P Ranch CBC Report

On Friday, December 16th we gathered for the P Ranch CBC which was first conducted in 1939 and has been conducted 67 times since. On that first count of the region 53 species were counted. This year, we had mild temperatures (for Harney county) which included sunshine and a few clouds with just a bit of “daytime” wind, not even enough to fly a kite unless you tried night kiting. Two inches of snow fell in the 24 hours before the count and was melting slowly during the count. Temperatures ranged from 23° at 5am to 35°noon. Birding time winds went from 0-11mph with owling time winds including gusts to 24mph.

Our team consisted of 11 participants and no feeder watchers, which was perfect for the continuing Covid-19 conditions. 

Early morning owling produced two great horned owls while owling at night provided a gorgeous view of a cooperative barn owl up close. More great horned owls were observed during the day. It was the long-eared owl show during the day that provided a memorable moment that only a photograph could do justice to. 

That show was the third encounter during the count of raptors eating raptors. We don’t know the exact circumstances of these encounters, but a red-tailed hawk was observed eating a northern harrier in Frenchglen, and a great horned owl was eating a barn owl at the Boca Lake cliffs. 

And the best bird observation goes to Jim Soupir and Joan Suther for finding a northern harrier and long-eared owl “keeping each other warm”, with a death grip on each other. They eventually broke apart and flew off thinking about strategies for round two later in the day.

As I was driving thru someone else’s subunit we stopped at Blitzen River bridge in hope of an American dipper, a bird I needed for the year also. No luck. Just 15 minutes later we tried again and Sophia Kim said, “Rick, there is a funny looking bird dancing in the waterfall at the dam”. Sophia is new to birding and never saw a dipper or knew their behavior. Since she was the only one that saw the bird I quickly pulled out my deck of CBC playing cards for Harney county and she pointed to a dipper! (51 occurrences since 1939) Two minutes later it flew from the dam to the rocks almost below the bridge for a long satisfying view by Sophia, Karen Jacobs, and myself. (The only dipper of the day)

Seconds later, a Pacific wren appeared in the open on the river bank wanting to be counted. A good start on two iffy birds. (The only Pacific wren of the day). (23 occurrences since 1939)

As we proceeded to our assigned counting area a red-shouldered hawk appeared for the only observation of the day. (3 occurrences since 1939 and now two years in a row)

Then a Bewick’s wren appeared (1 of 3 for the day) and I said this is the best start ever for me since 1990. (5 occurrences since 1939)

And one minute later it got even better, a first time ever little yellow bellied bird was spotted on the snowy stream bank of east canal. When we relocated it, I was shocked. It was a common yellowthroat! Took 67 years for that to happen! (0 occurrences since 1939!)

Joan and Jim also found 2 Lincoln’s sparrows and 1 canyon wren. 

Rebecca and Jeremy Pickle spotted a Turkey Vulture, a rare sighting in December and only the second time for the count.  Merlins were “plentiful” with 2 observed by them also. Surprisingly Merlins have only been observed twice historically, including last year. 

Alexa Martinez and Teresa Wicks located an American tree sparrow and a chuckling chukar above Krumbo Reservoir in addition to 2 Horned larks.  

And the Steens Team, Holly Higgins and Marilyn Elston found the only mountain chickadee. This species was almost impossible to find this year, except for this one bird.  Usually we get a few and in 1970, 49 were observed. 

Times have changed. In 1939 there were 22 black-capped chickadees and we have not seen one for many years on this count. 

Mountain bluebirds were one of the  impossible birds to find on this count and the Burns count. And Wilson’s snipe was a miss which is usually observed. 

We ended up with 67 species for the day which is about average and 3 less than last year and 7 more than the Burns CBC. 

The day after the count and outside the count circle, Joan Suther and myself observed an eared grebe and varied thrush at Roaring Springs Headquarters ponds. They have been seen on the P-Ranch CBC in the past. 

