A Summer at Malheur

Written by Ryan Robles, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern/Photo by Edwin Sparks

Editor’s note: Ryan Robles is heading in to his senior year at Burns High School. In the spring of 2019, Ryan’s biology class came to the Refuge for a Benson Pond BioBlitz Field trip lead by Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, Teresa Wicks, supported educational components from the Friends Director and Refuge Habitat Ecologist Ed Sparks. Ryan learned about summer internship opportunities conducting field work and would become the Refuge’s Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern for the summer of 2019. Sparks became Ryans’s supervisor and mentor over the summer through this position which was funded through the Refuge Grazing program and managed by Friends of Malheur Refuge.

Out here at Malheur there is a great deal of work required for the refuge to accomplish its goals. Meaning a lot of help is needed to get things done. My name is Ryan Robles and this summer I was granted the opportunity of being the Vegetation Inventory and Monitoring Intern for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to work with some of the Refuge Biologists on various projects. Some of which included bat surveys, wet meadow surveys, and water quality sampling. 

Overall this summer has been extremely educational. Since I want to pursue a career in wildlife management this internship has been pivotal to laying down a base of knowledge for my future. The projects I was able to work on were great learning experiences. The SAV, or submerged aquatic vegetation survey was one of those experiences. I was able to learn about a plethora of aquatic and emergent vegetation and how to identify them. Also, I was able to partake in a couple of Bird Impoundment Surveys. The surveys were located on Boca Lake where we counted which species of waterfowl were present, how many there were, and if there were broods, how old they were. We collected data at multiple points across the lake to make sure all birds were counted. There was also a bat survey that I took part in where we set up recording equipment at predetermined locations on the refuge. This equipment would then record bat calls at certain frequencies which could then later be used for identification of what species are out there and how many there are. Other work I took part in was out on the Malheur Lake which included water quality sampling and capturing live carp. Overall the experiences I’ve had over the summer were extremely beneficial and I know will help me immensely in the future.

Though it would be difficult to choose a favorite part of this past summer, if I had to choose one it would be the SAV survey. I have always had a strong interest in aquatic ecosystems and being able to learn about what is present in the wetlands around the refuge was awesome. Not only was I able to learn what plants there were, but how to tell what species they were too. The SAV survey was also my favorite because of what it taught me. I was able to learn about the methodology and the equipment used such as the YSI probe and secchi disk.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity of working out at the refuge this summer. Thanks to the wonderful staff, it was a very fulfilling experience that I will likely not forget as I go on into college and beyond. I look forward to working in this field in the future.   

Waterbirds at Malheur Lake

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 mandated that all National Wildlife Refuges develop and abide by a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). This document would be developed in earnest through collaboration with partners and stakeholders who hold diverse interests in the management of a Refuge. The CCP would prioritize the needs of each Refuge based on the science that supports sustainable habitat management for the best possible outcome for wildlife. At Malheur NWR, a list of priority bird surveys is found within our CCP which was developed over three years and adopted in 2013. One of these surveys is known as the Colonial Nesting Waterbird survey. 

The purpose of the Colonial Nesting Waterbird Survey is to assess the impact on these populations as carp management is implemented on Malheur Lake. Historically, waterbird colonies were located on Malheur Lake, Sodhouse Ranch, and Boca Lake. Surveys were done once every three years using aerial photography to count breeding pairs of these colonial birds. Targets included American white pelicans, double crested cormorants, and Caspian terns. 

The trouble with having one aerial flight every three years is that it does not tell us much about nest success of these species; nor does it help the Refuge understand what may happen to the populations and the habitats they depend on between surveys. In addition, aerial surveys come at a great financial and logistical expense. Recent advances in technology have allowed biologists to explore utilizing drones as a survey method to monitor colonial nesting colonies.

With known success using drones to count pelican colonies at Minidoka NWR in eastern Idaho, we thought Malheur NWR would be a great area to apply this technique. 

This month, with the help of Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator based in Burns and a Portland Audubon volunteer and drone pilot, Nick Wagner, we were able to spend a week troubleshooting the new survey protocol. Our goal from the Wildlife Working Group for using drones on this survey is to see how many breeding pairs are utilizing Malheur Lake. This whole event was exciting yet extremely nerve wrecking! 

We took a lot of baby steps to test the effect of how high the drone needs to be above the birds before causing any sort of disturbance, whether we can distinguish terms from gulls; we also tested whether it was possible to launch a drone near the area of a giant metal machine such as the airboat. We did a few test flights around Malheur Lake before taking the final flight over open water. Do you know how nerve wrecking it is to fly a drone over open water and just hoping it comes back to you before you lose signal or battery life? It’s rough! The adrenaline rush is real!

Overall, we had great success during the week of testing this new protocol. It was such an amazing feeling to know how new technology can be helpful in the current biological field. We can’t wait to clean up the protocol and see this survey method in action next season.

Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Training

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

During the last week of June, most of the Malheur Refuge biology staff traveled to southeast Idaho for a submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) protocol training. We were hosted by the beautiful Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge and were accompanied by biologist, interns, and technicians from Camas, Minidoka, and Bear Lake Refuges. This is the third time I have attended the training. This year I brought our Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern, Ryan Robles, along to learn the sampling protocol and get a primer in wetland plant identification. Alexa Martinez, Malheur NWR Wildlife Biologist, also joined us.

Malheur NWR has been a part of the SAV project since it started around 2012. The project has been put together by Refuges that volunteer to add data for a state and transition model that can be used in great basin wetlands. The Region 1 inventory and monitoring program teamed up with Region 6 (mostly Montana based National Wildlife Refuges) to create this database. The model takes into account years between management activities and what activities were employed. This, along with consecutive years of data collection, feed information into the model that can help Refuges make management decisions regarding semi-permanent impoundments or water holdings.

Overall, I feel that the training was a success, Ryan and Alexa both nailed their plant ID and are comfortable with the protocol. The drive to Gray’s Lake NWR is a long and tedious one, but I feel that it is always worth it. This little gem is tucked away in the mountains right along the Idaho/Wyoming border and is largely ignored by passersby. While it seems a shame that this place doesn’t garner much attention, I think that it adds to how truly great this Refuge is. I quiet little oasis, or refuge, left in peace to the wildlife that depend on it for sanctuary and an excellent place to bond and grow as a team. I am already looking forward to next year’s training.