First Time Volunteers, Forever Friends

Written by Cheryl Hunter & Larry Hill

We have just experienced our first volunteer stint with the Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store at Refuge headquarters. It was great fun learning more about Malheur and its wildlife, making new friends and, most importantly, welcoming visitors to the Refuge and sharing our love of this special place. The store is operated by the Friends of Malheur. Janelle Wicks, Executive Director of the Friends, welcomed us warmly on our arrival. She shared necessary information for working at the store and gave us tips to share with visitors about what birds were currently being sighted and where best to find them. We are newer birdwatchers, but Janelle provided resources that immediately helped us answer questions for store visitors. After a first day of training in the store, Janelle made sure to schedule us and other store volunteers so that we had plenty of time to really explore the refuge and surrounding area, adding to our own knowledge and giving us firsthand information to share with people coming into the Center. We quickly began to feel confident!

Accommodations for volunteers are modern and comfortable. Coming from Eugene, we stayed in our trailer in the RV area provided for Friends volunteers. The kitchen and community room gave us the luxury of cooking and eating inside as desired, and even a chance to do our laundry! Bathrooms and showers were up-to-date and impeccably clean. Using these facilities was also a great way to get to know other volunteers and share knowledge about wildlife sightings each day. Everyone was friendly, easy to get along with, and enthusiastic about sharing current and past experiences as well as some fabulous photos of birds and nesting places! These facilities provided by the Refuge make it possible for us to stay for extended visits, giving us a chance to really get a feel for the Refuge and increase our knowledge as volunteers.

Our experience as volunteers for the Friends has been a wonderful combination of contributing to the work of the Friends and the Refuge and having a chance to spend time in a beautiful and unique part of Oregon. Working in the Nature Center & Store includes fun conversations with visitors, sharing knowledge and learning more, as well as helping to sell all the fun products and books that visitors take home with their memories of Malheur NWR.

Exploring the Refuge during our free time is always unforgettable, seeing hundreds of familiar and new birds as well as other wildlife and wildflowers. Our sightings included Great Horned Owls (nesting with chicks!), Golden Eagles, Northern Harriers, Sandhill Cranes (one pair nest-building and another already nesting), Great Egrets, White-faced Ibis, American Avocets, Western and Pied-billed Grebes, Black-necked Stilts, Long-billed Curlews, a range of ducks and geese and many more besides. We saw a shy, elusive Virginia Rail at Benson Pond and a Great-tailed grackle, a rare visitor at Malheur, at feeders near the store. Malheur is a world that is constantly changing and seems to provide, every day, a unique and sometimes rare sighting of a bird or of certain bird behaviors. At the end of our volunteer experience, we returned home, full of new knowledge and greater awareness of the vibrant world around us! We are already scheduling our next visit as volunteers for the near future!

Malheur & Me: Pilgrimage to Malheur

Written by Steven Kratka/ Photos by Steven Kratka

Spring 2021 and time for my annual pilgrimage to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.  This sacred place has been calling  me back for over a year and it was with great excitement that I once again find myself in the midst of  this wildlife mecca. My plan was to spend three days here, crisscrossing the refuge road system in search of subjects for my mind and my lens.  Malheur never disappoints. 

Within the first hour of my arrival I photographed my first Great Horned Owls of the trip.  The female sitting on her eggs while the male kept careful watch of his mate from an adjacent tree.  I marveled at the amazing camouflage of the female nestled in the crotch of a tree. She was easy to miss even just a few feet away. Two hours later I spotted another nesting Great Horned Owl about 2 miles from the first pair.   We observed each other intently but at a respectful distance.  A good place to have some lunch I thought as I communed with this wonderful owl on a more spiritual level.  I tried to lighten the mood a bit and decided to have a staring contest with my feathered friend.  I lost big time.  I photographed a total of six Great Horned Owls.  The most ever in one trip for me.  My favorite owl encounter I was not able to photograph.  As I was driving the refuge I spotted,  through a dense tangle of branches, two Great Horned Owls sitting on a branch shoulder to shoulder, both with intense stares in my direction. As quickly as I spotted them they flew away but that amazing image has recorded itself forever in my mind.

