The Blue Hour at Malheur

Written by Robert Steelquist/Photo by Robert Steelquist

It is too dark for pictures. The western light has simply faded without a hint of color in a progression of grays fading to black. Twilight, he so-called “blue hour,” is a favorite of nature photographers. It takes place twice a day, when the sun has just set or not yet risen. Shadows don’t exist. Neither do highlights. Digital cameras, in this light, begin to invent colors that aren’t there, creating what photographers call noise, pixels of greens and magentas that serve as stand-ins for things the camera sensor cannot really detect.

This thing I’ve been strapped to all day (since the morning blue hour) is no longer of any use and so I choose simply to look and listen as night closes on the Refuge Headquarters Pond and to gather directly its sights and sounds: a pair of bothered geese, silhouetted shovelers, dipping swallows, a distant yips of a coyote and the who of the owl in the nearby spruce. This, perhaps, was the mood of the anonymous namer of this region when “malheur” was labeled: misfortune. For the photographer, the misfortune of a missed shot. Of natural unfoldings that will escape photographic capture. The hour of gloom before darkness encloses—blue hour—as in The Blues. Misfortune.

Yet, another feeling rises in me: the good fortune of seeing the vast basin without a frame; the liberation from the rule of thirds, f-stops, menus and buttons. Now it is raw, presenting itself to me directly. To see into the shadows, I must let my eyes adjust. To hear the sounds of coming night I must concentrate. I trace the distant rim of horizon; a few lights prick the dark of the distance. More sounds come and my bare eyes open to the details emerging within the growing shades of night.

It’s time to leave. (The sign says “closed at sunset”—but when was sunset?) This early in the season, it will soon be cold. Clouds will obscure the stars. The big space of the basin will be black and I have a few miles to drive back to Malheur Field Station. I take stock of everything my senses convey. I follow the arc of a silent owl in flight. I start the truck and turn up the road, switching on the headlights. Just as quickly, I turn them off because they insult my eyes and mar the scene unnaturally. Without them I can see the road just fine, even in the twilight. The gravel under the tires sings. The shadowy forms of fence posts and bare trees slip by. The sage flats tighten their hold on their secrets.

I’ve been coming to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for just over 30 years. Not every year—maybe once every four or five. It’s a long haul from the Olympic Peninsula, where I live, but in many ways, it’s everything that the Olympics are not. Toward the end of winter, I am ready for something that the Olympics are not. I come in early spring, when the ponds are full, the snow geese, curlews and cranes are in the wet fields and the whole flyway is full of waterfowl migrants, turning the world under them, it seems, with their wing beats. Nights are cold, Steens Mountain is pressed flat under its glacier-like snowcap, and the weather is unpredictable. I’ve dodged snow squalls on the Alvord on one visit, driven the cracked and dry playa the next. I’ve experienced the place with my growing sons (now grown), my closest friends and my students. In each of my companions, I’ve witnessed wonder: the hyper-blue of a mountain bluebird, the haunting thrums of sage grouse, the canyon wren’s descant, the scale of the basin and range landscape, the past violence of volcanic eruption, the inconceivable timespan of the lift and roll of the Steens Mountain fault block.

I have photographed—or tried to photograph—wary raptors, curious pronghorn, indifferent ducks, and landscapes for which no lens is wide enough. I’ve fought with the light: Wrong angle—another silhouette bird; Midday—blown out highlights. In these experiences, I’ve come to appreciate something far richer than even my finest photographs. It’s been the moments when I know that even the best camera will fail. It’s when the place itself exceeds the limits of containment and what is unfolding before me is too vast or wild to capture. And I’ve learned that it is wise to lower the viewfinder from my eye and experience the subtlety and awe of what is there. Even after 30-some years, those memories are far more durable than any picture. The sage in me knows this, even if the photographer doesn’t.

It’s late in the blue hour. Time to head home. The photographer’s misfortune—malheur. But the awakening of the senses in the experience of the wild. Bon chance.

Robert Steelquist is a naturalist, writer and photographer based in Washington State. He is author of The Northwest Coastal Explorer, published by Timber Press.

Carp Biomass Study at MNWR

Written by James Pearson, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Fish Biologist/Aerial photo of Malheur Lake by Peter Pearsall

My name is James Pearson and I am the new Fish Biologist at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR). I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, where immediately after completion of high school I joined the U.S. Marines where I served for four years completing two deployments. After the Marines, I received my Undergraduate in Biology at Willamette University. Once finished with school I worked as a biological technician for multiple projects with ODFW, OSU, and USGS of which the projects mainly focused on the effects of forest practices on Adult and Juvenile Coho salmon (Onchorhynchus kisutch) in the Coastal Range of Oregon.

Next, I attended OSU where I began working towards my Master’s Degree in Dr. Dunham’s Lab with a thesis focused on constructing a population model for the invasive common carp (Cyprinus carpio; hereafter “carp”) in Malheur Lake and investigating the efficacy of different active and passive carp removal methods (i.e. commercial harvest, juvenile trapping, embryo electroshocking, and avian predation).

After the completion of my Master’s course work, I was offered an opportunity to pursue a PhD at OSU and continue my modeling work focused on Malheur Lake. My PhD dissertation is focused on constructing a systems model that incorporates carp, hydrology, and wind resuspension in Malheur Lake. The systems model when complete will enable us to better understand the efficacy of multiple alternative restoration scenarios and our ability to potentially promote ecosystem recovery in Malheur Lake.

