are ardent insectivores, flitting from boughs and shrubs–sometimes hovering for an instant at a twig-tip, sometimes hanging upside-down from branches-gleaning moth larvae, spiders, and springtails, which they consume constantly. The kinglets in Oregon are mostly year­-round residents, braving the winter chill to forage for bugs where other birds had long since turned tail southward.

A kinglet weighs five to six grams, about as much as two pennies. In size and mass, it is comparable to two ping-pong balls glued together, with wings. The kinglet’s surface-to­ volume ratio is appreciably high–the bird is both minute and almost weightless, a bad combination for a cold-dwelling homeotherm. Also of significance is the fact that a kinglet’s brain accounts for 6.8 percent of its entire body weight (in humans it’s 1.9 percent); and if kinglet brains require anything like the energy human ones do (about 20 percent of total calories), then the brain drain is costly, indeed. How then does the kinglet hack the winter months, especially in parts of its range where nighttime temperatures plunge to -40 degrees Fahrenheit?

First, it eats ravenously, continuously, for as long as the day holds light. An animal so slight, losing so much heat to its  frigid surroundings, simply cannot afford to let its metabolism idle. Kinglets must consume two to three times their weight in insects per day to maintain internal temperatures of 110 degrees-below this threshold hypothermia threatens and death isn’t far off. They don’t take handouts, either: kinglets, unlike many overwintering passerines, usually won’t visit bird feeders, no matter the contents. They prefer live fare, spending every waking moment in pursuit of it.

Kinglets also come well-dressed for the weather. The birds, as it turns out, are mostly filler­ their insulative feathers make up much of their puny, poofy bulk, extending to almost an inch from the body when fluffed up against cold. Bernd Heinrich, author and professor of biology at the University of Vermont, found that a plucked kinglet–the bird even further reduced in size, and infinitely sadder-looking–loses heat at rate 250 times faster than a feathered one. Compared to a similarly defrocked human, the kinglet cools 60 times faster, being so small. Clearly, the kinglets wouldn’t survive a winter minute without their regalia. Heinrich, working in the bitterly cold northeastern U.S., also found that the internal temperature of the birds would at times differ from the outside temperature by as much as 170 degrees Fahrenheit-an incredible contrast, and a testament to the feathery powers of down.

Despite their canny adaptations, kinglet populations often experience high mortality in colder months, simply for the fact that winter is a harsh season in which to make a living. There are cold snaps, food shortages, nights of freezing rain. Heinrich writes that the kinglet “has no magic key for survival in the cold winter world of snow and ice. Those that live there are lucky and do every little thing right. The odds of surviving the winter are slim…”  What the kinglets lose in winter, however, they more than make up for in spring: come April, kinglet pairs build teacup-sized nests and produce five to eleven eggs, more than double the number in a typical songbird clutch. The female hatches them, leaves daycare duties to the male, and then goes off to foster a new brood of equal size (sometimes with a different male).

Kinglets in winter are a marvelous sight, their movements frenetic, flighty, and all too fleeting. They are industrious while others lie torpid, fluttering about in their desperate search for calories and warmth. Staving off starvation, living from beakful to beakful, kinglets don’t play by Bergmann’s rule, and in fact their existence almost makes a mockery of it. In the deeply senescing woods, where much of life is put on ice, these little sovereigns are wide awake.