Winter Birding Cheers,
Rick Vetter

3rd Annual CBC4Kids

Written by Teresa Wicks

Saturday, December 18, 2021, 30 participants from 6 local families turned out for Harney County’s third annual CBC4Kids event. This was the first count that had more snow than ice on the ground, and little wind. While the skies were gray and cloudy, conditions were perfect for getting out and exploring the birds of Burns and Hines. Our five teams counted birds along designated routes, stopping at predetermined CBC4Kids “feeder stops.”

During the 2 hour count our intrepid families counted 1,785 individual birds from 27 species, a Harney County CBC4Kids record! This record includes hundreds of “snow birds” like Dark-eyed Juncos, which come to Burns and Hines for the winter. This year we were able to give families goodies from Annie’s bakery to start their count and lunch coupons for Figaro’s Pizza. We are already looking forward to next year’s count!

This year’s CBC4Kids awards are as follows:

Best Team Name: Red-footed Boobies

Best Family Photo: Rockin’ Robins
Pictured Left: This team started out the day with 1 teen and ended with three! Receiving this picture of multiple teenagers out birding with one’s mom and grandma was such a joy!

Most Species Counted: Wing Nuts

Most Quail Counted: Tiny Sky-Tyrants Strike Again!

Thank you to all of the businesses, individuals, and backyard birders who agreed to host a “CBC4Kids feeder stop.” This includes the Steens Mountain Brewing, Sage Country Veterinary Service, Harney County Veterinary Clinic, Hines Pine Mill House, High Desert Partnership, Linda Whiting’s Art Gallery, and 16 local individuals/households.

Lastly, a big thank you to the community organizations that made the CBC4Kids possible: Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Program, Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County Library, and Burns District Bureau of Land Management; and to the Oregon Wildlife Foundation for supporting our Bird Scouts programs and other programs like the CBC4Kids.

Interested in more programming like the CBC4Kids? Bird Scouts is a year-long program designed to connect local youth and families to birds, science, and nature. Youth that participate can earn patches for completing specific art, science, and other projects/activities. Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator will also be offering bird walks for local individuals and families the third Saturday of every month in 2022.

The Burns CBC Report

The Burns CBC took place on December 14th with 16 participants and 16 feeder watchers who counted 61 species which is about average and 10 less than last year. Thanks to all who helped with the count which was initially conducted in 1998.

This year 53 species were seen on the Count Day. Temperatures during the count day varied wildly from 31 at midnight to 24 at 7am, (the start of the count) and then a high again of 31 at noon.  Temperatures fell dramatically in the evening to 6° by midnight, the coldest day of the winter this year. On Dec 13th, the day before the count, it reached a high of 46 but with strong gusty winds most of the day.  1-2 inches of snow covered the ground from a few days before the count. Winds were mild all day with partially sunny skies. Birding time winds were 2-10 mph and Owling time winds at 2-6 mph. Overall, a fairly nice day for a bird count.

Once again, it was a good strategy to conduct the count on the first day of the count period since frigid temperatures froze all open water and most moving water the night of the count, as usual.  Sewage ponds and other bodies of water were open but froze earlier in December which forced many water birds to use wings or skates. 

Bird observations 

A week before the count it was discovered that an Anna’s hummingbird was visiting two different hummingbird feeders that just happened to be left out late in the season. We then kept daily observations of the hummingbird, and even set up a game camera to monitor its activities in case it stayed for the count; and it did! A new species for the count and for all of Harney County in December.

But would it survive 6° the night of the count? It did! And it is still here on Christmas Day. The next challenge will be 0° in a few days. There are pros and cons of feeding hummingbirds late in the year. The fear now is if the daily warm sugar water is forgotten it may freeze and the bird may die. Fortunately, the hummer has a reliable warm source of sugar water between 2 different feeders. At this point the bird may have to stay the winter just to survive.  It’s too cold to migrate without reliable food sources. There is a chance she is roosting in an outdoor heated chicken coop next door to the feeders. 

The second new species was less dramatic but still a new species. 12 snow geese were recorded for the first time on the “count day”.

