Cartoon Goose looks through binoculars across Blitzen Valley Meadow

Christmas is for the Birds & Families

Written by Teresa Wicks /Photos by Teresa Wicks and Participants

Saturday, December 19, 2020 33 participants from nine local families turned out for Harney County’s second annual Christmas Bird Count for Kids (CBC4Kids). It was a cold but sunny day with perfect bluebird skies, though no bluebirds made a showing for the count. Our teams counted birds along designated routes in Burns and Hines, stopping at predetermined CBC4Kids checkpoints where they were encouraged to take and share their group photos.

During the 1.5 hour count our intrepid families counted 26 species, including 722 California Quail. That’s two more species and 362 more quail than last year! While the format of the count was very different from last year to accommodate for COVID safety, families were still able to enjoy the morning and a lunch certificate for Figaro’s pizza. This year’s CBC4Kids awards are as follows:

Best Team Name: Hal Fred’s hitch caught the birds

Best Family Photo: Quiet Quail

Most Species Counted: Jabberjays

Most Quail Counted: Bird Nerds

Thank you to everyone that agreed to host a CBC4Kids checkpoint. This includes numerous local backyard birders that kept their feeders filled the day of the count, the schools and ESD, the cities of Burns and Hines, and the following businesses: Geno’s Youth Center and Kid’s Club, Steens Mountain Brewing Co., Harney County Veterinary Clinic, Hines Mill House, and The Aspens Living Center.

Lastly, a big thank you to our community partners: Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Program, Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Harney County Library, and Burns District Bureau of Land Management; and to our sponsors Leupold and Stevens for donating binoculars and a scope to support birding and nature exploration by Harney County youth and families, and Bird Collective for a generous discount on bird patches for this and other programs.

To learn more about and to support educational programming CLICK HERE.

Carp Radio Telemetry Study

Written by James Pearson /Photo by James Pearson

In the last article I wrote for Malheur Musings, I mentioned that we as a refuge are only at the beginning of a long term journey to restore the currently degraded state of Malheur Lake. On the ground research and modeling efforts have helped us understand that the current turbid state of Malheur Lake is being maintained by strong positive reinforcing feedback loops (i.e. bioturbation via Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) and wind sediment resuspension), which are pulling the lake towards the turbid state. In order to shift Malheur Lake back to the historically clear state, a transformative effort is necessary, incorporating a combination of Common carp (hereafter “carp”) and wind-wave suppression, as well as restoration of emergent/submergent vegetation. To better understand the major mechanisms driving and maintaining the current turbid state, the MNWR has initiated three major collaborative pilot restoration projects: 1) emergent vegetation expansion and transplantation, 2) mesocosm water quality enhancement, and 3) carp radio telemetry, over the next two field seasons (2021-2022). It is our hope that the outputs from these collaborative research projects will help us identify the combinations of restoration actions necessary to not only flip Malheur Lake, but also maintain the clear state in perpetuity.

While all three of these projects will be essential to the eventual restoration of Malheur Lake, carp suppression is seen as the most difficult task ahead. With that being said, I wanted to give background on the Carp Radio Telemetry Project, as well as describe some of the actions that MNWR researchers will undertake over the next two field seasons.

Project Background

As I mentioned in the last article, carp populations are very difficult to control due to compensatory density dependence, in which demographic rates (i.e. growth, mortality, and recruitment) shift in response to variations in the population’s overall density. In an effort to better understand the carp population in Malheur Lake, a carp population model (CarpMOD) was constructed to investigate removal actions. Ultimately, these results demonstrated that carp suppression should: 1) target multiple life stages, 2) take advantage of the natural mortality imposed upon the population by the surrounding environment (i.e. lake fluctuations), and 3) identify vulnerabilities within the carp population that can be exploited to increase removal efficiencies and mortality rates already imposed by the environment.

The Carp Radio Telemetry Project aims to identify vulnerabilities within the carp population that may be exploited via large scale removal actions. One such vulnerability that the Carp Radio Telemetry Project will investigate is the movement of carp from the lacustrine (Malheur Lake) environment into the riverine (Blitzen and Silvies Rivers) environments. For instance, anecdotal evidence suggests that carp in Malheur Lake move into the surrounding rivers to spawn in spring and for refugia habitat during low water years in late summer.

The spawning movement of carp in spring is likely motivated by their need for submerge macrophytes for successful spawning. Carp living in lakes at temperate latitudes similar to Malheur Lake begin to enter the river/lake floodplain habitat to spawn in spring as water temperatures rise above ≈17°C. Carp have adhesive eggs which must be laid onto submerged aquatic vegetation and/or inundated terrestrial vegetation. The inundated vegetation also provides protection for the eggs from wind-driven waves, which can dislodge the adhesive eggs sending the eggs to the substrate where they are smothered with sediment and are no longer viable due to low oxygen concentrations or physical harm.

