What Happened to All the Ground Squirrels?

Written by Linda Craig/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Visitors to the Refuge during March through July couldn’t help but notice the hundreds of scurrying, little mammals that crowd under the bird feeders at Headquarters.  These six-inch, grey-brown rodents are Beldings Ground Squirrels. 

Beldings Ground Squirrels are one of thirteen species in the genus, Urocitellus.  Most members of the genus live in western North America.  They are related to chipmunks and marmots and are part of the subfamily of squirrels which usually lives on the ground rather than in trees. 

Our Urocitellus, beldingi, is found throughout eastern Oregon, southwestern Idaho, and central California and Nevada, generally in lower elevation areas of grasslands and sagebrush.

Although the “sage rats,” a local, dismissive name for them, are cute little critters, the many burrows they dig throughout the Headquarters lawns and the damage they do to the roots of trees and shrubs can be a problem.  Because they relish the easy food that is available under our bird feeders, their numbers in the spring can be a little overwhelming.

Now, in late July, the ground squirrels are suddenly missing!  We are no longer greeted each time we step outside the Nature Center to their squeaky trills that make up the Beldings’ family communications. 

The ground squirrels haven’t moved on; they have just moved underground.  Beldings, and other similar species in the genus who also live where summer temperatures are high, deal with the heat and the drying vegetation by going into estivation or early hibernation when the days get hot, and the grass gets brown.  Their underground period lasts for eight to nine months. 

It is understandable, then, that they feed so voraciously in the spring and early summer that their body weight more than doubles.  They do not store food in their underground burrows, so what they eat when they are above ground must last more than half of the year. 

We won’t expect to see them again until the ground begins to thaw in February or March.  Then, there will be a flurry of activity as the adult males fight fiercely for the right to mate.  Only the strongest males will succeed.  Females will establish their own burrow and have just one litter of three to eight.  The young, called pups or kits, are born blind and won’t emerge from the burrow until they are about two months old. Thus, the cycle begins again, and the scurrying little rodents will be a major part of the Malheur experience for another season.

My First Visit to Malheur NWR

Written by Chris A Rusnak/ Photos by Chris A Rusnak

As a self taught photographer I’ve always been addicted to landscape photography. Wanting to do more wildlife, I recently purchased my first telephoto lens. After a year of occasionally shooting wildlife with my telephoto lens I began to notice the intimate world of our feathered friends. This was a game changer to me. So began my affection and addiction to the world of birds.

My brother Richard was thrilled because he’s been trying to get me into birding for many years and for the 100th time he invited me to join him at MNWR. I had the pleasure of experiencing this wonderful park with my brother Richard who I consider an amateur ornithologist and as my personal bird spotter. Richard has been studying birds for nearly 40 years.

Fast forward 2 years from the time I got my telephoto lens to the day my brother invited me to join him at MNWR for the May migration. I didn’t know what to expect until I started to do my research and was amazed to learn that MNWR was a stopover like an international airport for migrating birds to rest, fuelup and carry on to their next destination. This would be an amazing opportunity to capture some great photos and add to my (pretty small) bird list I started less than a year ago.

I can’t identify any specific moments during my visit at MNWR that jump out at me because everyday was a wonderful experience. Meeting so many other birders in one place was a great experience because everyone was willing to share their knowledge. What an amazing time to spend with my brother and family exploring the outdoors and learning all about birds, which are some of earth’s most precious creatures.

From small birds to large birds, fast birds to slow birds and colorful birds to mundane birds I couldn’t get enough birding while exploring all corners of MNWR. After 5 days of non-stop bird counting, bird watching, recording, walking, photographing and enjoying the scenery Richard and I totaled 116 different species and 76 of those birds were “lifers” for me. What an amazing first-time visit as a “fledgling” to my new found passion. You can certainly count on me returning to MNWR again. 

See More: https://www.instagram.com/chrisrusnakphotography/

Malheur Beyond Spring; A volunteer’s perspective

By Debby DeCarlo/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Volunteering at the Refuge is always a treat. I see plenty during the last two weeks of May and first week of June. But after that, the migratory visitors, both avian and human, diminish. I convince new visitors there is still plenty to see. And with nothing else to compare their experience to,  first-timers are already impressed. “There are so many Yellow-headed Blackbirds,” they exclaim. One person noted she’d seen the Great-horned Owl. Another asked,  “Are those American White Pelicans out there?” They are indeed, I tell her. 

I start to notice the pairs of birds coming to the bird bath we set up thanks to the generosity of Alan Contreras, President of the Friends board. The Bullock’s Oriole pair make frequent visits to the bird bath as well as the humming bird feeders. Yellow Warblers, at least 2 pairs, dart in as well. At least one nest is close enough to see through my binoculars. They’re followed by a pair of Flickers. The mosquitoes I complain about are providing food to nesting birds, as well as to bats. The California Quail family makes a swing by the Nature Center & Store at least once a day. Their young, so tiny at first, are almost full-grown. There are fewer young than there were to begin with, but I’m gratified so many survived. I am able to observe the Ferruginous Hawk nest on Highway 205 as the young progressed from being white, fluffy youngsters to being fully fledged adult-sized birds. 

