Making Do in the Desert

Summer has arrived in the Northern Great Basin. The days are long, hot and windy; the migratory birds of spring have long since passed though on their way to more northerly latitudes; and most forbs and grasses are dry or rapidly drying in the heat. The species that remain here—as well as those that remain active, instead of senescing or estivating—are a hardy bunch, indeed.

The plants and animals of this desert are resourceful to a fault, having evolved their respective ways of coping with blistering heat, bitter cold, desiccating wind, and an occasionally profound lack of water. Their adaptations never cease to astound—they eke out lives in inimical conditions, securing provender from an arid, even barren landscape. Extreme conditions call for extreme modification.

Consider the majority of xeric plants, caught in the bind of photosynthesizing while growing in a dry, hot, exposed environment. The pores of their leaves, known as stomata, must remain open during the day to admit carbon dioxide, necessary for sugar production—it is only with sunlight that plants’ photosynthetic factories chug along. But by allowing CO2 to flow in, the pores inevitably transpire a great deal of water. Almost 90 percent of a xeric plant’s moisture loss occurs through its stomata, the hard-won H2O molecules evanescing into the hot desert air like dollar bills going up in smoke. Thus the plants engage in an austere water economy, developing cuticles, waxes, hairs, spines, and heat-reflecting pigments that cut down on undue losses while permitting gas exchange and leaf-saving evaporative cooling. It is an economy hinged on dew drops and tiny wisps of vapor. It is a volatile marketplace, prone to crashes. Some plants, such as various succulents and cacti, take the adaptation one step further, bowing out of the market entirely. They open their stomata after dark, after-hours, when evaporative loss is lessened by cooler temperatures. Carbon dioxide is absorbed and bound to a special acid in the plants’ tissues, effectively storing it until day when it can be utilized in photosynthesis.

Then there are the xeric animals, physiologically adapted to conserve every precious drop of water procured. Great Basin birds such as black-throated sparrows and Brewer’s sparrows will reduce the moisture content of their excrement by as much as 60 percent in times of water stress. In a pinch they will drink brackish water, widespread in the Great Basin, their kidneys sequestering the salts and voiding them with waste. Kangaroo rats similarly condense their excretions but rely almost exclusively on “metabolic water” from the foods they eat; they very rarely drink. Metabolic water, a byproduct of the Krebs cycle—whereby glucose is converted into adenosine triphosphate and a small quantity of H2O—is a result of organic-compound oxidation. In other words, the digestion of food by all critters creates some water, in an amount directly related to the hydrogen content of the food. Oxidation of a gram of carbohydrate yields more than half a gram of metabolic water. A gram of fat yields just over a gram of water. A gram of ethanol yields even more: 1.17 grams of water. Humans typically meet less than ten percent of their water needs through this internal oxidation. We rely heavily on its importation from elsewhere. But for the kangaroo rat, the basin-dwelling bird, the short-horned lizard, metabolic water is the sine qua non of desert life.

“The desert, the dry and sun-lashed desert, is a good school in which to observe the cleverness and the infinite variety of techniques of survival under pitiless opposition,” wrote John Steinbeck in Travels with Charley, as he made his way through the deserts of North America. “Life could not change the sun or water the desert, so it changed itself…The desert has mothered magical things.”

Friends-of-Malheur-nature-center

History of Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store

The building that currently houses the Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store was built in the mid-1930s by members of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), at the same time as many of the other structures at Refuge Headquarters. In fact, most of the historic infrastructure located throughout Malheur Refuge was installed by CCC crews stationed there between 1935-1942. The stone blocks used to construct many of these buildings—including the one housing Crane’s Nest—were quarried near Buena Vista Station, south of Headquarters.

Located near the display pond at Headquarters, the Crane’s Nest building was the former residence of Marselle and May Leek in the 1940s-50s. Marselle had worked with CCC crews at Malheur Refuge and later became the shop foreman for the Refuge.

Also living at Headquarters during that time was Refuge biologist David B. Marshall and his family. The house they stayed in no longer exists, but today the display pond and adjacent trail at Headquarters are named for Marshall, who was known for his strong advocacy for wildlife and habitat conservation.

Dave Marshall long knew his life would center around birds. During a 1939 Audubon trip to southeast Oregon, a 13-year-old Marshall decided he wanted a career being paid to observe them. Birding was already in his genes. His great-great grandfather traveled by covered wagon to Oregon carrying a pair of field glasses, and his parents were early members of the Audubon Society of Portland. Wildlife photographer and conservationist William L. Finley was a family friend.

