Sod House Fire

Written by Debby DeCarlo
Photos by Sonya Spaziani, Debby DeCarlo and Jim Daniel

In late winter and early spring private land owners and public land managers in the Harney Basin use controlled burns for various reasons, including the removal of excess fuels, release nutrients to the soil, and stimulate plant growth. Generally, these burns are to remove dangerous fuels that could cause larger problems in the event of an unexpected fire, or to clear out irrigation ditches. Precautions are taken to anticipate and avoid red flag conditions (fire positive environmental conditions) such as low relative humidity or increasing winds. Sometimes conditions can take a turn and a controlled burn will move in unexpected ways. This is what happened on March 5 when a rancher and neighbor between Refuge Headquarters and Malheur Field Station set fire to his land on the south side of Sod House Lane. 

Fire Operations Manager Danny Yturriondobeitia got the call at 2:13 p.m. that the fire had jumped Sod House Lane and was spreading toward the north. “I called our dispatch center and they immediately called fire personnel from the Refuge, BLM and Forest Service from Immigrant Creek and Lakeview.” In all, about 25 or 30 fire personnel responded. As photos show, the fire came close to Marshall Pond as it moved north and east. The grasses are dry at this time of year, and while nowhere near as hot as a forest fire.Yturriondobeitia noted, it could do plenty of damage to archeological sites and neighboring ranches.

The fire didn’t have the heat of a crown fire found in forests with mature trees, but fire can remain in the peat of the marsh. In fact, hot spots like that continued to burn into the night. By morning, though, the fire was out, the crew members were given bagged breakfasts before heading back out to ‘mop up’ the site. A pump was placed near the road, pumping water from the Blitzen River into an area of peat where Yturriondobeitia and other personnel knew fire could start again. By the time they were finished, the Sod House Fire including backburn efforts covered just under 1k acres. 

Luckily, it was early enough in the season that Sandhill cranes and other birds were not yet nesting in that area. There were animals, though, happy to hightail it out of there. “As we were driving out,” said Yturriondobeitia, “rabbits, deer and a skunk raced behind the truck.” The rancher who started the controlled burn was able to get his livestock moved. New grass will grow on the burned land, and thanks to Yturriondobietia and his crew, damage was minimal.

In fact, this area west of Refuge Headquarters which covers the space between Malheur Lake, Sodhouse Lane and the Blitzen River was included in the Refuge’s long term Prescribed Burn Plan. While unexpected, we are grateful to the Burns Interagency Fire crew and their partners for their swift response and hard work. 

Pacific Flyway Wingbee

Written by Alexa Martinez/ Photos by Dan Streiffert

Each year the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service conduct the Migratory Bird Parts Collection Survey, often referred to as the Wing Survey or Wingbee. This survey is used to obtain detailed information about the harvest of migratory game birds including species, age, and sex composition. The wingbee is part of the Parts Collection Survey where cooperators classify the bird parts (wings and tails) voluntarily submitted by hunters. The annual wingbee in each flyway is fully dependent on the cooperation of participants from government agencies, universities, and other organizations.

This year I had the opportunity to attend the Pacific Flyway Wingbee, conducted at the Coleman National Fish Hatchery southeast of Anderson, CA. I had no idea what I was expecting from this event. All I knew was I was going to be looking at wings for a whole week. The wingbee was more than just looking at wings. It was a great learning opportunity for biologists, technicians, law enforcement officers, and others to learn about different characteristic found on waterfowl species.

I felt confident going into the wingbee with the waterfowl skills I currently have, but the first day I was there, I definitely knew there was going to be some improvement. I have participated in duck banding at Bosque Del Apache NWR in NM, Summer Lake Wildlife Area, and Malheur NWR and I never really realized the finer details each waterfowl species may have. During duck banding you are constantly processing through ducks because more are always on their way. At the wingbee you do not have that sense of rush, you can take your time to really look at different parts of a ducks wing. Throughout the week, I witnessed my waterfowl identification improving each day. It was amazing to feel my self-confidence grow in a such an applicable skillset.