In Malheur Lake, it is hypothesized that the carp enter the Blitzen and Silvies Rivers in spring to utilize the abundant submerged and emergent vegetation that is inundated due to the high flows. This hypothesis has been further validated by observational data collected during carp spawning surveys, in which MNWR Biologist float the lower portion of the Blitzen River and observed >250 spawning carp in early spring. However, in surveys conducted later in spring, zero carp were observed spawning, thus, anecdotally demonstrating a seasonal (spawning) migration that is temporary and likely driven by physiological and environmental variables.

Less is known about the carp movement in late summer, which is hypothesized to be driven by a need for refugia habitat as conditions become degraded in the lake due to low water levels and high water temperatures. However, previous studies have demonstrated that carp are sensitive to temperature changes which can affect their movement and feeding patterns, and thus forced to move to refugia habitat. One such refugia habitat is the Blitzen and Silvies Rivers, which while having lower flows, would potentially provide cooler water with increased food availability.

Project Implementation

The Carp Radio Telemetry Project is a collaborative effort between the MNWR and the United States Geological Survey (USGS: Western Fisheries Research Center – Cook, WA). Over the next two years, our collaborative team will surgically implant and track 150 carp, setup and maintain ten stationary receivers (Figure 1) that will collect continuous data in a variety of environments (Malheur Lake – 5; Blitzen River – 3; Silvies River – 2), and conduct mobile tracking bi-weekly via airboats and canoes. Collectively, the data collected over the next two years will enable researchers to infer population-level behavior (i.e. habitat utilization and aggregations) both spatially and temporally. Ultimately, this project will provide novel insight into the behavior of carp in Malheur Lake, which then will be utilized by researchers and managers to exploit identified vulnerabilities within the carp population to increase removal efficiencies.

Figure 1. The green points roughly demonstrate the areas in which we will place stationary receivers that will collect continuous radio telemetry data.

Gifts from Malheur

Submissions from James Pearsall, Teresa Wicks, and Dominic Bachman
Cover Photo by Teresa Wicks

James Pearson, Fisheries Biologist for Malheur NWR: Malheur National Wildlife Refuge gave me many gifts in 2020, but none compare to the gift of sharing the Refuge with my family. This summer my wife (Kelsey), our new baby girl, and I were able to live on the refuge during the field season. When the mosquitos were not too thick, we would go out in the evenings exploring. Experiencing the wildlife this summer from our front porch was an amazing experience, and sharing that experience with my family was a true gift!  

Teresa Wicks, Eastern Oregon Program Coordinator & Biologist for Portland Audubon: 2020 was a weird year for everyone. From physical distancing to not seeing our families, to canceled field seasons for many biologists, it felt like we were running up an escalator headed down. This made all of the moments working in the field, supporting conservation and science at Malheur feel even more precious and meaningful. Because of this, I’d say the gift that Malheur gave me is an endless cycle of dazzling sunrises, surprise Wilson’s phalarope and bobolink nest sightings, a glimpse at a recently hatched crane colt and a recently hatched American kestrel chick. In short, Malheur gifted me moments of awe/wonder, hope, and some quiet sanity in a year full of unpredictability and isolation from my family. 

Dominic Bachman, Aquatic Health Coordinator for High Desert Partnership: The lake and the refuge were good to us this year. We got a ton of field work and scientific data collected despite 2020 trying to derail us at every opportunity! This March was my first time on the lake during daylight and it was amazing, so much water and birds! We were able to remove 10K lbs of carp, get all the projects we started completed, and had a heck of a time doing it. The biggest gift the lake gave our crew this summer was focus…..we are working on improving the habitat the lake provides despite craziness going on in the rest of the world!

It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.

Rachel Carson, The Exceeding Beauty of the Earth

What gifts have you received from Nature in 2020?

Vast lake is very still. Large box made of poles and canvas is constructed in the middle of the lake. A biologist stands next to it in knee deep water.

Carp Suppression & Collaborative Lake Restoration

Written by James Pearson/Photo by James Pearson

The Common Carp (Cyprinus carpio) is the eighth most prevalent nonnative invader in the world, often reaching high levels of abundance (>1000 kg/ha) due to their ability to tolerate a range of aquatic conditions. Once a population of Common carp (hereafter “carp”) becomes established, their mode of feeding can degrade aquatic ecosystems. For instance, carp use a benthic foraging technique that uproots aquatic vegetation while simultaneously increasing turbidity in the water column, which diminishes light penetration. In turn, this can further inhibit growth of aquatic vegetation. The bioturbation of the aquatic environment by carp has been hypothesized to be one of the major drivers that has led to the currently degraded (turbid) state in Malheur Lake.  

Control of carp can be extremely difficult, however, due to their high capacity for population growth and expansion, survival in habitat refugia, and ability to modify their environment to their own advantage. Carp populations exhibit compensatory density dependence, in which demographic rates (i.e. mortality and recruitment) shift in response to variations in the population’s overall density. Thus, even if carp are removed in large numbers, the species can rebound quickly.  

