Spring Inventory and Monitoring at Malheur

Written by Teresa “Bird” Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Teresa Wicks

This spring has been a particularly wet one at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Between spring snowmelt and rainstorms, things are lush and green throughout the Refuge. Particularly in the Blitzen River Valley, where the main channel of the river is rushing with abundant runoff from Steens Mountain. As water levels rise in the Blitzen River and in the east and west canals, more snow has been deposited on Steens. Because of the snow, the Bureau of Land Management is saying that the loop road likely won’t be open until July!

As expected, the water and weather have affected birds on the Refuge, with the first-of-the-year Eastern Kingbird recorded May 27th, during the second round of Woody Riparian Landbird surveys.  Woody Riparian Landbird surveys are one of several spring Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) surveys at Malheur. These I&M surveys provide data about management efforts on the Refuge, including management of wet meadows, riparian areas, springs, and lacustrine habitat (lakes and impoundments). Additionally, I&M survey priorities are selected to meet state, local, and regional efforts.

Many of the spring avian I&M surveys are completed via a partnership between Portland Audubon and Malheur NWR. Portland Audubon has been involved at Malheur since its designation as a wildlife reservation in the early 1900s. Over approximately the past decade, Portland Audubon has provided seasonal biological staff, to complete biological surveys and docent work with the Refuge. Finally, last year, Portland Audubon hired me as their full-time year-round Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator. This has allowed Portland Audubon to work more closely with our Eastern Oregon partners, including Malheur NWR and Friends of Malheur NWR.

I started with Portland Audubon in April 2018, making this spring my second field season at Malheur. One of the more interesting things about the difference between last winter/spring and this winter/spring is the amount of water everywhere. While Malheur Lake still hasn’t reached the Narrows (It will! Soon!), many of the canals, ponds, and wetlands are brimming with water, including in places that last season seemed like there should have been water but wasn’t. As a student of nature, this dichotomy (abundant water vs little water) is providing important lessons. Lessons that are potentially clouded by the near-constant rain that May brought to the Harney Basin. But, they are lessons nonetheless. Some of these lessons include remembering that when the water is hip deep, and the clouds are emptying their contents on the field you’re in, you can definitely still make it back to the truck. The wildflowers that this wet winter and spring have called forth have been a lesson in remembering to stop and enjoy the hidden beauty of this place that provides solitude, solace, and endless vistas.

This spring’s data are an important addition to the I&M database. The lessons that we will learn, as more information is added to this database, will help shape management and conservation efforts at Malheur. These lessons are less subtle than wildflowers and more subtle than water levels, and will help create successful strategies for adapting to a changing climate.

Partners in Science

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo of APHIS drone by Edwin Sparks

Here at Malheur Refuge we engage in a lot of partnership opportunities. I have heard it called “The Malheur Model” more than once. I want to take the time to highlight one of these ongoing partnerships that we have been engaged in for a few years that is probably not well known at this time.

Two years ago I got a phone call from a gentleman that works for USDA/APHIS down in Phoenix, AZ. He is working with a consulting firm based out of Michigan looking at using new technologies for grasshopper control projects. For those who haven’t worked with the hopper folks, current practices are as follows: A field crew of two people go out and walk or ride ATVs across the landscape looking for grasshoppers and Mormon crickets. If they find either of these they will continue to monitor the sites and see if treatment is needed in certain areas. If treatment is deemed necessary, they will typically use a fixed wing aircraft to spray a chemical in the area that stunts grasshopper growth keeping them from being able to reach the last metamorphic growth stage. This, in turn, keeps them from laying eggs. The chemical that has been used lately is called Dimilin. It is safe around birds, mammals, fish, etc. This chemical specifically stops chitin production, a process crucial to invertebrate development.

The problem is that while this chemical is safe around most animals, there are more insects out there that produce chitin that are more than likely being affected by these treatments. So enters APHIS into the picture. They wanted to know if the Refuge would partner with them to try a pilot study to attempt to see if they couldn’t produce an early detection, rapid response protocol. They reached out primarily because we have clearwing grasshoppers on the Refuge and we don’t graze any fields during the growing season. They are wanting to use drones to accomplish both the task of detection and the response. They have so far tried two different rigs, one with an infrared camera looking for different color bands to determine plant health associate with hopper predation. The second used “light detection and ranging” (LiDAR) to measure the amount of light bounced back from the landscape to determine percentage of available leaf. The hope is that once a suitable method of detection is found, the same drone could then be outfitted with a bait box system that could then be deployed at the hatch site.