Usually I enjoy only the solitude and peace that Malheur has to offer during my visits avoiding  other people always, however this time I spent many hours at the Headquarters.  What a wonderful experience that was.  So many birds gathered at the feeders, in the trees, on the small pond.  I sat for hours watching and photographing a plethora of bird species.  My favorites were Audubon’s Warbler and  White Crowned Sparrows flitting through the branches of the sagebrush.  I was serenaded to the songs of Red Winged Blackbirds, the always striking Yellow Headed Blackbirds and of course the ever present Meadowlark.  One of my favorite shots was of the  Mountain Cottontail Rabbit.  I love that photo and already have it hanging on my wall at home.  While in the headquarters building someone opened the door to come in and they were preceded by a quick moving four foot bull snake who decided to tour the facilities before being escorted out. The refuge Headquarters will always be a part of future trips.  A must see for everyone.

One of the more difficult birds I have tried photographing has always been the Belted Kingfisher.  Malheur came to the rescue.  I spent several hours photographing Kingfishers on the ponds at the entrance to the Paige Springs Campgrounds.  To my delight they were very cooperative diving for fish for my lens. The refuge always has new experiences for me every-time I visit.

As always, during my drives through the refuge, the every present Northern Harriers treated me to their low level flight skills as I whipped my huge telephoto lens back and forth attempting to record their gracefulness.

My heart jumped for joy when I heard the rattling bugles of Sandhill Cranes. The sound that will always mean Malheur and home to me.  I could listen to their vocalizations for hours.  Several took the opportunity to pose for my camera. 

Over the three days I was on the refuge I saw so many of it’s wonders.  The nesting Bald Eagles by Frenchglen,  Mule Deer everywhere at dusk and dawn, Antelope running so effortlessly through the sagebrush, the striking plumage of Magpies as they flash by, various lizards scurrying over lichen covered rocks and the spectacular iridescent feathers of the Northern Shoveler duck.

Three days was much to short to explore the treasures of this refuge.  However I have several thousand images to process and catalog so Malheur will still be with me for many more months.  Already I am missing my day long explorations.  I am not sure I can wait an entire year before my return to the place that I consider my other home. 

Returning to Malheur NWR, Responsibly

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Dan Streiffert

Spring is well under way and bird migration in full swing. As the birds return, so are the people! After a year of quarantining, stay at home orders, and travel restrictions, many are finding themselves eager to visit Malheur Refuge. Though, it can be a hard decision to make as Covid-19 cases are on the rise in Oregon while at the same time many people have been or will soon be fully vaccinated. If you are one of many who will make the trip to Malheur this spring, we are eager to welcome you, safely, back to the Refuge.

Malheur Refuge has remained open to the public throught the past year while the majority of its visitor-use facilities, such as the Refuge Visitor Center, Museum, Nature Center & Store and restrooms at Headquarters, were closed out of concern for public safety, says Brett Dean, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Law Enforcement Officer. These facilities are now reopened with health and safety protocols in place. The Visitor Center and Nature Store are permitting 4 people at a time in doors. Plexiglass barriers have been put in place and hand sanitizer stations are placed in entryways.

A federal mask mandate remains in place for all federal buildings. This includes every building on the Refuge, even bathrooms and the museum. We ask that visitors stay vigilent at all times and maintain spatial distancing of at least 6′ where possible. When 6′ distancing is not possible, even outdoors, a mask is required on all public lands.

It is a great idea to just keep your mask with you at all times. It is also helpful to keep handy your own stash of hand sanitizer or wipes, and wash your hands as often as possible when you spend time in a public or high use space.

In 2020, Officer Dean reported seeing more and more visitors on the Refuge throughout spring in the Harney Basin. He says that while it may seem as though staff are largely absent from the Refuge, essential employees are very much hard at work ensuring that Refuge habitats are maintained, wildlife are monitored, and public safety is attended to. For this reason it is critical the visitors fully pull off of the road if they are stopping to observe birds. And remember, your car is your best bird blind!