The event was so interesting to me. I was able to meet with different people throughout the whole Pacific Flyway, including areas in Alaska. The beauty about the wingbee was not only the educational side of it, but seeing everyone come together to help with this collection survey. Being able to spend time with some really amazing and passionate people reminded me of why I got into this field in the first place. I am not sure how to thank Migratory Birds and my supervisor for letting me part take in this incredible opportunity. I hope I have this opportunity opened to me again in the future!

Project IBiS

Inventorying Birds in the Silvies floodplain

Written by Teresa Wicks/Photos by Teresa Wicks

The flood-irrigated ranchlands of the Silvies Floodplain support large numbers of migrating waterfowl and waterbirds through providing a place to stopover and rest while making their journey north. Up to 30% of the Snow and Ross’s Geese that navigate the Pacific Flyway, the westernmost “highway of the sky,” depend on the Harney Basin (and nearby Summer Lake) for a place to rest, feed, and store plenty of energy to make the trek to their breeding grounds. For Ross’s Geese, this is the arctic tundra of northern Canada, while Snow Geese prefer the coastal tundra of the arctic and subarctic zones of northern Alaska and northern Canada. These ‘white geese” are not the only migrants that depend on the flood-irrigated wet meadows of the Silvies Floodplain; Northern Pintail, shorebirds, Lesser Sandhill Crane, and some songbirds depend on the nutrient-dense grasses, insects, and rhizomes of the floodplain during their migratory travels. Additionally, breeding Greater Sandhill Cranes, Black-necked Stilt, Wilson’s Snipe, Long-billed Curlew, and songbirds like the Red-winged Blackbird, nest in these wet meadows.

In 2019, in an attempt to understand the diversity and relative abundance of birds using the Silvies Floodplain, the seasonal variation in bird communities, and how bird association changes with life cycle, Portland Audubon developed Project IBiS (Inventorying Birds in the Silvies Floodplain). In order to answer these questions Portland Audubon volunteers survey from the perimeter of each site, along public roads, stopping at points located approximately ½ mile apart. At each stop, all bird species are identified and counted, including flyovers.

In the first year of the survey, eight volunteers collected data from March-May. These volunteers detected 60 species, comprising 8379 detections, 5000 of which were Snow/Ross’s Geese! Northern Pintails were the next most abundant waterfowl species, followed closely by migratory Sandhill Cranes. Blackbird species were the dominant songbird species, with Red-winged Blackbirds having the highest relative abundance, followed by Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

In 2020, it is the intention of Portland Audubon for a subset of volunteers will be trained on a more rigorous survey, collecting additional data including distance bands (e.g. <50 m, 50-100 m, 100-200 m, and >200 m), breeding codes (see Appendix 2), type of identification (e.g. singing, visual, or flyover), and habitat variables (e.g. percent cover water). Portland Audubon is working with the Agricultural Research Station to develop a basic training guide for identifying dominant grass types, in an effort to create more synergy between this project and the vegetation surveys currently being conducted by Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative partners throughout the Harney Basin. Additionally, in an effort to gain a better picture of changes in wet meadow bird communities throughout the year, data will be collected from January-November of 2020.

If you would like to be a part of this Project, visit Project IBiS page of Portland Audubon’s website where you can learn more and read the survey protocol. Alternatively, contact Teresa Wicks, twicks@portlandaudubon.org

Making the Malheur Symphony

A Wildlife Photography Experience

Written by Kay Scheurer Steele/Photo by Kay Scheurer Steele

The “Malheur Symphony” tells a gripping story of an amazing high desert oasis of the Northern Great Basin in southeastern Oregon known as Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. As you approach the vastness of that land (introduced through the recordings of howling winds and rolling thunder), it pulls you in and dampens down all the burdens of civilization within you. When you are finally quieted by its solitude, you’re ready to listen – and to see in ways that reveal the amazing story of Malheur Refuge: Dawning Light – a story of the Great Basin’s beginnings, its formation and first wildlife arrivals. Sacred Basin – a story of the earliest people, honors these ancestors of the Northern Pauite Tribe. Thunder – a reflection of darker times at Malheur Refuge. Curlew Scherzo – a story of wetland birds and this particular bird’s whimsical chorus in counter-play with the orchestration – stunning! The final movement, Awakening, is a celebration of challenges overcome by humans and beasts and, with the rushing rhythm of beating wings, ends on a high note – a hopeful future. It will leave you breathless!