I don’t need to go into too much depth explaining why this would be a great technology once they get the kinks ironed out. APHIS works mostly with private landowners who look to control grasshoppers in order to keep losses down. That program is not likely going to go away anytime soon. The dream is that this project will keep thousands of acres treated (if not hundreds of thousands) down to hundreds. Given that our pollinators worldwide are facing dire times, every little thing we can do to help keep the amount of treatment down is a huge success.

Western Burrowing Owls

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is a ground-dwelling owl that inhabits areas of short vegetation and bare ground, including deserts, grasslands and shrub-steppe across the West. In Oregon, they are usually associated with sagebrush-steppe, grasslands, pastures, roadsides, and other areas characterized by sparse vegetation and level terrain. East of Oregon’s Cascade Range, burrowing owls are known to breed in all or nearly all of Oregon’s counties, being most common in Wasco, Morrow, Umatilla, Malheur, Harney, and Lake counties.

Its common name refers to the fact that this owl nests and roosts in underground cavities. While capable of small amounts of earth-moving with their taloned feet, burrowing owls usually seek out the previously dug cavities of burrowing mammals (such as ground squirrels, kit foxes or badgers) in which to take residence and raise young.

Burrowing owls spend much of their time on or near the ground, where their spotted buff-brown plumage keeps them relatively inconspicuous as they stand outside their burrows or perch in low vegetation. Always alert to potential danger, the rounded heads of these owls swivel about fluidly, their bright yellow, forward-facing eyes constantly surveying their surroundings.

These small, long-legged owls—seven to ten inches from head to tail—prey on a wide variety of small animals including rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects, which they capture with their feet and usually ingest whole. They sometimes employ a hovering flight to scan the ground below for prey; they also sally to the ground from perches to chase and capture prey on foot.

Unlike many owl species, burrowing owls may be active both day and night. In the height of summer, they tend to forage more at night, when temperatures are cooler. Similarly, their active period shifts to a more diurnal schedule as daytime temperatures drop in fall and winter.

Burrowing owls do not “hoot” in the traditional owl sense, but males give a two-note coo-coo song when courting a mate. Both sexes give a barking alarm call when intruders approach a nest burrow. When young burrowing owls are threatened, they retreat underground and make a harsh rasping or hissing sound. From the confines of the burrow, this sound very closely resembles the rattle of a disturbed rattlesnake and probably serves to deter predation.

During the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, which began in northeastern California and went through Nevada to southern Utah from 1867 to 1872, the expedition’s then-teenaged ornithologist, Robert Ridgway, remarked that “Although the ‘Ground Owl’ was found at widely-separated places along our entire route, it was abundant at very few locations…Eastward of the Sierra Nevada we found it only at wide intervals.” That description is perhaps even truer today, as burrowing owl populations across western North America are seeing declines, primarily due to habitat loss from land conversions for agricultural and urban development, as well as habitat degradation and loss due to reductions of native burrowing mammal populations.

Is it a Bird? A Plane? No, it’s a Drone!

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo of Windmill Pond by Doug Peterson

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has several methodologies for trying to find the best ways to collect data to help provide a biological assessment for management decisions. Whether it’s walking transects through a field, driving an airboat on Malheur Lake surveying for shorebirds, flying in a small aircraft to count waterfowl, or conducting point-count surveys from a fixed position, all these methods help improve the quality of our surveys that provide important information, not just to Malheur NWR, but also to any biological program. As scientists, we are always looking for the latest and best practices to improve efficiency and accuracy, as well as finding affordable ways to collect data.

Today, the use of drones for biological assessments is becoming a very popular way to collect data. Through the Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers classes to become a certified drone pilot for DOI. This certification requires potential pilots to take certain online aviation safety courses as well as a knowledge test. Once tests are completed, each individual needs to attend a week-long course through DOI to learn the ins and outs of flying a drone and to understand the laws and regulations one needs to be aware of before flying. Only after that are individuals certified as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots for DOI.

At Malheur NWR, currently we use drones to take aerial photos for our carp biomass study, which will help provide valuable information about how carp affect aquatic vegetation. We are now trying to move forward using drone technology for bird monitoring surveys. One potential application is to use drones to monitor colonial nesting birds on Malheur Lake. In the past, these birds were monitored via small-plane flights once every 3 years. These flights are very spendy; the lengthy intervals between surveys limits the data we’re able to collect. This is why we would like to use drones to see if we can monitor densities of colonial nesters on the lake. Some of our neighbor National Wildlife Refuges in Eastern Idaho are using drone technology to monitor their American White Pelican colonies and are finding success. Granted, there are downsides to using drones. They have limited battery life and memory space, but despite these drawbacks, in the end drones are an amazing tool. Drones are not as invasive to wildlife and are more accessible when needed compared to a small aircraft or airboat, are cheaper and have multiple applications that assist biologist staff in fulfilling the Refuge’s mission.