Brown-headed Cowbirds

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Something about this scene doesn’t quite match up. The fledgling bird, at left, is already larger than its “parent” the sparrow, and its bill shape and overall build are slightly different. That’s because the fledgling is a brown-headed cowbird, a relative of blackbirds and orioles that relies on other species to raise its young.

Native to much of North America, Brown-headed Cowbirds are adapted to life in open country: grasslands, prairies and agricultural areas. They typically associate with herds of herbivorous quadrupeds, following them through the seasons and eating the insects and seeds exposed by their foraging. Centuries ago, these quadrupeds would have likely been bison; today, cattle, horses, sheep and other domestic stock fill the niche.

Cowbirds take to this itinerant lifestyle so completely, they won’t let even reproduction keep them tied down to one spot. Instead of building a nest, female cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species, a behavior known as brood parasitism. More than 220 bird species are known to be parasitized by cowbirds in this manner.

All of the incubation and chick-rearing is performed by the host parents. Some species are better than others at spotting the “dupes” in their nest and ejecting them; others suffer significant chick mortality as the aggressive cowbird chick—often growing much larger than the host chicks and even the host parents—crowds the nest and receives the lion’s share of food. Song sparrows, as it turns out, are particularly susceptible to cowbird parasitism.

While a few other North American bird species occasionally engage in brood parasitism—ruddy ducks, redheads and yellow-billed cuckoos, for instance—these birds usually target members of their own species, and are capable of raising young on their own. In North America, only the brown-headed and bronzed cowbirds are considered obligate brood parasites, meaning they do not make nests of their own and rely entirely on brood parasitism.

Wet Years, Dry Years and Everything in Between

Written by Debby De Carlo/Photo by Debby De Carlo

Not everyone who volunteers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is a birder. But it was my interest in birds that led me to visit in May of 2003 nine months after moving to Oregon. Though the Refuge was 30 miles south of Burns, the birds appeared as soon as I turned south on 205 just outside of Burns. I pulled over immediately. There were more yellow-headed blackbirds than I had ever seen. There were avocets, sandhill cranes and long-billed curlews in the flooded pastures. There were cinnamon teal, shovelers and pintails. Right there, still parked on the side of the road, I called a friend in Wisconsin. “There are so many birds it’s intoxicating,” I said. And I had already missed the hundreds of thousands of snow and Ross’s geese who had been in the same fields in March and April. 

I haven’t missed a year since. I’ve seen dry years and wet years. I didn’t think about volunteering until Tim Blount, then the Executive Director of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, mentioned on their Facebook page (@MalheurFriends) that they were looking for someone to volunteer in late September and all of October in 2015. I sent him an email immediately and had the pleasure of working in the Headquarters Visitor Center. Though it was fall, there were still plenty of migrants. One day a red crossbill hit the window and was knocked out. I put it in a paper bag on the deck where it could recover, safe from hawks and owls, and hop out when it felt ready to fly. Another day, a visitor came to say they’d found a saw-whet owl in a tree. We averaged 30 visitors a day, a far cry from the 300 a day in the spring. It was just the right time to be introduced to volunteering for the Friends group. I didn’t volunteer again until last fall. 

In April of this year, I began two months of working at the Malheur Field Station just 3 miles down the road. At last I got to see the huge flocks of white geese with black-tipped wings as I drove to Burns for the migratory bird festival. Now I have my FOMR hat back on, though I plan on visiting Rose, Doug, Deb and Michael at the field station and attending the upcoming members meeting. Janelle is coming up on one year as Executive Director of FOMR, and she is a joy to work with.

When I was a kid growing up Pittsburgh, PA, our family spent summer vacations on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. My siblings and I slept in the back of the station wagon while my father drove all night. I remember always waking up to the smell of salt water as we crossed the bridge to the Cape. That distinct smell meant vacation had officially begun. Over the years, new places have taken on that special vacation aura. But nothing quite like turning south just outside of Burns.

Tribal Stewards

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Sage Brown @SageBrown

One Leader, four Crew Members, one volunteer photographer and an ONDA Staff member walk onto a Refuge… No punch line, just an amazing week of exploration, learning, fun, project completion and relationship building!

As you may know, the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife agreed to financially sponsor the Northwest Youth Corps Tribal Stewards Program to spend a week of their time at Malheur NWR this summer. Many of our Members made contributions to this effort and we were able to fund raise $3,377.33 of our $4,500 commitment which was quite a feat in 4 short months. That $4,500 went to the Oregon Natural Desert Association who coordinated this effort and effectively moved this team of young adults across the state over 8 weeks. 

