The Incongruous Lewis’s Woodpecker

Besides gnarled Western junipers, non-native Russian olives and the occasional grove of Fremont’s cottonwood, there are few real trees to be found at Malheur Refuge. Despite this, five woodpecker species show up regularly at scattered locations throughout the Refuge, often associated with those intermittent stands of trees. One of those species is the Lewis’s woodpecker (Melanerpes lewis), an anomaly in an already distinctive family of birds.

Lewis’s woodpecker is fairly big for a woodpecker, intermediate in size between a robin and a crow. The adult plumage of both sexes is a unique mix of greenish-black above and pinkish below, with a gray collar and dark red face. Like other woodpeckers, this species has stiffened tail feathers and zygodactyl feet, which help them move about on vertical tree trunks. Their bill is stout and tapered like most woodpeckers’ bills, if a tad thinner. But a couple of behavioral adaptions make the Lewis’s woodpecker stand out from its congeners.

First is their flight. Unlike the undulating tack adopted by most woodpeckers, the Lewis’s practices a slower, more direct flight, often punctuated by short glides. Their size, dark coloration and flight pattern are reminiscent of a crow—as is their willingness to fly across open country, instead of from tree to tree as with most other woodpeckers.

Second, in spring and summer the Lewis’s woodpecker forages like a flycatcher, sallying forth from branches, wires and posts to capture insects in flight. Their aerial agility rivals that of flycatchers as well, complete with sharp banks, sudden turns and thrilling bursts of speed. Lewis’s woodpeckers also glean insects from tree bark, but rarely do they engage in the stereotypical woodpecker habit of excavating dead wood for boring invertebrates. Their diet switches to fruit and seeds in winter, particularly acorns, which they stash in the corrugated bark of trees such as cottonwoods.

This woodpecker’s habit of flying about conspicuously did not escape the notice of Meriwether Lewis, who first encountered the bird in Idaho during the summer of 1805 while on the famous Lewis and Clark expedition. “I saw a black woodpecker (or crow) today; it is a distinct species of woodpecker; it has a long tail and flys [sic] a good deal like the jay bird,” he wrote in his journal. Years later, working with skins brought back by the expedition, the ornithologist Alexander Wilson formally described the species and named it after Lewis.

At Malheur Refuge, Lewis’s woodpeckers are seen during spring and fall migration, moving along a southwest-northeast corridor between breeding and wintering areas in forests beyond Harney County. Oftentimes these woodpeckers are more numerous at the Refuge in fall than in spring, and the height of their fall migration occurs in September, rarely extending into early October.

Fall Birding At Malheur Refuge

Written by FOMR Member Alan Contreras

Any article titled “Malheur in Fall” should really be called “Malheur and Steens Mountain in Fall” because access to the mountain is the biggest difference between spring migration birding and the experience of autumn. In spring, we gaze longingly at the 9,000-foot snowy ridge of the massif; in fall we get to go there. But before we make the 25-mile uphill rumble on the gravel road to the summit, there are major differences to be seen in the Blitzen Valley birding sites as well.

The first thing that a “spring” birder will notice is what is not there: water.  In the spring birding period of late March through early June, water is, in an average year, everywhere. It is in the fields. It fills the rivers and ponds. In some years it fills the Narrows. In early spring it covers the agricultural lands south of Burns. Fall is different. Almost all of the water is in a few ponds and streams on the Refuge, plus the largely inaccessible lake. What that means is that unlike the spring, most of the birds are on the Refuge. This can result in some spectacular concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds at sites such as Benson Pond, Buena Vista Pond and whichever other ponds have been kept full under Refuge management plans.

What’s different in the birdlife? The first thing you will notice if you come in September-October is that there are thousands of chip notes and essentially no songs. In early September the last movements of flycatchers and some of the larger finches such as buntings and Black-headed Grosbeaks are happening. By the end of the month huge flocks of sparrows, primarily White-crowns, are moving through.