California quail counts remained in the low end of a 10-year downward trend at 3674 as the population remained well below high numbers (6000) in the 2000s and well off the record 10,011 in 2004 which is a world record. That’s one reason I started the count in 1998 knowing we could break the record from Orange County, CA of 6,800 in 1963. Now they count about 125! We learned to count the quail in Burns and Hines street by street between 3 and 4:30 pm, as they gather in flocks to feed and roost in conifers. Low numbers may be the result of less people feeding birds due to the high cost of bird seed, a high number of winter raptors and more feral cats. 

Some of the other highlights were:

15 wild turkeys (a record) 
6 Greater sage-grouse (probably more but we stop after the first birds are observed)
Two observations of black-capped chickadees 
Several sightings of sharp-shinned hawks, northern goshawks and ferruginous hawks. Cooper hawks were abundant as usual thanks to all those quail. 
A canyon wren that developed a strange behavior over the years of entering a shop through a crack in the wood wall adjacent to the stove pipe to feed on dormant spiders. Turns out it also roosts in the shop! Owling for wrens! 
A record 3 Barrow’s Goldeneyes, a pair with a juvenile, were observed on Hwy 78 fishing ponds.

There were also a high number of birds with just one individual observed including the following:

Cackling goose 
American wigeon 
Northern shoveler 
Ruddy duck
Virginia rail
Northern shrike
Rock wren 
Canyon wren
Downy woodpecker 
Marsh wren
Mountain Chickadee 
Red-winged blackbird
Evening grosbeak 
A big miss were mountain bluebirds. 
We also missed two northern pintails observed the day before the count. 

Cheery chilly winter birding, 
Rick Vetter and Joan Suther 

My Volunteer Time at Malheur

By Suzan Wells, Friends Volunteer October 2021

On my last day living at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there was not a sunrise nor a sunset that had any color or even much light.  The clouds and rain had set in.  So, on this gloomy morning, I say with sadness, that my time here has come to an end and I will leave taking all the wonderful experiences and memories with me.

I have done a lot of volunteer activities but never one that required me to live some where different for an extended period of time.  I decided I would give it a try and when I received an email explaining the need for volunteers with The Friends of Malheur I thought that might be very interesting and right up my alley.  While traveling around southern Oregon in April 2021, I stopped in and chatted with Janelle Wicks, the Executive Director of The Friends.  I decided I would volunteer but then needed to figure out a month that I could be away from home without too much rearranging of my schedule.  After the appropriate interviews and conversations it was decided that I could be a volunteer and that October would be the month for me to spend at the Malheur Wildlife Refuge.

I understood that my duties included working at the store, helping with stocking, cleaning, inventory etc.  I might also help with education or public programs.  I arrived, had my training and went ‘to work’.  I took great pleasure in working in the store.  I thoroughly enjoyed meeting visitors to the Refuge.  People came from many different states traveling through the area.  Talking with them and sharing suggestions for touring was extremely rewarding.  Working in the store was a good experience that required all sorts of skills.  I was quite impressed with myself.  I learned and was exposed to many new computer programs and was asked to do some projects which I managed quite easily. I thought it was great to have the challenges and complete projects that had caused me to use new skills or utilize new and unfamiliar programs.  This old lady still has skills!  

On my days off I found myself entertained by nature.  Wildlife, plants, geology and especially birding kept me very busy.  There were badgers digging up the grounds around the Refuge Headquarters.  They were making a mess of the place.  I really (really) wanted to see a badger.  I was permitted to put up a trail cam.  After one cold morning when I had come upon a fresh badger hole (with steam coming out!) I decided to point the camera toward that hole.  What fun!  Not only did I get some good photos of the badger, I also caught deer, bunnies, coyote and another unknown animal (feral house cat??) in photos.