The vast number of Sandhill Cranes move on by mid-May, but a many nest here. I am lucky enough to see a young Crane, called a colt, with its parents. And the Bobolinks are busy with young just north of the P Ranch and near the school in Diamond.

There are other differences. Normally, I see jackrabbits. This year, it’s mostly cottontails. This quiet time, with fewer visitors and birds, frees me up to fold t-shirts we’d run out of during the busy weeks when I’d first arrived. Three boxes arrived today. Still, there’s time to check out Marshall Pond, half-dried up, but with enough water to attract three Great Egrets and one Snowy Egret, the one with the golden slippers. There’s a chorus line of Long-billed Dowitchers, with two neat rows of Forster’s Terns in front of them.

Now when new visitors arrive, I can tell them with conviction there is still plenty to see.

Malheur Plays Role in Short-eared Owl Study

By Matt Stuber, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service; Raptor Biologist, Division of Migratory Birds

Across many western states, biologists are embarking on a challenging adventure.  That adventure?  To learn more about short-eared owls.  I am proud to have brought a part of that adventure to one of the great Oregon public spaces – Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (NWR).

Short-eared owls are an open-country species that has been shown to associate with diverse habitats, including tundra, marshlands, grasslands, shrublands, and even agricultural lands. They seem to be flexible in the type of habitats they select in any given year, and probably select habitat based on prey availability.

However, despite an apparent adjustability to different habitat types, there is some reason to be concerned about the stability of short-eared owl populations.  First, they are listed as endangered in 12 U.S. states (not including Oregon), and are named by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a Bird of Conservation Concern in 18 of 34 terrestrial Bird Conservation Regions.  Additionally, a 2014 study by Alaska Fish and Game biologist Travis Booms pointed out evidence of a long-term, range-wide decline of short-eared owls in North America, based on Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count data.  

Conversely, recent data collected over several years and in eight western states by citizen scientists (known as Project WAfLS) suggests that short-eared owl populations might be stable, at least in recent years.  However, consistent with the species’ known flexibility, owl populations seem to be shifting in local abundance from state to state.  Project WAfLS biologist Rob Miller believes it is likely that these movements are caused by local prey cycles. In other words, the owls go where the prey are abundant.

While this plasticity is probably beneficial to the owls, it makes life a bit difficult for the biologists trying to study them.  Trying to study a population of birds that may prefer parts of Wyoming one year and parts of southwest Idaho and eastern Oregon the next year poses some challenges.  Truth be told, we are not able to predict where these owls will be most abundant in any year, and we know relatively little about some basic aspects of short-eared owl ecology. 

However, across the West, efforts are underway to change that.  The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, as well as many western state governments, have recently dedicated resources to answering some important questions about this understudied species. In the spring of 2020 Miller, a biologist from Boise State’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, formed a team of biologists across the west. I am proud to represent Oregon on that team.  The team’s goal is to learn more about poorly understood aspects of short-eared owl ecology, including breeding phenology, home range size, dispersal, migration, and sources of mortality (to name a few).  My job on the team is to find and capture a short-eared owl in Oregon and deploy a GPS/GSM transmitter on that bird.  Data from that transmitter will help us answer some of these important questions. 

These owls will be in good hands—literally. I am permitted by both the federal Bird Banding Laboratory and the State of Oregon to conduct this work.  On top of those permits, I have many years of experience studying and safely capturing and handling all types of raptors.

I chose Malheur NWR as a place to begin my summer field efforts in 2021. Short-eared owls regularly call Malheur NWR home during the breeding season.  Because of the owl’s nomadism, there are only a couple other places state-wide that produce fairly regular short-eared owl sightings in the summer.  This year was no exception at Malheur NWR.  In fact, Refuge staff and volunteers (thanks Alexa Martinez and Rick Vetter!) were reporting relatively high short-eared owl numbers this summer. As a result, it didn’t take any arm twisting to get me to the refuge.  Successful capture or not, spending time at Malheur NWR in May (or any month, really) is always time well spent. 

When I arrived at the refuge on May 30th, the dedicated staff helped me get right to work. We started scouting areas where short-eared owls had been previously observed.  In all of the areas Refuge staff took me, we observed breeding behavior and suspected nesting was underway.  Refuge staff and I speculate that we know of four breeding territories on the Refuge.  I’m sure there are others as well.  However, despite hours of observation for three straight days, and some searching of an area where we commonly observed owls, we were unable to locate a nest. 

Trapping raptors during the breeding season without the knowledge of an occupied nest location is typically difficult.  Nests give biologists two advantages when attempting to trap a bird.  First, it is a place we know that the adults will visit.  So there is a good chance that, with patience, a bird will come to a trap if placed near a nest.  Conversely, a trap randomly placed in a field with no knowledge of nest location has a low likelihood of being seen by a target bird.  Second, raptors (and other birds too) typically defend their territories, nests, eggs, and young.  Biologists can sometimes try to use the bird’s natural nest defense behavior to their advantage when attempting to capture it.

