Fall Birding At Malheur Refuge

Written by FOMR Member Alan Contreras/Photo by Dan Streiffert

Any article titled “Malheur in Fall” should really be called “Malheur and Steens Mountain in Fall” because access to the mountain is the biggest difference between spring migration birding and the experience of autumn. In spring, we gaze longingly at the 9,000-foot snowy ridge of the massif; in fall we get to go there. But before we make the 25-mile uphill rumble on the gravel road to the summit, there are major differences to be seen in the Blitzen Valley birding sites as well.

The first thing that a “spring” birder will notice is what is not there: water.  In the spring birding period of late March through early June, water is, in an average year, everywhere. It is in the fields. It fills the rivers and ponds. In some years it fills the Narrows. In early spring it covers the agricultural lands south of Burns. Fall is different. Almost all of the water is in a few ponds and streams on the Refuge, plus the largely inaccessible lake. What that means is that unlike the spring, most of the birds are on the Refuge. This can result in some spectacular concentrations of waterfowl and shorebirds at sites such as Benson Pond, Buena Vista Pond and whichever other ponds have been kept full under Refuge management plans.

What’s different in the birdlife? The first thing you will notice if you come in September-October is that there are thousands of chip notes and essentially no songs. In early September the last movements of flycatchers and some of the larger finches such as buntings and Black-headed Grosbeaks are happening. By the end of the month huge flocks of sparrows, primarily White-crowns, are moving through.

Late September is a good time to look for rarities: Broad-winged Hawk, Gray-cheeked Thrush, Blackpoll Warbler, Northern Parula, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Clay-colored Sparrow and many other vagrants have been seen then. Early October offers a chance at Black-throated Blue Warbler and more thrushes and sparrows. There are also significant differences in the “common” birds. Fall offers more Lewis’s Woodpeckers, Townsend’s Solitaires, thrushes and shorebirds than does spring.

Before we forget, let’s get up on that mountain during the nice fall weather. Although it is open until heavy snowfall, the best time for birds and for the aspen color show is the end of September and early October. The bird everyone looks for on the summit rocks is Black Rosy-Finch. There are usually a hundred or more around, but “around” is a big place on top of Steens. I find them about one try in three. The top of the hill is also a great place for migrating hawks (especially with an east wind), pipits and even hummingbirds.

Oh, one more thing. Something else is not there in fall: mosquitos! After mid-September they are much less a factor than in spring. Enjoy!

Alan Contreras is author of Afield: Forty Years of Birding the American West (2009) and was co-editor of Birds of Oregon (2003), both from Oregon State University Press.  He lives in Eugene.

Banding Ducks By Night

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

On the evening of August 15, under a waxing crescent moon, staff and volunteers from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) convened at Malheur Refuge’s Boca Lake to band ducks. In the gathering darkness, a temporary banding station, illuminated with propane-powered lamps on wooden tables, was erected near the lake’s boat ramp. On the tables stood rods of metal waterfowl bands arranged vertically, like gleaming towers of miniature onion rings; a dozen or so banding pliers were arrayed nearby. Empty plastic orange crates to hold ducks were stacked several feet high, ready to be filled.

The assembled crew of 15 individuals—including staff from Friends of Malheur Refuge, Audubon Society of Portland, and the Burns Paiute Tribe—was waiting until the moon set behind rimrock to the west before starting the night’s work. As they passed the time swapping stories and drinking coffee, the night grew darker, revealing the Milky Way shining above through high clouds and wildfire haze. A few late-arriving Perseid meteors streaked across the unbounded Harney Basin sky. By around 10 p.m., it was dark enough to begin.

Every summer, USFWS staff from Malheur Refuge pool resources with ODFW staff to band waterfowl at Summer Lake Wildlife Management Area (administered by ODFW) and Malheur Refuge. Both agencies manage waterfowl populations along the Pacific Flyway and frequently collaborate on conservation projects, including these so-called “nightlight” surveys. The surveys usually occur every year in July and August, depending on water levels at each site. For both months, a week is set aside in which surveys take place at both Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge, often on consecutive nights.