Then there was Owen the great horned owl (of course I named him!) who hung out around the store all the time.  He did not always let himself be seen but was not really hiding.  He frequently hooted at me as I was leaving the store.  I made a real point of saying good bye to him on my last day at the store.  He just stared and watched me walk away.  I spent a huge amount of time walking and birding.  It was very enjoyable and relaxing.  I also took a few drives around the area looking at the sights.  Exploring the Refuge, Steens Mountains, Alvord Desert, Diamond Crater Outstanding Natural Area, Frenchglen, and Crystal Crane Hot Springs were just a few of the areas I enjoyed.  So much geology to discover!  So many different birds to identify!   Relaxing in the hot springs.  Let’s just say that my days off were spent in a very pleasant manner.

I had some regular encounters.  There was a large group of deer that came around my van every night – sometimes during the day.  Lots of rabbits around and a pretty constant chatter of the Flickers and Magpies.  The coyotes made themselves known almost every morning and every evening.  As I am packing up to leave on my last morning the coyotes come close.  They are all around but not seen.  They yip and howl and I say farewell to them as I am sure they are saying good bye.

Every morning I would wake up in time to check and see if there was a beautiful sunrise, since there nearly always was.  I took way too many photos of sunrises.  Every evening I would time things so that I could watch the beautiful sunsets.  The vast horizon made for lovely colors in the sky. 

So, with one last walk around, I leave my lovely volunteer accommodations and get in my van to head home.  

To all I say – until we meet again…

Monitoring at Malheur Gets Tech Upgrade!

By Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator

In the 1950s wildlife biologists first explored the idea of using acoustic signals to track wildlife, though it wasn’t until the 1960s that radio transmitters were successfully deployed. Historically, tracking wildlife through radio telemetry required trekking through underbrush, over rough terrain, or taking an airplane flight, in an attempt to get a handheld receiver antennae to find, and triangulate, the radio signal being emitted from an animal fitted with a backpack, collar, or other devise. Over the past few decades, automated radio telemetry (ART) has become increasingly popular.  With ART, stationary retrievers record radio signals emitted by wildlife fitted with radio transmitters. Data are collected by computers, which allows for more data to be collected than with traditional, handheld receivers.

While the move to ART has allowed for increased data collection, it brought about a different kind of problem, particularly for wildlife that move long distances, like many bird species. Automated radio telemetry requires that the radio transmitter fitted individual pass close (often less than 10 miles) to a tower. While many automated programs exist, collaborating on those programs isn’t always easy. That is, until the Motus Wildlife Tracking System (Motus) was created.

Motus is a global network of researchers using automated radio telemetry to monitor birds, insects (like butterflies), and bats. Individuals that are fitted with nano radio tags (nanotags) for a project in one region, will be recorded by all other Motus towers that they pass. Their information is recorded by the tower, and processed by Motus, sending all data on to the project lead.

To make the Motus system as effective as possible, requires towers to be distributed across the landscape. These towers consist of antennae that look a little like television antennae and can be attached to buildings or set up free-standing in more remote areas. Until a few weeks ago, there were no Motus towers in Eastern Oregon. But, with the addition of two towers at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge this is no longer the case.

These Motus towers not only allow for USFWS staff and partners to start their own Motus nanotagging projects but also allows for Malheur to support diverse research projects happening throughout the Pacific Flyway and the region. Two such projects in the Pacific Flyway are the Pacific Shorebirds project and the BC Interior Thrushes project. The Pacific Shorebirds project aims to track shorebirds during their migration in the Pacific Flyway. Oregon’s one coastal motus tower in Bandon read the tag of a Western Sandpiper that was tagged in BC. Their tag was then read in Colombia, Quebec, Maryland, and most recently (November 30, 2021) in Baja California. Now with motus towers at the north and south end of Malheur, we’ll know if this individual Western Sandpiper made a stop at Malheur while on their way from Bandon to Quebec.

The BC Interior Thrushes project is designed to understand the migration paths and habits of Swainson’s Thrushes found in a sub-species hybrid zone in the Interior BC. One thrush tagged as part of this project was recorded at the motus tower in Bandon and again at Mackay Island NWR in North Carolina. The predicted flight path indicates that this Swainson’s Thrush could very well have been a visitor to Malheur HQ this fall.