Evolution: A Warbler’s Tale

Written by Teresa Wicks/Photos by Dan Streiffert

Imagine yourself as a small ancestral Parulidae (wood-warbler) 6 million years ago. As the climate warms, and the extensive forests of the late Miocene begin to fragment the opportunity to speciate (form new species) presents itself. By the late Pliocene your ancestral line has produced 25 new species. Species that will weather 5.3 – 2.6 million years of change in the Americas to be enjoyed by modern birders along their migratory pathway.

Through DNA analysis, we know that this is exactly what happened with wood-warblers in the genus Setophaga (including species formerly in the Dendroica genus), for example the Yellow Warbler. In the late Miocene, the ancestral species of our 25 Setophaga species branched from the other Parulidae species, creating a new genus. As the climate warmed through the early Pliocene, a little over 5 million years ago, forests fragmented, creating new niches which scientists believe led to the first burst of speciation in the Setophaga warblers. Toward the end of the Pliocene, the climate and landscape became similar to the climate and landscape of the Holocene, leading to a second burst of speciation in Setophaga warblers. DNA evidence indicates that no new Setophaga warblers came into being after this second large speciation. This means that the ancestors of the American Redstarts and Yellow, Black-throated Gray, Townsend’s, and Yellow-Rumped (to name a few) individuals that travel to and through Malheur annually existed between 5.3 and 2.6 million years ago. It’s remarkable to think of these species existing concurrently with giant ground sloths, mastadons, and camels (though many of these mammals went extinct in this epoch).

Through extensive work at Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, scientists have identified that the ancestral species of these migratory warblers were likely not migratory, but rather lived year-round in northern climes. As the warm temperatures of the Pliocene shifted to the colder climes of the Pliestocene, our non-migratory Yellow Warbler ancestors began shifting their winter range farther and farther south. Those that expanded their winter range south were more likely to survive the winter, passing on their genes and teaching their young to travel south. Over many generations, these warbler ancestors became a migratory species, leaving the “lands of breeding season abundance” for the winter to decrease competition and increase the likelihood of surviving the winter.

Many effects of the Anthropocene (our current epoch) are unknown. There are certainly known associations between climate change associated with the Anthropocene and the arrival and departure of some migratory bird species. This relationship seems less clear in warbler species than in other species, for example swallows. While there is not currently evidence of a climatic shift that will contribute to further speciation of Setophaga warblers, it is worth noting that the current level of species loss (extinctions) may very well lead to the creation of new niches in the future. Niches that could very well be filled by as of yet unheard of species of Setophaga wood-warblers.

It’s remarkable to think that Millions of years ago, I may have been sitting at my desk in Burns looking out my winter window at Yellow Warblers foraging in an expansive forest, rather than the snowy high desert landscape I see today…anxiously awaiting the return of our Yellow Warblers, whose songs so clearly punctuate much of the Malheur landscape throughout spring and summer. It is equally remarkable to think that in another million years, I could possibly be looking out upon an entirely different ecosystem/landscape filled with future generations of Yellow Warblers – or some futuristic new species that are the offshoot of the Yellow Warblers we know today.

Malheur’s Swan Saga

Written by Gary Ivey

Due to the pressures of hunters and fur trappers, who targeted Trumpeter Swans, the species was near extinct at the turn of the 20th Century. A survey in 1932 found a mere 69 trumpeters alive in the United States. At the time the swans persisted in Montana’s Centennial Valley and Yellowstone National Park where severe winters kept out hunters and geothermal springs maintained enough open waters for a small group to survive.  

Malheur Refuge was among the first of several sites selected for saving the Trumpeter Swan from extinction in the late 1930s. Malheur’s trumpeter flock began breeding in the 1950s and grew to a peak of 55 adults by 1983. The historic flood of the early 1980s allowed carp populations to decimate aquatic foods in Malheur Lake for 8 years and this loss of their traditional wintering site caused the flock to re-locate its wintering grounds to the south Blitzen Valley where much less food was available to sustain a large flock during severe winters. Consequently, because trumpeters imprint on their wintering sites, the flock has declined, mostly due to winter mortality caused by the very limited winter carrying-capacity. Malheur Refuge has supported only one breeding pair during the past 6 years and was down to only four adults (3 female and 1 male) in spring of 2020.

You may be familiar with the pair that had nesting consistent, yet largely unproductively, for the last 6 years at Benson Pond. The male uncollared and his mate who is uncollared is known as Theta 64. In the summer of 2020, the breeding male disappeared from his Benson Pond territory, leaving only the three females remaining at Malheur. Additionally, one of these females (Theta 76) went missing in September, which suggests the Refuge flock may be doomed to extinction.

Since 1992, Malheur Refuge staff have been involved in a project to expand the breeding and wintering range of trumpeters in Oregon through releases at Summer Lake Wildlife Area. Several new breeding pairs of trumpeters have been established from those releases and to date, about 20 wild-hatched trumpeters are in the Summer Lake flock. A young male from a pair which produced a brood along the Crooked River in Crook County in 2016 has found our missing female as identified by her color Theta 76. They have been observed together acting as a pair and wintering at Summer Lake Wildlife Area this fall. Our great hope is that she brings her new friend to Malheur and raise young that the pair can teach to winter at Summer Lake, where trumpeter habitat is not limiting the population. Cross your fingers!