Banding at night, often under a moonless or nearly moonless sky, allows staff and volunteers to capture waterfowl in near-total darkness, while birds are resting on the water. Airboats are used to navigate the shallow, vegetation-choked waterways characteristic of these southeast Oregon sites. The airboat operator uses a spotlight to locate and single out ducks for the “catchers”, kneeling at either side of the boat’s prow, to pursue.

When a duck is spotted, the operator keeps the light on the bird and pilots the boat toward it, as the catcher prepares to scoop it up. The catchers use trout nets or sometimes their bare hands to grab the ducks, which are quickly placed in plastic crates. Once the crates are full of ducks, the boat heads back to the banding station, where the crates are unloaded and empty crates are brought on for another foray. This process continues until all the crates are filled with ducks or until dawn lightens the sky, whichever comes first.

At the banding station, staff and volunteers remove ducks one by one from the crates to band them. The species, sex, and relative age of the ducks is determined by the bander, checked and recorded by a biologist, and a leg band of appropriate size for the species is placed on the bird. The banded birds are placed in crates until the predawn hours of morning, when they are released. If any of the captured birds happen to already sport a band, their band numbers are recorded before release.

An average of 300-800 ducks are banded each night at Summer Lake and Malheur Refuge during these sessions. On the night of August 15, the total came to 576, as the crew captured and banded scores of mallard, gadwall and green-winged, blue-winged and cinnamon teal; as well as smaller numbers of Northern shovelers, Northern pintail and ruddy ducks. As the sky brightened to the east on the morning of August 16, the crates of banded ducks were carried over to the boat launch for release. Some ducks burst explosively on the wing from their crates; others paddled purposefully toward the marsh—all were presumably eager to return home.

Benton County Big Sit

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of Benton County Big Sit

The 3rd annual Benton County Big Sit (BCBS) will be held Saturday, September 22, 2018 at William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, located south of Corvallis in Benton County, OR. Organized by young birders Kai Frueh, Ben Frueh, Isaac Denzer and Jacob Mathison, this charitable event raises money for local and national bird conservation organizations.

As in years past, the Big Sit takes place at Finley Refuge’s Cabell Marsh blind. On September 22, birders will spend 15 hours counting every species of bird they see from within a 17-foot-diameter circle around the blind. Donations to the BCBS can be made on a per-species or fixed-amount basis.

All monies raised will be evenly divided between each of the following organizations: Friends of the Willamette Valley NWR Complex, Friends of Malheur NWR, Corvallis Audubon Society, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

“The BCBS is important because I think it’s an excellent way to aid bird conservation and also to share our love of birds with others,” said Isaac Denzer, who organized last year’s event with Kai Frueh. Both have returned to organize this year’s BCBS, and have recruited fellow birder Jacob Mathison in the effort. “My favorite part of [last year’s] BCBS was when we first got to Cabell Marsh blind and started counting. It’s very exciting because every bird is new,” added Kai Frueh.

Last year, the BCBS team tallied 81 species and raised $3,152 for bird conservation! For photos from that day and a summary, go here.

The goal this year is to again raise over $3,000 for bird conservation. Please help these ambitious young birders to reach their goal by donating and sharing the Benton County Big Sit with friends. If you have any questions or would like a downloadable pledge sheet, please contact the team or send an email to bentoncountybigsit@gmail.com.

The Late Summer Draw-Down

Written by Peter Pearsall and Rick Vetter/Photo by Peter Pearsall

An iconic feature of Malheur Refuge Headquarters is the display pond, also known as Marshall Pond (learn about David Marshall here), fed by an underground spring. The first documented use of this spring by humans occurred around 6,000 years ago, when predecessors of the Burns Paiute Tribe, known as the Wada’tika (meaning “waada eaters”—a native marsh plant), settled there to take advantage of seasonal resources such as fish, ducks, antelope, coyote, muskrat, bison and a variety of plant materials. Based on archaeological evidence found at the site, the spring likely has been flowing continuously for many thousands of years.