“We’re out there patrolling, making sure folks are following the rules, writing citations if necessary,” Dean says. While there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in recreation violations, Dean says that one perennial issue is Refuge visitors trespassing into areas closed to the public. “We see a lot of people trying to get past those signs to get closer to birds and other wildlife for photos. We understand the urge, but those signs are there to protect wildlife and we ask that visitors respect that.”

Another issue that arose to some prominence in 2020 was visitors camping on the Refuge, which is strictly prohibited. Dean suspects that since most parks and campgrounds had been closed during the health crisis (including Page Springs Campground, a BLM site just outside of the Refuge), visitors wanting to camp in the area decided to try staying on the Refuge. Even now that Page Springs and many other camping accomodations are re-opened it is important to plan ahead and make sure that you have a safe and legal back-up plan for where you intend to stay the night.

Outside of those violations, Dean says that the majority of visitors respect the Refuge and practice responsible recreation: obeying signs and closures, packing out trash, and being respectful to wildlife and other visitors.

“Refuges are great places to experience nature and get away from home, especially in these current times, and we want to support that,” Dean says. “We just ask that visitors follow the rules. And most people do.”

Species Spotlight: Pallid Bat

Written by Alexa Martinez, MNWR Wildlife Biologist

Pallid bats are one of the twelve species of bats found at Malheur NWR. Known for their distinct appearance with large ears and hog noses. They also have larger eyes than most species found in North America. These unique features not only give this bat its attractive look, but helps with their ground hunting style. Unlike most bats, they will catch food on the ground versus in the air. Besides the use of echolocation to help find its prey and maneuver through the air, they also use passive hearing to hear their prey move on the ground. Their diet consists of eating large beetles, crickets, grasshopers, cicadas, centipedes, and scorpions! That’s right, scorpions. What about the venom you ask? This species of bat appears to be immune to the venom of scorpions. Talk about a super power!  

Because of their hunting behavior, this exposes the species to predators both in the air and on the ground, such as, coyote, foxes, owls, raccoons, snakes, and cats.

The geographic range of a pallid bat extends from Canada, throughout western America, all the way to Mexico. They can be found roosting in caves, rock crevices, mines, hollow trees, and buildings. Water sources are usually close by. Pallid bats do not migrate, except for short distances to winter hibernacula (a place where a creature seeks refuge, to overwinter).

Because this species is highly social, their colony roost can vary from 12 to 100 individuals. These bats tend to breed in the fall and have their pups in the spring. Pregnant females will most likely give birth to twins, but can have between one or three pups.

This species definitely adds to the unique quality of Malheur NWR.

If you’d like to see a pallid bat eat a scorpion, CLICK HERE to see this amazing creature in action.

A Spring Surprise, or Two

Written by Rick Vetter/Photos by Rick Vetter, Dan Streiffert, and Richard Schwieren

A change in weather always seems to be an invitation to bird. Having just returned from birding warm Arizona, a trace of snow and much cooler temperatures in Harney county provided that stimulus. 

This is just a partial summary of the bird activity on Sunday, April 25, 2021 in Harney County, but captures some highlights. 197 bird species have been observed in the county this year so far and that number changes almost daily now as new migrants arrive almost daily now. 

We woke up to a trace of snow and 32 white crowned sparrows and a record 78 Cassin’s finches in the backyard at feeders. Not one house finch, as Will Wright and Joan Suther helped me count. 

Joan and I drove south from Burns, noting the Black-bellied plovers that were present on Hwy 205 just south of Hotchkiss lane had moved on, but they were replaced by long-billed dowitchers, dunlins, western sandpipers, and a peregrine falcon that had a high altitude encounter with possible second one. The Peregrine we watched continued hunting and kept shorebirds on guard while frequently flying between feeding areas. 