Dinos in your backyard activity packet includes booklets, feathers, and several sets of ID flashcardscards.

Bird Scouts Takes Flight

Written by Janelle Wicks

The week of January 18th, the first sets of Bird Scout activity packets were delivered to Slater Elementary school and the Harney County Public Library. This program has been designed to support both independent, at-home exploration and a brand new afterschool program for local 5th graders.

This month’s kit is themed ‘Dinosaurs in Your Backyards’ with activities focused on understanding the unique characteristics of birds that will lead to beginner bird identification skills. Every Bird Scouts bi-monthly kit will include all of the materials needed to complete the activities and will culminate with the participation in a national or international community science program. This month, Scouts received several sets of flashcards (Prehistoric Birds, Bird Feet, Habitat Cards and more) along with an activity booklet, feathers, and a Field Notes notebook. In February, we will encourage to Scouts to all participate in Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Great Backyard Bird Count. To supplement the lessons and help Scouts to engage with eBird and other tools for participating in community science projects, we will occasionally post videos to our YouTube Chanel, @MalheurFriends, and to the Bird Scouts – Harney County Oregon Facebook Page. At the end of each bi-monthly lesson Bird Scouts will earn a bird patch from Bird Collective if they completed one or more of the activities and participated in the community science program. The Dinosaurs in Your Backyard patch is a Loggerhead Shrike!

In addition to these bi-monthly lessons, Portland Audubon will be offering monthly, Covid-Safe, community bird walks. This will be an opportunity for Bird Scouts and their families to get outside and go birding with Teresa Wicks of Portland Audubon and other community members.

Lastly, we are excited that our Explorer Packs are almost ready! Very soon there will be 5 Explorer Packs available for check-out from the Harney County Public Library and 10 will go to Slater Elementary School. During the Summer, the school’s packs will come to the Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store at Refuge Headquarters for check-out by visitors. These packs will include a pair of binoculars, bird and other ID booklets, a hand lens, and bug boxes.

Bird Scouts is a collaborative effort to create accessible bird and nature themed educational activities for the youth of Harney County.
This program is made possible with the generous support of:

  • Leupold & Stevens who donated 15 pairs of binoculars for Explorer Packs
  • Bird Collective who generously discounted their bird patches
  • The Burns BLM District who purchased these patches from Bird Collective
  • Field Notes who donated 20 packs of all weather notebooks for participants

If you want to support Educational Programs like Bird Scouts, please make a donation HERE.

If you are local to Harney County and would like to sign your 3rd-6th grader up to participate in Bird Scouts, please visit our Bird Scouts page HERE.

George M. Benson: Refuge Protector

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of George Benson courtesy of USFWS

Refuge Headquarters is often the first stop for visitors to Malheur Refuge, and for good reason: The Visitor Center and Nature Store are located here, and wildlife-watching opportunities abound on the surrounding property. Many Headquarters visitors also make their way to the small museum, which houses interpretive exhibits and nearly 200 mounted specimens of birds, mammals and other wildlife. Astute visitors will notice a plaque dedicating the museum to an influential figure in the Refuge’s history: George Benson.

George M. Benson served as a game warden under the Bureau of Biological Survey (later to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal agency that oversees management of National Wildlife Refuges, among much else) in Harney County, beginning in 1918. Preferring the title of “refuge protector,” Benson enforced hunting and trapping laws at what was then known as the Lake Malheur Reservation.

Benson also banded many waterfowl at Malheur Refuge, including swans, canvasbacks, redheads, mallards, and pintails. He often enlisted the help of local children for his banding projects; their collective efforts helped the Bureau of Biological Survey determine bird population trends on Malheur and Harney lakes. Benson’s love of birds eventually introduced him to taxidermy, and many of his well-preserved specimens are on display in the Refuge Headquarters.

In 1921 Benson discovered the remains of several bison along the eastern shore of Malheur Lake. Scientists across the country were intrigued by his find, and subsequent excavation at the site revealed an entire herd of bison that had become mired in mud, likely while attempting to drink from the receding lake.

With his wife, Ethel, Benson eventually moved into an old ranch house that once stood in a cottonwood grove south of the lakes. The small stone building that remains in the shade of these cottonwoods was first a well house in the 1930s and 1940s, when the Civilian Conservation Corps was planting willows and excavating what would eventually become Benson Pond. The building then served as a hunter check station in the 1950s and 1960s.

At Benson Pond today, look for resident great horned owls beneath the giant willows along the dike. In spring and summer, the trees around the first bridge are a good spot to study up to six swallow species as they alternately perch and feed nearby. In summer, search the exposed branches for roosting common nighthawks, which perch parallel to the branches. The pond itself is a good place to see swans. During spring and fall migrations, tundra swans use the Refuge as a refueling stop, and resident trumpeter swans typically nest here, protected by the tall cattails and tules.

The George M. Benson Memorial Museum at Headquarters, dedicated in 1953 to Benson for his many years of service to the Refuge, is open year-round from sunrise to sunset.