Late September is a good time to look for rarities: Broad-winged Hawk, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow and many other vagrants have been seen then. Early October offers a chance at Black-throated Blue Warbler and more thrushes and sparrows. There are also significant differences in the “common” birds. Fall offers more Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Townsend’s Solitaires, thrushes and shorebirds than does spring.

Before we forget, let’s get up on that mountain during the nice fall weather. Although it is open until heavy snowfall, the best time for birds and for the aspen color show is the end of September and early October. The bird everyone looks for on the summit rocks is Black Rosy-Finch. There are usually a hundred or more around, but “around” is a big place on top of Steens. I find them about one try in three. The top of the hill is also a great place for migrating hawks (especially with an east wind), pipits and even hummingbirds.

Oh, one more thing. Something else is not there in fall: mosquitos! After mid-September they are much less a factor than in spring. Enjoy!

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Alan Contreras is author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West (2009) and was co-editor of Birds of Oregon (2003), both from Oregon State University Press.  He lives in Eugene.

Banding Ducks By Night

On the evening of August 15, under a waxing crescent moon, staff and volunteers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) convened at Malheur Refuge’s Boca Lake to band ducks. In the gathering darkness, a temporary banding station, illuminated with propane-powered lamps on wooden tables, was erected near the lake’s boat ramp. On the tables stood rods of metal waterfowl bands arranged vertically, like gleaming towers of miniature onion rings; a dozen or so banding pliers were arrayed nearby. Empty plastic orange crates to hold ducks were stacked several feet high, ready to be filled.

The assembled crew of 15 individuals—including staff from Friends of Malheur Refuge, Audubon Society of Portland, and the Burns Paiute Tribe—was waiting until the moon set behind rimrock to the west before starting the night’s work. As they passed the time swapping stories and drinking coffee, the night grew darker, revealing the Milky Way shining above through high clouds and wildfire haze. A few late-arriving Perseid meteors streaked across the unbounded Harney Basin sky. By around 10 p.m., it was dark enough to begin.

Every summer, USFWS staff from Malheur Refuge pool resources with ODFW staff to band waterfowl at Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area (administered by ODFW) and Malheur Refuge. Both agencies manage waterfowl populations along the Pacific Flyway and frequently collaborate on conservation projects, including these so-called “nightlight” surveys. The surveys usually occur every year in July and August, depending on water levels at each site. For both months, a week is set aside in which surveys take place at both Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge, often on consecutive nights.

Banding at night, often under a moonless or nearly moonless sky, allows staff and volunteers to capture waterfowl in near-total darkness, while birds are resting on the water. Airboats are used to navigate the shallow, vegetation-choked waterways characteristic of these southeast Oregon sites. The airboat operator uses a spotlight to locate and single out ducks for the “catchers”, kneeling at either side of the boat’s prow, to pursue.

When a duck is spotted, the operator keeps the light on the bird and pilots the boat toward it, as the catcher prepares to scoop it up. The catchers use trout nets or sometimes their bare hands to grab the ducks, which are quickly placed in plastic crates. Once the crates are full of ducks, the boat heads back to the banding station, where the crates are unloaded and empty crates are brought on for another foray. This process continues until all the crates are filled with ducks or until dawn lightens the sky, whichever comes first.

At the banding station, staff and volunteers remove ducks one by one from the crates to band them. The species, sex, and relative age of the ducks is determined by the bander, checked and recorded by a biologist, and a leg band of appropriate size for the species is placed on the bird. The banded birds are placed in crates until the predawn hours of morning, when they are released. If any of the captured birds happen to already sport a band, their band numbers are recorded before release.

An average of 300-800 ducks are banded each night at Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge during these sessions. On the night of August 15, the total came to 576, as the crew captured and banded scores of mallard, gadwall and green-winged, blue-winged and cinnamon teal; as well as smaller numbers of Northern shovelers, Northern pintail and ruddy ducks. As the sky brightened to the east on the morning of August 16, the crates of banded ducks were carried over to the boat launch for release. Some ducks burst explosively on the wing from their crates; others paddled purposefully toward the marsh—all were presumably eager to return home.

