Malheur & Me: Seeking Refuge

Written by Dan Piquette/ Photos by Dan Piquette

I‘ve been to the Malheur Refuge four times now, three in this last calendar year. I’m smitten. On my most recent visit in late July, I was returning to my Monmouth, Oregon home from Colorado where I sat with my mother, Yvonne, as she passed away. I couldn’t think of a better way to honor her life than by enjoying my own at the refuge.

Due to a dry year and being late in the season, I was advised by fellow birders that there “might not be much to see.” What a sad thought. While I appreciate the abundance of an early season and a wet year, the resident species and the vast landscape alone are worth the visit. Besides, it’s not just about the wildlife and the land. 

Under the shade of a Cottonwood at the Historic P Ranch, I spent some dedicated time in reflection, thinking about life and death and what’s important. During migration, the Malheur provides birds a respite from the hardships of life on the move. The refuge offers protected space for rest and nourishment required to regain strength for the journey. Without this sanctuary, they will perish. I came to realize that our winged friends are not the only ones who require refuge.

Having spent fourteen hours driving, I needed time for rest and to take on nourishment essential for my own journey home. Nourishment goes beyond the food we eat. While rest and food are important, it’s also vital to take pleasure in the simple things—a blade of grass, a leaf, a warbler melody, a soaring falcon. We can’t flourish if all we do is keep busy, push ourselves, and strive to achieve. We need a break from the deleterious stressors of modern life. More often than not, we need a break from ourselves.  

As I savored seeing Western Kingbirds for the first time ever at the Pete French Round Barn; as Lark Sparrows gripped barbed wires; as Bobolinks in the “Alley” made themselves visible (another lifer); as resident Sandhill Cranes foraged for food in the not so wetlands; as a Willow Flycatcher perched on a swaying branch; as the toasty July air brushed across my face; as I listened to Yellow-headed and Red-winged Blackbirds, American Crows, American Robins, Mourning Doves, and Eastern Kingbirds; as American Coots and Cinnamon Teals shuffled through the shallow waters; as swallows swooped; as Black-billed Magpies taunted and evaded my camera’s lens; as tall grasses danced in the dry, warm wind; as seven White-faced Ibis flew overhead and eventually vanished into a sea of cattails; as a Northern Harrier flew feet above the ground; as critters observed me with an attentive discernment, one thing became very clear: the cacophony of thoughts that usually hijack my life, was silent.

Imagine if we could bring this same level of undistracted attention to all our interactions.

Not only can the Malheur help to ease our busy mind, but the refuge is also healing owing to its diversity. Research has shown time and again that people are happiest when they live amongst a variety of species. Though we may be able to stay alive, we can’t thrive in uniformity.

I founded the Mindful Birder Photography project with the hopes that my pictures will inspire people to get outside and take refuge in the beauty that surrounds us. I’m confident that as we become more aware of the positive effects diversity and open space have upon us, we will put more effort into protecting and expanding these life-preserving refuges. On my Mindful Birder website, I created a “Malheur and Me” gallery featuring pictures taken in or immediately around the Malheur to honor this precious space. Enjoy.

Thank You, Friends of the Malheur, for recognizing and protecting our shared environment.

With Bows of Appreciation,
Dan Piquette

NOTE: Dan’s Minful Birder Photography Project can also be found and followed on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/MindfulBirder
Thank you, Dan, for sharing your insights and connection to Malheur NWR with the world through this wonderful article and your Mindful Birder Project.

Species Spotlight: Western Ridge Mussels

Written by Alexa Martinez/ Photo by pnwmussels.org

Western ridged mussels (Gonidea angulate) are one of three native freshwater mussels that can be found in the Blitzen waters of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Not only are they one of the few native mussels found on the refuge, but Malheur NWR holds one of the oldest western ridge mussel colonies!

These mussels may not be flashy to look at or are cute and cuddly like a teady bear but are super cool in their own special way. In general, freshwater mussels are mollusks that produce a bivalved shell. The two valves are mirror images of each other and are connected by an elastic-like ligament along the dorsal hinge (mulluskconservation.org). A specific feature on western ridged mussels are their very distinctive ridge on its shell which gives it it’s name. They also have very strong age lines on the outer portion of their shell. Very much like aging tree rings, you can age a mussel by counting the rings on the outer shell.