Marshall began working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Nevada and California in 1951. In November 1955 he returned to southeast Oregon, transferring from Sacramento Refuge to Malheur as the Wildlife Management Biologist. He held this position for five years before transferring to the Regional Office in Portland, where he served as the Regional Wildlife Biologist for 12 years. He retired in 1981 after a distinguished 30-year career with the Service. Marshall passed away in November 2011 at the age of 85.

Marshall’s legacy lives on in the trail and pond at Headquarters that bear his name. We at FOMR are honored and privileged to share this historical space with the public as the newly designed Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store, opened in May 2018.

Bobolinks at Malheur Refuge

“Merrily swinging on brier and weed,
Near to the nest of his little dame,
Over the mountain-side or mead,
Robert of Lincoln is telling his name:
Bob-o’-link, bob-o’-link,
Spink, spank, spink;
Snug and safe is that nest of ours,
Hidden among the summer flowers.
Chee, chee, chee.”

-From the poem “Robert of Lincoln”, by William Cullen Bryant (1794-1898)

In early summer at Malheur Refuge, with the grasses of the southern Blitzen Valley lushly green and the mosquitoes nearing Biblical-plague status, dapper male bobolinks arrive to set up territories in wet-meadow habitat. Their virtuosic song, broadcast from perches or during fluttering flight displays, is a marvel to behold. Naturalists have colorfully described it as “a mad, reckless song fantasia—an outbreak of pent-up irrepressible glee”; also, “a bubbling delirium of ecstatic music that flows from the gifted throat of the bird like sparkling champagne.” Other oft-used descriptors include “metallic”, “buzzy”, tinkling”, “rambling” and “reminiscent of R2D2 from Star Wars”, but none of these do justice to hearing the live rendition on a calm summer’s morning.

The bobolink is a member of the blackbird family native to the Americas. Males in breeding plumage are a striking contrast of black and white with a corn-silk nape; no other North American bird has a white back and black underparts. Non-breeding males look similar to females, with buffy underparts and a brownish, streaky back.

Bobolinks are long-distance migrants, breeding in grasslands of the northern United States and southern Canada and wintering in the southern interior of South America. Depending on the season, bobolinks will use a variety of open habitat types: tallgrass and mixed prairies, hayfields, meadows, marshes and coastal areas. When breeding, these birds eat a mixture of seeds and invertebrates, and parents provision their young with the latter almost exclusively. During migration and while on wintering grounds, bobolinks subsist on a variety of seeds from wild and commercially-grown plants.

Due to pressures exerted at both breeding and wintering grounds, populations of this iconic grassland species are in decline. The loss of native prairies in North America has reduced the amount of suitable breeding habitat, and what remains for these birds—hayfields and other agricultural areas—is often heavily disturbed. In rice-growing regions of the southern U.S. and South America, bobolinks and other seed-eating birds are considered crop pests and are shot, poisoned or hazed with smoke and fireworks. While this species is adaptable and still numerous, populations in the U.S. have been shrinking by more than two percent each year for the past 50 years.

At Malheur Refuge, the seasonally flooded meadows of Blitzen Valley host the largest breeding population of bobolinks west of the Rocky Mountains. Bobolinks are considered a focal species at Malheur, and every June FOMR helps lead a group of volunteers on an annual bobolink survey in the southern Blitzen Valley. FOMR volunteers, together with Refuge staff and field biologists from the Portland Audubon Society, walk three established transect routes through wet-meadow habitat, counting birds both seen and heard. In the 2017 count—considered a “good water year” at Malheur Refuge—a total of 223 bobolinks were tallied. For comparison, counts in the drought-heavy 1990s turned up around 500 birds.

The bobolink count is a “legacy” survey, dating back several decades at the Refuge. It’s one of the tools Refuge staff uses to understand land-management impacts on this iconic species. It’s also an incredible outreach opportunity, bringing together outdoor enthusiasts, bird lovers and members of the local community to experience one of the many natural phenomena that makes Malheur Refuge such a special place.

Interested in participating? FOMR could still use 5-6 more volunteers to help with this year’s bobolink count, which takes place Saturday, June 9. Please note that the survey may involve wading through knee-high water. To sign up and get more details, please contact us at friends@malheurfriends.org with “Bobolink Survey” in the subject line.

The Uncommonly Dark Skies of Harney County

We live in an era when natural darkness is increasingly hard to find, banished as it is by the ubiquity of artificial lighting in cities and other developed areas. This “light pollution” and concomitant loss of darkness has planet-wide ramifications: The ever-growing influence of our lighted spaces changes how animals sleep and reproduce, disrupts their nightly migration patterns, alters their feeding behaviors, and much else—to say nothing of how this lack of natural darkness affects humans’ physical, social, and psychological well-being.