Over the past three or four years, however, the spring’s output appears to be waning. Persistent drought, as well as recent groundwater developments in the area, may have drawn down the local aquifer. At any rate, during this hotter-than-average summer, Marshall Pond has fallen unusually low and is shrinking by the day. While this is an unfortunate scenario for the wildlife and visitors that use and enjoy the pond, it provides a unique opportunity to see, on a much smaller scale, what occurs at Malheur Lake through the summer.

The shallow lakes at Malheur Refuge—Malheur, Mud and Harney Lake—are subject to marked seasonal fluctuations in size, depending on winter snowpack and evaporative losses in summer. The process begins early each year and many miles away from the Refuge, at high elevations in the Steens and southern Blue Mountains. As snow accumulates in these mountains during the winter and melts in the spring, it recharges Malheur Lake, providing thousands of acres of water for common carp, an invasive species, to spawn. Large mature females can lay anywhere from 100,000 to one million eggs each year. By midsummer, millions of young carp, 1-3 inches in size, are found throughout the Malheur Lake system and connected bodies of water, including Marshall Pond. (Learn more about how non-native carp impact ecological functions at Malheur Refuge.)

By late July, most of the snow has melted and evaporation rates on the lake exceed water input from the Blitzen and Silvies Rivers. The lake starts to dry up, exposing hundreds of acres of mudflats that provide ideal habitat for migrating shorebirds. As summer advances, the remaining lake water is concentrated in isolated pools a few acres in size.

As these small pools of water evaporate, carp become trapped and provide an easy food source for an incredible variety of birds, from osprey, pelicans, cormorants and mergansers to egrets, herons, terns, gulls and even the odd shorebird! In wetter years, this spectacle can be especially dramatic at The Narrows, where Malheur Lake empties in Mud Lake. But since The Narrows is completely dry this year, Marshall Pond may be the next best place to witness this late-summer phenomenon.

Malheur’s Butcherbirds

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Kay Steele

While walking through sagebrush-steppe and greasewood flats in the Northern Great Basin, one may occasionally happen upon an odd and macabre scene: bits and pieces of small animals impaled on sharp branches or along strands of barbed wire, baking in the sun. “Some sort of sadist is at work here,” one might reasonably conclude, while slowly backing away from the carnage. But the real culprit isn’t operating out of maleficence. Those skewered animals are the work of a loggerhead shrike, who is simply engaging in a bit of meal preparation.

Loggerhead shrikes, with their masked eyes and subtly hooked beaks, are something of an avian outlier, breaking the typical songbird mold. Being passerines of a flesh-nibbling sort, shrikes lack the gripping talons of raptors but possess in full their killer instinct. They are predatory songbirds—smaller than robins yet substantially more ambitious in their taking of prey. Swooping down from low perches, the shrike tackles creatures sometimes as large as itself—including insects, reptiles, birds and small mammals—delivering a calculated bite to the nape with its hook-tipped beak, maiming the creature or severing the spinal cord to paralyze it. The victim is then transported back to the shrike’s roost where it is effectively “dressed out”.

Skewering prey on thorns and barbed wire serves a number of functions. Most importantly, it anchors the flesh so the shrike can tear bodily at it; without this leverage, the bird can only stand atop the carcass and yank, which usually results in a lot of falling off and flailing about. (Perching feet don’t have the meathook-like grip and sinew of talons.) Secondly, skewered chunks of flesh will desiccate in the sun and slowly break down, making for easier portioning and digestion. This also serves to detoxify certain prey: noxious compounds in monarch butterflies, for example, start degrading after several hours in the sun, becoming more palatable with age. Lastly, there’s the cache factor. Because shrubs and fences are usually rife with thorny excrescences, there’s ample room for storage—why not keep hunting while the getting’s good? Especially if the cuts only improve as they mature.

Shrikes are sometimes accused of being ravening, truculent butchers, killing not out of necessity but with sadistic intent, festooning trees and fence lines with their spoils. But the shrike isn’t acting out of cruelty or profligacy. Shrikes kill in order to eat; they impale and amass their prey in order to better consume it and provision their families. Woodpeckers hoard mast, jays stash pignolis; shrikes dress carcasses to garland their open-air abattoir.