After many days of observation and several attempts at trapping the “harder way” (i.e. traps set with no knowledge of nest location), I decided to give the owls a few weeks and return when discovery of a nest is more likely.  On June 1 I departed, hoping to return again in late June for another attempt at nest discovery and trapping success.

Amazingly, on my way home I stopped at the Summer Lake Wildlife Area (managed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife). That night, with the help of Area staff, I was able to locate a short-eared owl nest and capture a healthy adult male.  Unfortunately, he only weighed 10.5 ounces and was too small for a transmitter.  Consistent with his best interest, we banded and released him with no transmitter deployment.  Hopefully, birds we trap in the future will be a little bit larger and more capable of safely carrying a transmitter for our study.  I am optimistic that a return trip to Malheur will result in a successful capture and transmitter deployment, and several years worth of data that will help us learn and better manage short-eared owl populations in the West.

NOTE: Successful capture efforts took place at Malheur NWR this last weekend (June 25th-27th). Be sure to check out the August edition of our newsletter for an update from Matt Stuber and Alexa Mertinez.

Volunteering for the Friends; My Wish Comes True

Written by Linda Craig/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

“What is the black bird with the yellow head?” I love this question, which is asked often of me as a volunteer at the Friends Nature Center/Store. I love it because it reminds me of the first time I saw this remarkable, flashy bird driving into the Malheur Environmental Field Station more than 40 years ago. I had arrived at the Field Station to take a three-week Field Botany class, and I was excited to see the country and learn about the plants and animals that live here.

I chose a career in accounting instead of biology, but I’ve always loved natural history. When I moved to Portland from Iowa in 1970, I promptly joined the Portland Audubon Society and the Native Plant Society. I first saw eastern Oregon ecosystems while working for Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). A friend and colleague took me to OMSI’s Hancock Field Station in the John Day area, and I was hooked on the beauty, diversity, and strength of the living things who survive in arid places.

The Field Station’s botany class was a first opportunity to spend more time in Harney County’s sagebrush/grassland steppe. The class keyed the plants in the Field Station locale and visited the lush beauty of the high Steens and the stark Alvord Desert. While botany was our principal focus, we also spent time with the birds, reptiles, and mammals we encountered.

I’d found an environment I loved. After that first year, I returned almost annually, usually staying at the Field Station. Birding at the Refuge Headquarters and along Center Patrol Road was always a highlight, and I hoped that some time I’d be able to spend more time here…to commit an entire summer to Malheur.

My chance came this year. Portland Audubon’s volunteer coordinator posted a notice that Friends of Malheur Refuge needed volunteers for the summer. Due to Covid and some changes in family obligations, my Portland commitments were minimal or virtual. I talked with Janelle, and she found me a place to stay. I asked her when she needed me, and she said, “Now!” I packed my bags. At the end of the next week after our talk, I arrived. That was late April, and I am planning to stay through mid-August.

My volunteer duties include staffing the Nature Center/Store in rotation with other volunteers and assisting Janelle with maintaining the Friends’ membership records and the store’s inventory. My favorite assignment is talking with our visitors about the birds they want to see and what tours or hikes might be best for their goals and available time. Although I am not an expert birder or trained naturalist, because of my many years of visiting and birding here, I have enough knowledge of the Refuge and the region to be of help.

I particularly enjoy the questions that start with, “Where can I see a….?” Burrowing owl, Sandhill crane, Great horned owl and Bobolink are most frequently requested. I tell the visitors where I last saw that bird, or where other visitors told me that they last saw it, and I ask them where they saw the birds they are thrilled about. We share our enthusiasm and knowledge with each other.

Talking with visitors is my favorite part of my volunteer assignment, but I also enjoy selling our wares and keeping the store tidy and inviting. We sell lots of books and I get to share my suggestions about which of our many birding guides will best match a customer’s needs.

A highlight of this Malheur summer is plenty of time for birding at the Refuge. Previously, visits to Malheur were never long enough, usually just one trip across the Center Patrol Road, a stop at Page Springs for a hike up the Blitzen, and a morning or two at headquarters to check out the regular birds and the rarities. This summer, I get to make the rounds most days at headquarters and return as often as I like to hot spots such as Benson Pond or Bobolink Alley. Consequently, I often see a new bird or two on many days, and I’ve had the opportunity to see the rarest of our avian visitors this spring, Veery, Grasshopper sparrow, Magnolia warbler. I’ve counted more than 150 species in Harney County since I arrived in late April.

This volunteer assignment is a commitment to sharing my values and helping the Friends support the Refuge I love, but it also fulfills my long-held desire to take the time necessary to steep myself in the natural history of the Malheur Refuge. And even though the Yellow-headed blackbirds are an unruly mob at the Nature Center’s feeders every morning, I don’t tire of them. They are a most remarkable, flashy bird.