It’s concerns like these that led Jennifer Barlow, who in 2003 was a high-schooler in Virginia, to create what she called National Dark Sky Week. It’s now an internationally recognized event that draws attention to the problems of light pollution and promotes simple and effective means to mitigate it.

In explaining what led her to start the event, Barlow has said, “I want people to be able to see the wonder of the night sky without the effects of light pollution. The universe is our view into our past and our vision into the future…I want to help preserve its wonder.”

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Malheur Refuge, situated in the high-desert expanse of Harney Basin in southeast Oregon, is best known for its plenitude of migratory birds and other wildlife during spring and fall. Visitors in all seasons also come for the austere scenery, the freeing sense of space and solitude, the tangible connection to eras long past. But there is an entirely different side to this region that’s only visible after dark, preferably on a cloudless night under a waning moon. That’s when the skies above this wide-open landscape come alive with the billion-year-old shine of myriad stars and galaxies.

Night skies in and around Harney Basin are among the most stellar in the country. Under the right viewing conditions, this desert sleeps beneath a blanket of stars so thick and profuse as to beggar belief. The reasons behind this exceptional starshine are twofold. First, the predominately dry air of this high-elevation desert tends to exhibit less atmospheric distortion at night, allowing for better visibility (particularly in colder months). Second—and more importantly—there is a distinct lack of light pollution here, outside of Harney County’s few, far-flung population centers.

Harney County, at 10,228 square miles, is Oregon’s largest county. It’s considerably larger than Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island combined. By population size, however, it ranks at fifth-lowest in the state, with around 7,500 residents. More than 60 percent of these live in the adjacent towns of Burns and Hines, meaning that much of the county is unincorporated, undeveloped, un-electrified shrub-steppe and juniper-ponderosa forest—ideal environs for superb stargazing.

The uncommonly dark skies are so spectacular here that the Harney County Chamber of Commerce has identified stargazing as one of the county’s “7 Natural Wonders”, alongside Malheur Refuge, Malheur National Forest, Steens Mountain, Diamond Craters, the Alvord Desert, and the region’s many geothermal springs.

The best way to enjoy this age-old spectacle is by camping—ideally as far from city lights as possible. While Malheur Refuge does not offer camping or lodging options to the public, there are several locations near the Refuge and in the general area that do. These include The Narrows RV Park, Malheur Field Station, Crystal Crane Hot Springs, Diamond Hotel, Frenchglen Hotel, Page Springs Campground and Alvord Desert Hot Springs, among others.

County-wide Arts Education Program Highlights Birds, Feathers

This February and March, students across Harney County became naturalists for a day, studying and painting feathers in an artist residency program developed by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Bend Art Center and supported by FOMR. The students’ feather studies were featured at the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, along with students’ artwork from Hines Middle School, Burns High School, Crane Union High School, homeschoolers, and other youth groups.

Visiting artist Michelle Solley and Wildlife Refuge Specialist Carey Goss spent eight days traveling to schools in Burns, Diamond, Frenchglen, Crane, Drewsey, Riley, Double O, and Fields. This year’s program combined history, art and science and served almost 600 students in grades K-8.

Solley introduced each class to the famed naturalist John James Audubon and shared his methods for illustrating birds in their natural habitats. Then it was the students’ turn to study and paint migratory bird species they might spy in Harney County.

Kids sorted through 200 laminated feathers from 30 different species and picked their favorites. Using careful observation, kids compared and contrasted different types of feathers and learned to identify whether they had selected a down, wing, tail or contour feather. Goss explained how different feather structures help birds fly, stay warm, attract mates, or provide camouflage.

Solley walked students through a variety of art techniques to capture the texture, shape and pattern of their chosen feather. After some practice and experimentation, kids created detailed studies of their bird feathers with pencil and watercolor. Goss chatted with students and offered interesting details on the species they were painting.

“We were thrilled to bring this kind of program to students in Harney County,” said Dawn Boone, Education Manager for Bend Art Center. “Art is a powerful way to explore the world around us. In making these feather studies, students cemented their newfound knowledge of migratory birds and came away with a greater appreciation for nature.”

During the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, staff auctioned off canvas prints of students’ artwork April 6-7 at Burns High School and continued the auction at the festival’s Saturday evening banquet. Auction proceeds will fund next year’s arts education program for area youth. The original students’ artwork was displayed at Burns High School and local businesses during the festival.

Dozens of the students’ feather studies are also featured in specially-designed nature posters and cards that were available for purchase at the festival. FOMR will continue selling these at the Crane’s Nest Nature Store at Refuge Headquarters, with all proceeds supporting next year’s youth-art program.