Like all mussels, western ridge mussels are extremely important to the environment and the ecosystem. They are long lived species and are sensitive to environmental change which makes them great indicators for long-term degradation, or recovery, of aquatic ecosystems (molluskconservation.org). Mussels contribute to clean water, health fisheries, aquatic food webs and biodiversity, and functioning ecosystems. They are definitely a super species to help enhance riverbed habitat.

As cool as these mussels are, they are also going through a rough patch in their time. Historically this species would range from California all the way to British Columbia, Canada, as well as portions of Idaho. Research indicates that the species has experienced a significant reduction in range from the historic distribution (43%; Blevins et al. 2017a), with the southern extent of the species’ range in California having contracted northward approximately 475 miles as compared to the historic range. Live western ridged mussels were not detected at 46% of the 87 sites where it historically occurred and that have been recently revisited (xerces.org).

We are very lucky to have this species still existing in our rivers at Malheur NWR and we hope we can help and maintain our populations for future generations to enjoy!

What is a Mesocosm?

Written by Rebecca Pickle/ Cover Photo by Tim Lawes, OSU

Ask anyone on refuge staff what Malheur Lake’s biggest problem is, and they’ll probably tell you it has a turbidity problem. For shallow lakes, there are two common classifications or states that they will exist in, clear or turbid. Malheur Lake has been in its turbid state for far too long, ever since the floods of the 1980’s. There are multiple issues of why it can’t change back to a clear state. One major issue is Malheur Lake has the inability to recruit emergent vegetation and submergent vegetation to block the winds and waves that frequently wreak havoc on the open water. 

When the winds hit the open water it displaces the sediment on the bottom of the lake and swirls it back up into the water column. Along with the wind, the waves create this vast array of chocolate milk that is in a continuous cycle of suspended sediment that creates the turbidity on the lake. So one way to monitor this conundrum is a mesocosm.

One way a mesocosm is described is any outdoor experimental system that examines the natural environment under controlled conditions.

These were made over the process of a couple months and deployed on the lake in early April. There were ten total mesocosms with two being controls no treatments and two being references with no plastic. Out of the ten mesocosms, two had wind/wave reduction barriers and two had an experimental aluminum sulfate treatment added to them, and two had a combination of both treatments. Aluminum sulfate takes the suspended sediment in the water column grabs it and sinks it to the bottom.

                Alum Treatment in the mesocosm Photo by Rebecca Pickle HDP

With these mesocosms we are able to assess how much turbidity is being produced from wind/waves and how much turbidity is reduced from the aluminum sulfate treatment. We assessed these processes by taking light profiles to see if light reaches the bottom of the lake and deploying sondes inside the mesocosms to continuously collect turbidity data throughout the season. The light profiles gives us information to help restore submergent aquatic vegetation like sago pondweed. The sondes helped us identify if the treatments were working in real time. They take turbidity samples every thirty minutes.

                These mesocoms have given us an insight for solving the turbidity problem of Malheur Lake. This is only year one of two for the mesocosm/turbidity project. You might be able to see these from the lookout tower next year.

Severe Drought Conditions on Malheur NWR

Written by Carey Goss/ Photos from FWS Archives & Dominic Bachman

Water level fluctuations are characteristics of closed basins, and even today level of water can fluctuate dramatically from year to year. The largest watercourse influencing Malheur National Wildlife Refuge lands is the Blitzen River.  

The Blitzen River drains the southern portion of the Donner und Blitzen sub-basin and receives most of its volume from Steens Mountain snowmelt. By the time the Blitzen River enters Malheur Lake the water has been captured to an area of 760 square miles. It is joined by a number of tributaries (Mud, Bridge, Krumbo, and McCoy Creeks) as it continues downstream. The importance of the river’s discharge as it enters the Blitzen Valley is to maintain Refuge wetland habitats for wildlife that depend on wet meadows and ponds.  