The creation of the symphony began when naturalist-benefactors Jay & Teresa Bowerman reached out to Central Oregon Symphony conductor, Michael Gesme, and engaged composer Chris Thomas. Their mission? They wished to reclaim the identity of Malheur Refuge as an exceptional nature-centered world, while encouraging people to heal from divisive political tensions and to find common ground. Music is healing. It can elevate our spirits in ways that words cannot describe. Chris Thomas has taken us to those heights. In a TED Talk, he explained exactly how he did it.* The songs of birds recorded at Malheur Refuge were mimicked into musical motifs. They are counter-played with the actual bird recordings. These effects are striking; and for my photography partner, Terry Steele, and me it’s been inspirational! We not only heard exciting music and comforting, familiar sounds of Malheur; we could pair those sounds with years of images pulled from our photography of that land.

With a nod from the makers of the original recording of “Malheur Symphony,” I took the leap to learn how to create an animated video version of this musical story. It is a visual accompaniment simulating a birder scoping the refuge through binoculars – using panning of the landscape, zooming in on anything that moved. Roughly 73 species are represented in over 330 still images. Several creatures travel along the storyline as “hosts” to the viewers experiencing the symphony movement to movement: the bobolinks in recorded songs; sandhill cranes nesting and in cloud-filled flight to transition the musical themes; the coyote pup just out from its den, gazing skyward with first views of the dawning light; the sora, great white pelicans, and the short-eared owl – all going the distance to the fanfare finale.

This audio-visual video titled, “Malheur Symphony – A Wildlife Photography Experience,” was produced to draw attention to the importance of preserving Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Originally, the Refuge’s purpose was to protect the staging and nesting location for hundreds of thousands of migrating and local birds. In the context of today’s reality, it is significant as a preserve for wildlife, as the historical ground of indigenous people, and more than ever in its history, as a place of solitude and peace, offering solace to preserve the human spirit. Have we ever needed such places more in our lifetime?

*Tedx Talk: Composer Chris Thomas on Composing the Malheur Symphony

Turbidity Mesocosms – A Pilot Restoration Project

Written by Casie Smith/Photos by James Pearson and Janelle Wicks

The absence of submergent vegetation and the minimal emergent vegetation existing in Malheur Lake is partially a result of the lack of available light to support development of aquatic vegetation in the system. The turbidity that limits light transmission through the water column is a result of wind fetch/wave action, phytoplankton abundance, and carp activity, among other factors. The pilot restoration project that will be conducted in Malheur Lake in 2020 and 2021 will 1) determine which factor, or combination of factors, can be manipulated or controlled to substantially reduce the turbidity in the water column, and 2) determine if that reduction in turbidity allows emergent and/or submergent vegetation to survive. 

In the first year of the project (FY2020), ten mesocosms will be constructed in the lake, and either one or multiple turbidity-causing factors will be manipulated or controlled in each. In the second year of the project (FY2021), the mesocosms will be reconstructed in the lake. The turbidity-causing factors will be treated again, and combinations of desirable emergent and submergent vegetation will be planted in each mesocosm. In both years, the water quality will be assessed within each mesocosm, and percent survival of plants will also be determined in year 2.  

This project will quantify the change in water-column turbidity and plant survival as a result of treatments. Results will be used to inform USFWS and HBWI about the potential to reduce water-column turbidity and increase emergent and submergent plant survival for large-scale restoration of the lake.  

Any questions concerning the upcoming project can be directed to James Pearson the MNWR Aquatic Habitat Biologist at james_pearson@fws.gov