In the past, biologists with the MNWR have undertaken large-scale carp rotenone (pisicide) treatments, removing a total of 2.5 million carp. Effectiveness monitoring conducted in the years following the rotenone treatments determined that submergent vegetation and waterfowl production rebounded, however this apparent success was short lived, with the aquatic ecosystem of Malheur Lake quickly returning to the turbid state. While rotenone treatments have been successful at quickly reducing the carp population and promoting short term improvements in the aquatic health of Malheur Lake (e.g., increases in submergent vegetation and waterfowl production), rotenone treatments have failed to suppress carp over the long term, and recovery of carp is hypothesized to be the reason for the quick rebound in the turbid state. For this reason, researchers at MNWR have been working to better understand how to suppress the carp population long-term, such that the benefits of carp control can be maintained in perpetuity.  

Large die offs were the result of rotenone treatment for mass removal of common carp from the Blitzen Valley and Malheur Lake system. MNWR Archival Photograph

In an effort to better understand carp management, a carp population model (CarpMOD) was constructed for Malheur Lake, and simulations suggest that removal strategies that target multiple life stages (Adult and Juvenile) may be able to reduce the carp biomass below the desired threshold if the cumulative mortality is maintained at approximately 40%. Furthermore, the modeling also demonstrated that lake area fluctuations (function of annual snow pack) strongly controls the carp population dynamics due to increased density dependent natural mortality and decreased juvenile recruitment. Therefore, these model results suggest that future management actions can be more effective if plans are implemented to more strongly compound the mortality already imposed by the environment via lake fluctuations.  

This summer, the MNWR collaborated with our partners at the High Desert Partnership and the US Forest Service to conduct a large scale carp removal effort, targeting carp in the lower Blitzen River in September (hypothesized refugia habitat). After 7 days of collaborative removal efforts targeting the lower Blitzen River via boat electroshocking, we were able to remove roughly 9,004 lbs. (1,722 individuals) of carp. While the collaborative carp removal was very successful, we also operated the Sodhouse fish trap on the Blitzen River throughout the summer, and we were able to remove 1,225 lbs (545 individuals) of carp. Therefore, our overall carp removal total for the 2020 field season was 10,229 lbs. (2,267 individuals) of carp.  

While collectively the MNWR aquatic health program had a very successful 2020, we are only at the beginning of a long term journey to restore the currently degraded state of Malheur Lake. On the ground research and modeling efforts have helped us understand that the current turbid state of Malheur Lake is being maintained by strong positive reinforcing feedback loops (i.e. bioturbation via carp and wind sediment resuspension), which are pulling the lake towards the turbid state. In order to shift Malheur Lake back to the historically clear state, a transformative effort is necessary, incorporating a combination of carp and wind-wave suppression, and restoration of emergent/submergent vegetation. To better understand the major mechanisms driving and maintaining the current turbid state, the MNWR has initiated three major collaborative research projects (emergent vegetation expansion and transplantation, mesocosm water quality enhancement, and carp radio telemetry), over the next two field seasons (2021-2022). Finally, it is our hope that the outputs from these collaborative research projects will help us identify the combination of restoration actions necessary to not only flip Malheur Lake, but also maintain the clear state in perpetuity for the ecological benefit of fish and wildlife species that utilize the MWNR.  

Scharff’s Blue Spruce

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photos by Isabelle Fleuraud, Jon Brown, and John Scharff

On the morning of October 8th, just one week after beginning their work on a full tree inventory and risk assessment, Jon Brown and Karen Tillou, discovered that the infamous John Scharff Blue Spruce at Refuge Headquarters was experiencing a trauma.

A crack had formed between codominant stems of the main trunk. Both stems were leaning outward and presenting imminent failure of at least one. Despite the unfortunate circumstances for this particular tree, it was the perfect opportunity for us to come together as a coalition and consider the options under the outline of our predetermined factors to consider:

  1. Risk to life and property – Moderately used public space where birders linger. Positioned directly adjacent to a historic Civilian Conservation Corps building which currently functions at the Refuge’s Administrative Offices.
  2. Ecological Value – This tree has a long record of being a nesting location for a variety of species, most notably great-horned owls. The dense branching provides great cover for many migratory songbird species.
  3. Historical Value – This blue spruce was planted in 1966 by then Refuge Manager John Scharff. His intentions were to grow it as an outdoor Christmas tree that could be strung with lights every year. It is a well-known and appreciated tree to many long-time visitors.

The challenge? Minimize the risk to life and property while maintaining as much of the tree’s integrity as possible to hold on to the ecological and historical value. With everyone present and able to discuss these factors and develop the appropriate response plan it became obvious that if a tree was going to fail – this was perfect tree to do so and at the perfect time!

The first thing that needed to happen was to stabilize the tree’s failing stems so that they would not fall before someone could be contracted to treat the tree. Jon installed a 5/8″ rope in the tree canopy to provide some temporary support and reduce the pressure on the damaged stems. In November, Jon will return with another arborist to remove the failing stem and provide care for the remaining stems. The hope is for the tree to remain largely intact with a new opening in the crown. This opening may in and of itself create additional habitat benefits for nesting birds such as our beloved great-horned owls.