The water delivery system of the Refuge is complex and a summary of how this system works is difficult to describe. However, the Refuge is legally mandated to conserve and protect migratory birds and other wildlife to achieve its establishing purposes. Addressing water is key to meeting this obligation, and full attention is given under management direction.  

This year, the Refuge is experiencing an ongoing drought condition in the region and well below average snowpack on Steens Mountain. The Refuge is required to maintain a minimum flow of 25 cubic feet per second (CFS), a unit of measurement referring to the volume and speed of water flow, in the Blitzen River and 5 CFS in the East Canal per conditions of water rights for fish and wildlife habitat. 

Left: Technicians collect data at a survey point that had been up to 2 ft under water in early May.

In mid-July, the Blitzen River was approximately 33 CFS and the flows continued to decrease. These conditions forced the Refuge to reduce and/or terminate flows to all wetland habitats in the Blitzen Valley, but the highest priority ponds for wildlife species. The consequence of these actions is that some ponds may become dry throughout the summer including Malheur Lake. 

The cyclical trends of drought and flood in the Great Basin is not infrequent and yet fish and wildlife persist due to their resilience and ability to adapt to such conditions. This became apparent when Malheur Lake dried up in the 1930s.  

Beginning in 1982, Malheur Lake began to rise as greater than normal precipitation occurs in the Harney Basin. By 1985, the lake level exceeded 4,102 feet, a rise of over 7.5 feet in just three years, and Malheur Lake reached 124,440 surface acres. The reverse is also common for Malheur Lake. Malheur Lake last went completely dry in 1934, and it reached its next lowest levels in 1961 and 1992, when the lake was reduced to 500 surface acres with a depth of 2 inches. Currently, Malheur Lake is under 21,000 surface acres.  

The Refuge is committed to care for, conserve, and enhance the health of Malheur Lake and the Blitzen Valley, as well as the Double-O unit, that are all part of this landscape. The Great Basin has endured many severe droughts throughout the years and Refuge management is looking forward to future streamflow and water potential. 

Ducks Unlimited Updating National Wetlands Inventory on Malheur NWR

Written by Pavlina Slezak, GIS Intern, Ducks Unlimited Inc.

In late June, members of the Ducks Unlimited GIS (Geographic Information Systems) team visited Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for the first phase of three wetland mapping projects to occur in southeast Oregon.

Ducks Unlimited has been contracted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to update the National Wetlands Inventory (NWI) for a large portion of southeast Oregon.  The NWI is a publicly available dataset classifying and mapping wetlands and waterbodies throughout the United States. It is a valuable resource for conservation planning and natural resource management, providing information on wetland flooding frequency, land cover type, vegetation composition, and water connectivity. Under the NWI definition, wetlands are highly variable in appearance and can include features such as rivers, dry washes, marshes, lakes, and agricultural ditches.

For Ducks Unlimited, a nonprofit organization that focuses on wetland and waterfowl conservation, the NWI can help identify high-quality waterfowl habitat for protection or restoration. As an area that provides essential breeding and migration habitat for thousands of waterfowl each year, the Refuge and surrounding wetlands are of particular interest to Ducks Unlimited.

Most of the work to update the NWI is performed digitally, using aerial imagery to delineate waterbodies and wetland habitats, but visiting the project areas allows Duck Unlimited to verify the accuracy of wetland classifications and answer questions that cannot be gleaned from imagery alone. Observing whether an area is flooded or saturated during site visits gives us a better understanding of its typical flooding duration. Plant species can also be indicative of water regime, and vegetation surveys are an important component of fieldwork. We mostly performed rapid surveys from the car to maximize site visitation, occasionally stopping to take more detailed notes and admire the diversity of birds on the Refuge!   We visited 1,003 sites on the Refuge, including wetlands in and around the Double O Unit, Harney Lake, the Refuge Headquarters, and Frenchglen. We also verified 554 additional sites throughout the project area, which includes the Steens Mountains, other BLM lands, and Summer Lake Wildlife Area.  We observed 71 bird species during our time on the refuge and 101 species throughout the entire project area.  Ducks Unlimited has 2 additional project areas in southeast Oregon that will be mapped and field-verified into 2023.

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