Benton County Big Sit

The 3rd annual Benton County Big Sit (BCBS) will be held Saturday, September 22, 2018 at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, located south of Corvallis in Benton County, OR. Organized by young birders Kai Frueh, Ben Frueh, Isaac Denzer and Jacob Mathison, this charitable event raises money for local and national bird conservation organizations.

As in years past, the Big Sit takes place at Finley Refuge’s Cabell Marsh blind. On September 22, birders will spend 15 hours counting every species of bird they see from within a 17-foot-diameter circle around the blind. Donations to the BCBS can be made on a per-species or fixed-amount basis.

All monies raised will be evenly divided between each of the following organizations: Friends of the Willamette Valley NWR Complex, Friends of Malheur NWR, Corvallis Audubon Society, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The BCBS is important because I think it’s an excellent way to aid bird conservation and also to share our love of birds with others,” said Isaac Denzer, who organized last year’s event with Kai Frueh. Both have returned to organize this year’s BCBS, and have recruited fellow birder Jacob Mathison in the effort. “My favorite part of [last year’s] BCBS was when we first got to Cabell Marsh blind and started counting. It’s very exciting because every bird is new,” added Kai Frueh.

Last year, the BCBS team tallied 81 species and raised $3,152 for bird conservation! For photos from that day and a summary, go here.

The goal this year is to again raise over $3,000 for bird conservation. Please help these ambitious young birders to reach their goal by donating and sharing the Benton County Big Sit with friends. If you have any questions or would like a downloadable pledge sheet, please contact the team or send an email to bentoncountybigsit@gmail.com.

The Late Summer Draw-Down

An iconic feature of Malheur Refuge Headquarters is the display pond, also known as Marshall Pond (learn about David Marshall here), fed by an underground spring. The first documented use of this spring by humans occurred around 6,000 years ago, when predecessors of the Burns Paiute Tribe, known as the Wada’tika (meaning “waada eaters”—a native marsh plant), settled there to take advantage of seasonal resources such as fish, ducks, antelope, coyote, muskrat, bison and a variety of plant materials. Based on archaeological evidence found at the site, the spring likely has been flowing continuously for many thousands of years.

Over the past three or four years, however, the spring’s output appears to be waning. Persistent drought, as well as recent groundwater developments in the area, may have drawn down the local aquifer. At any rate, during this hotter-than-average summer, Marshall Pond has fallen unusually low and is shrinking by the day. While this is an unfortunate scenario for the wildlife and visitors that use and enjoy the pond, it provides a unique opportunity to see, on a much smaller scale, what occurs at Malheur Lake through the summer.

The shallow lakes at Malheur Refuge—Malheur, Mud and Harney Lake—are subject to marked seasonal fluctuations in size, depending on winter snowpack and evaporative losses in summer. The process begins early each year and many miles away from the Refuge, at high elevations in the Steens and southern Blue Mountains. As snow accumulates in these mountains during the winter and melts in the spring, it recharges Malheur Lake, providing thousands of acres of water for common carp, an invasive species, to spawn. Large mature females can lay anywhere from 100,000 to one million eggs each year. By midsummer, millions of young carp, 1-3 inches in size, are found throughout the Malheur Lake system and connected bodies of water, including Marshall Pond. (Learn more about how non-native carp impact ecological functions at Malheur Refuge.)

By late July, most of the snow has melted and evaporation rates on the lake exceed water input from the Blitzen and Silvies Rivers. The lake starts to dry up, exposing hundreds of acres of mudflats that provide ideal habitat for migrating shorebirds. As summer advances, the remaining lake water is concentrated in isolated pools a few acres in size.

As these small pools of water evaporate, carp become trapped and provide an easy food source for an incredible variety of birds, from osprey, pelicans, cormorants and mergansers to egrets, herons, terns, gulls and even the odd shorebird! In wetter years, this spectacle can be especially dramatic at The Narrows, where Malheur Lake empties in Mud Lake. But since The Narrows is completely dry this year, Marshall Pond may be the next best place to witness this late-summer phenomenon.