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 

Rx Burn for Birds

Written by Debby de Carlo/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Sandhill cranes and other birds wintering to the south will be flying north to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the months ahead. Many will stop, rest and refuel at the refuge.

Refuge wildlife biologist Ed Sparks and others on the Refuge staff are already making sure there will be places for migrating birds. “Bulrush and other perennials don’t get enough sunlight in the spring as the tops die off and get matted.” Those areas are less productive, Sparks noted. “By burning bulrush, we hit the reset button. The roots don’t burn, but the rest of the grass does, allowing sunlight to get through and createnew growth.”

This year, Dan Yturriondobeitia, Forestry Technician for the Refuge will be at work burning an area of about 1700 acres on the Double O Ranch. “There’s bulrush, cattail and native meadow grasses,”  Yturriondobeitia explained. By opening it up, nutrients are released for deer and antelope. “We plan on doing the burn in February just before nesting birds arrive.”

Yturriondobeitia and his fellow fire manager Shane Theall use drip torches to set the fires, making sure conditions are just right. Relative humidity and winds are factors. They use a computer program to tell them when the time is optimal.  Still, even with such technology, it’s only a guide, he said. “Conditions are dynamic.”Fire trucks are on hand just in case the wind kicks up, and the area mowed as well, making sure neighboring property is safe.Part of the prep is meeting with RefugeMaintenance staff. “They identify things we don’t want to burn like fish traps. They let us use a lot of their tractors,” Yturriondobeitia added.

“Fighting fires evolves,” he continued. “We use best practices.” In fact, Yturriondobeitia worked at a desk job in Boise for a while, where he helped design new equipment. But he missed being outside, and so, he and other staff will be on the ground later this month, creating resting–and nesting– areas for the birds to come.

Bat Boxes for Malheur

Written by Debby de Carlo /Photo by Peter Pearsall

James Lane considered making bat houses for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Malheur Field Station when he was a junior at Catlin Gable School in Portland. “I’m interested in conservation and my stepfather, Scott Bowler, had introduced me to Malheur. It seemed a good way to combine my interests into a school project.”

Making bat houses is more complicated than one might think. In the end, Lane and his classmates made bird houses while they were at Malheur Field Station in the spring of 2019. Lane couldn’t forget the bat houses or their importance to the Refuge and the Field Station.

“There are 15 species of bats in Oregon,” according to Alexa Martinez, wildlife biologist for the Refuge. “Twelve of them are found at Malheur.” And, so far at least, those 12 species are free of white nose syndrome, a fungus decimating bat populations in some parts of the country.

“The bats at Malheur eat insects, including mosquitoes,” Martinez explained. “And they are a food source to hawks, owls, and some snakes. Weasels and raccoons will climb trees to get them.” They nest inside the bark of trees or under the eaves of buildings. Their droppings, which look like what mice or rats might leave, makes a great fertilizer.

Because the bats like tight spaces when they’re not out eating insects, bat houses have several layers. “You can only make 2 bat houses out of a sheet of plywood,” noted Bowler.

So, over the summer, James, using his father’s workshop, built 24 bat houses. That is a lot of plywood. Bowler, who now lives in Sisters, had to wait until early November before he could join James and deliver the bat houses. They left 14 with Doug Roberts at the Field Station and took ten to Martinez at the Refuge.

Martinez will is working with Refuge maintenance staff, but her plan is to have some installed at Headquarters, some at Buena Vista and some at Double O. The Friends of Malheur Executive Director, Janelle Wicks, and project committee co-chair Alice Elshoff are planning a Bat Box Installation work party for mid-March 2020.

Lane, meanwhile, has plans to go much further east. Next fall he will pursue his studies at Colby College in Maine.

Gifts from Malheur

In the spirit of gratitude and reflection we asked Refuge Staff, Partners, Friends Board Members and Volunteers if they would share what they consider a gift they have received from Malheur NWR. Their responses where as diverse and profound as the landscape we love.

‘After serving as refuge biologist at Malheur for 15 years, one of the many gifts I received was a lifetime of memories of intimate experiences with wildlife, which I treasure.’ Gary Ivey, FOMR Board President

‘The Joyful Camaraderie of Shared Purpose’
Cindy Zalunardo, Member & Volunteer

‘One of my many gifts from Malheur over the years was the privilege Cal and I had of removing miles of unwanted Fencing—not everyone’s idea of fun, but so rewarding!!!’ Alice Elshoff, FOMR Board Member

‘Driving up the CPR after a day of birding and coming upon an open field where about one dozen short-eared owls were swooping and turning, hunting in the evening light. Not only were they life birds, but an unforgettable gift of beauty that only nature can provide.
Suzanne Staples, FOMR Board Member

‘I find both opportunities for solitude and inspiration on my visits to Malheur NWR. This is one of the few places where one can still have unique one-on-one experiences with wildlife. It’s simply a treasure.’
Dan Streiffert, Member & Volunteer

‘From breeding habitat for wildlife to someone’s first time fishing. The refuge provides memories, homes, a safe place, food, culture and so much more. To me Malheur NWR has given me many gifts: my first job in my conservation career, a new home from home, memories I will never forget, new life skills, new friends, and the most important gift to me was a family. I may be far from the family and friends I know and love, but I have a great addition to my family here at Malheur NWR. Makes the work relationship easy to communicate and talk to one another. We are all so different and special. Whether we come from different backgrounds, cultures, ideas, hobbies or appearance. We are different but that is what keeps the work keep rolling. We all work pretty well together and feel comfortable with one another. I am not saying we are all perfect because like almost every family differences can be cumbersome, but at the end of the day, they are my family. I am not sure I would have still stayed at Malheur NWR without the support I have at the refuge and the extended FWS regional office family. I am very proud, blessed, and super grateful to have each and every one of them in my life and I have the refuge to thank for that.’
Alexa Martinez, Malheur NWR Wildlife Biologist

‘Aside from having the time to step away from my desk, from paperwork, and from my dissertation, Malheur has given me the time to stop and experience the one thing that has been a constant companion, teacher, and inspiration throughout my life…the land. This land is quite different from the serpentine forests of my youth, but is the land that I have dreamed of since I was quite young. My endless gratitude for this land will never quite fit into words, but this is my attempt’:

solitary birdsong soundtracks
amid early morning pink-hued hills
owl call
star-filled skies
landscapes mirror-reflected on Malheur Lake
long-tailed weasel and mustelid play
among willows and ponds and waterways
wild flower painted meadows and hillsides
sage-brush scented rainstorms
ibis croak
glistening color-transformation
amid shifting sunlight and tules
Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern OR Field Biologist