One mile before Malheur National Wildlife Refuge HQ we encountered 27 willets in a small area feeding in the short green grass pasture and a great-tailed grackle. Or, were there two? Since one was reported at Refuge Headquarters. 

We tallied 51 species at HQ, with the most notable species being a blue-winged teal and a great-tailed grackle that appeared late in the stay. I drove back to the first sighting location of that bird to see if we had two, but could not find the first one. I was leaning towards one for the notes until a birder said he took a photo of two at Crane’s Nest Nature Store feeder! 

We pointed out a few notable species to out of area birders and spotted a short-eared owl hunting over the distant wetlands. This made their day. 

A few days before this storm hit, reports of several Nashville warbles, and a handful of other early migrant warbler species were noted at HQ, but not today. The best we could do were just 4 yellow-rumped warblers and 1 ruby-crowned kinglets.

The Cranes Nest Nature Store at refuge headquarters is now open most days depending on volunteer help. The visitor center is partially open, again depending on volunteers. About 6 vehicles and 12 people were birding during our 3 hour stay. They decided a virtual bird festival, while vaulable, was not as good as the real thing. Some came from distant Ohio. 

On to Krumbo reservoir for a possible common loon as a large storm cell approached. Surprisingly, the water at Krumbo was flat and glassy. Not a bit of wind for awhile. The calm before the storm. 

At the dam I spotted a common loon about 400 meters out and then Joan spotted two more to the far left. Not bad for 10 seconds of birding. But for a thorough survey of water birds we knew a view from the sagebrush point at the boat landing was needed. It was there that things got exciting. 

We could see the 3 loons we spotted near the dam and as we scanned the water to the east, 2 more and 2 more and 2 more and finally 1 more near the boat dock!  For a total of 10 common loons from one spot! 

Two of ten common loons observed at Krumbo Resevoir on Sunday April 25th

To my knowledge, the record for common loons was 7 by M. Archie on November 3, 1985. And the refuge record (and most likely the county record) is 24 on Boca lake, way back on May 11, 1964. (Data from Birds of Malheur by CD Littlefield). Ebird high count data does not capture all historical high count data and it can be misleading for the numbers that do exist. 

While enjoying the reservoir view, dark gray clouds with bulging white edges approached from the SW as thunder rumbled over the Steens. Then the rain, sleet and snow hit about 5 pm as we drove back to Burns. 

P Hill above Frenchglen had more than 1/2 inch of rain over the weekend while Burns had a trace. The drought continues and the Narrows remains dry. There is a chance that the snow on the Steens will provide water to the Narrows, maybe in June and if so hopefully it will remain into the fall for good shorebird viewing. 

Idlewild campground is open because of the lack of snow. 

We did notice that waterfowl numbers were low on the wetlands south of Burns including Snow and Ross’s geese. But diversity was good. A lack of flooded fields is most likely the reasons birds are not lingering here.   

And a significant lack of black-tailed jackrabbits may be the reason the Golden eagles not nesting at the iconic nest just west of the Narrows. 

Bald eagles are nesting at sodhouse and P-Ranch on the Refuge and may have an easier time catching waterfowl and the plentiful American coot. 

This is always an exciting time of year here in the basin as new migrants and rare birds arrive daily from this point on into early June. Ebird is an excellent way to track new arrivals and numbers. 

Burns had a near record high number of Covid 19 cases a week ago, so be safe and smart on your travels. 

On another note, smash and grab theft is now occurring in Burns, even at well known motels. One birder lost some electronics while parked at one of well know hotels. And business break-ins are part of the weekly news lately.

The best advice: don’t leave valuables in your vehicle. All the theft that we know about is in Burns and Hines, and not at birding spots. Just be aware and safeguard your belongings. 

Safe and Happy Birding, 
Rick Vetter and Joan Suther 

A Few Spring Sightings

Recent unique observations have included great-tailed grackles, a Bewick’s swan, semipalmated plover, a female ruff, and a calliope hummingbird. Don’t forget to check eBird for recent sightings. You can even sign up for rare bird alerts!