On their first day at the Refuge the crew got the lay of the land through an introduction to the Refuge at Buena Vista Overlook before making their way to Boca. At Boca Lake the crew conducted waterfowl surveys with Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, Teresa Wicks. Teresa explained to the group the history of how the Refuge came to be and thus the origin of some modern-day management challenges and successes. While conducting surveys they learned scanning and counting techniques in addition to data recording and the use of binoculars and scopes. They were fortunate enough to come across a brood of ruddy ducks which was clearly memorable since it was still a topic of conversation days later. 

Participants were quick to mention one of their highlights included getting out on Malheur Lake with Malheur NWR Fish Biologist James Pearson. James spent an entire day with the team going into detail explaining the impact that the non-native common carp are having on the Blitzen River Valley and Malheur Lake.

The team was able to see one of the Refuge’s fish traps and understand more about the ways in which the Refuge is attempting to combat this problem (i.e. trapping, electroshocking, etc.). The team also spent a couple hours doing some hands on training including an introduction to water quality sampling, nutrient sampling, and juvenile fish trapping via minnow traps. The icing on the cake, so to speak, was of course donning life jackets, hearing protection and heading out on an airboat to see the lake up close. The team also got to spend time on a project for the Friends. As stewards of the Marshall Pond Trail and observation area we have ongoing habitat improvement projects that were in need of helping hands. The crew were tasked with removing old wooden cages from around trees and shrubs that were outgrowing them. Replacing the cages with new, wider, wire cages would mean weeding and mulching each tree and shrub first while being mindful of the extensive irrigation system. After the work was done we had a lengthy chat about the value of a diverse skill sets that can be transferable to all kinds of career opportunities. I told them my tale of how I started out in the middle of nowhere rural Pennsylvania, got a degree in Marine Sciences and 12 years later found myself in the high desert of Eastern Oregon. The point being, you may never know where you are going to land but if you take flight and value the opportunities and relationships that come your way… you are bound to be happy and fulfilled in your work and your life. 

Carey Goss, Wildlife Refuge Specialist at Malheur Refuge, offers her perspective on working with the Tribal Stewards:

“The group was warmhearted and kind. When I first met them, I instantly knew they had developed a camaraderie with each other which became apparent with personnel at the Refuge. The projects we gave them were designed to provide a glimpse of the work conducted on the Refuge, which included wildlife and habitat management, project enhancements to protect cultural resources and provide quality experiences to visitors, and activities with aquatic health. To increase their career awareness in the USFWS and other conservation groups, the Tribal Stewards group met with several personnel for an introduction to law enforcement, biology, fire, maintenance, management, and administration.

As part of the program, I was able to meet with the group to provide an outreach opportunity to share stories of how the Refuge was established; the history of the George Benson Memorial Museum; and described the Refuge’s many programs: cultural resources, wildlife management, wildlife and habitat, and visitor services. The group was always engaged and every project given to them was accomplished successfully. On the last day of the program, the Tribal Stewards group visited Steens Mountain to capture the beauty and importance of the large fault-block mountain to the Refuge. For the duration of the program at Malheur, the group stayed at P Ranch, government quarters at the most southern tip of the Refuge and had an opportunity to explore the Refuge to enhance their experience. I am especially thankful of the projects they completed at the Refuge and look forward to having them return.”

Ed Sparks, Habitat Biologist at Malheur Refuge, shares his experience on working with the Tribal Stewards:

“On Thursday August 8th, the tribal stewards group worked with me all day. We started off in the morning around Marshall Pond pulling scotch thistle. We pulled thistle till lunch time and were able to completely fill the bed of my pickup in that short amount of time. We then left for P-ranch where we had planned to cut small regrowth juniper. However due to lightning, we spent the last few hours of the day talking about refuge management and career planning. I feel very fortunate to have been able to spend the day with the young people. We laughed, talked about music, and spouted random movie quotes while we pulled the prickly plants. They asked great questions in the afternoon and I know that these guys have bright futures ahead of them. Couldn’t ask for a harder working, charismatic crew to spend the day with.”

The Friends are also hopeful that the Tribal Stewards will return to Malheur NWR in summer 2020. As we work with ONDA and other partners to make this happen, we will keep you informed on ways to help support this program.

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.