The systems modeling described above is informed by multiple on the ground research projects which help decrease major model uncertainties, thus delivering more informed model predictions. One such project is the carp biomass experiment, which is currently being initiated by Dr. Doug Peterson (USFWS Abernathy Fish Technology Center; Vancouver, WA) and his USFWS crew in windmill pond on the MNWR. The carp biomass study is an important study because it aims to quantify the contribution of carp to the current degraded water quality conditions in Malheur Lake. For instance, Doug Peterson’s crew will be investigating how different levels of carp biomass will affect the water quality (nutrients, turbidity, and chlorophyll) in 22 enclosures, utilizing three treatment groups (carp biomass levels; 50, 100, 300 kg/ha) over a four month period (June- September; submerged aquatic vegetation growing season).

After the initial construction and implementation of the carp biomass project, employees of the MNWR and High Desert Partnership (HDP) will take over data collection for the extent of the experiment. HDP’s Aquatic Coordinator (Mark Chowning) will monitor the carp enclosures, utilizing PIT tag arrays to ensure that the carp are still present at the desired densities as well as conduct periodic carp sampling events to collect key biometric data. In addition, Norman Clippinger (USFWS) will be collecting monthly water quality data analysis in which he will be monitoring for nutrients, turbidity, and chlorophyll. At the end of this project, we hope to utilize the information obtained in the carp biomass experiment to aid modeling efforts and ultimately inform future restoration actions in Malheur Lake.

Monitoring Murciélagos (Bats) at MNWR

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo of pallid bat by Peter Pearsall

As temperatures begin to rise at Malheur NWR, a diversity of critters come out to explore. Everything from snakes basking on the roads, songbirds nesting in trees and shrubs, or everyone’s favorite: pesky mosquitoes coming out to buzz in your ear. One critter of interest utilizes the resources that the Refuge provides for shelter, food, water and space…BATS! 

Visitors may focus on birds when they come to Malheur NWR, but when they walk around and find small piles of pellets near door entrances, they always think we have some sort of mice problem. When they are told that it’s just guano, or bat poop (also known as Malheur’s golden fertilizer!), some are either fascinated that we have bats or are confused because they were not expecting to hear that. 

At the Refuge, we take part in the North American Bat Monitoring Program (NABat) to monitor bat activity. NABat was created to assess continental-wide changes in distribution and abundance of bat species. This is an international, multi-agency program that uses four survey methods to gather data: winter hibernaculum counts, maternity colony counts, mobile acoustic survey along roads, and stationary acoustic survey points. 

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Region 1 (R1) Inventory and Monitoring Program (I&M) supports and coordinates NABat by assisting filed staff with conducting acoustic point sampling on National Wildlife Refuges. Malheur NWR has two 10X10 km grid sites where we set 4 bat detectors. These detectors record the echolocation from the bats in the area. We aim to set the detectors in areas where bats are known for; near standing water, trees, building rim rocks, etc. With this in mind, we have chosen Refuge Headquarters Complex and Buena Vista Substation. Both locations have been very promising. 

Looking at the results from, 2018 there were at least 12 species of bats detected at Malheur NWR! Out of 20 National Wildlife Refuges in R1, Malheur NWR reported the second highest recording of species richness, with Sheldon NWR having the greatest with 14 species of bats. Richness refers to both the diversity and abundance of the species. 

In 2019, we are continuing these surveys in addition to working with the Wildlife Health & Population Lab for Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to collect guano and swab samples. Samples are collected where we know there are potential maternal roosting on the Refuge and will be tested for White-Nose Syndrome (WNS). WNS is a disease that affects hibernating bats and is caused by a fungus that appears as a white fuzz on bats’ faces. This disease causes changes in bat behavior, making them more active than usual and burning up valuable fat reserves needed to survive the winter. This deadly disease has killed millions of bats in North America. It is important to stay vigilant, but 2018 results report that Malheur NWR is WNS free!

You can help prevent spread of WNS to unaffected areas! It is important that you DO NOT transport or use any exposed clothing or gear outside of a WNS-affected state or region for use in a WNS-unaffected state or region.  To learn more about NABat and WNS, you can visit or

Eastern Kingbirds at MNWR

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Teresa Wicks

One of my favorite things about Riparian Surveys on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are the Eastern Kingbirds. Showing up somewhere around late May/early June, their striking black-and-white plumage and noteworthy chattering provide entertainment for the duration of their time in Harney County. This year, the EAKI (the 4-letter code for Eastern Kingbirds) seemed to show a little later than last year, likely due to the abnormally wet and stormy May we had in Harney County. 

Aside from my inherent affection for EAKI, I have been thinking about them lately because I managed to capture a picture of an EAKI with color bands (pink above, red below) on its left leg. It likely also has a metal band on its right leg, but I couldn’t see it. One of the great things about the internet is that birders can look up research projects that involve color bands, collars (in geese and swans), and patagial tags (tags on wings, like in CA condor projects). Because Eastern Kingbirds tend to return to the area that they were born in, nested in, etc from year-to-year, it makes the study associated with this individual easy to find. 

Ultimately, this is what this one EAKI taught me: From 2002-2010, graduate students and researchers from Portland State University conducted in-depth research on EAKI at Malheur NWR. Throughout their range, EAKI have high site fidelity, with males often nesting in the same tree from year-to-year. However, Malheur EAKI have a higher likelihood of resighting (in this case meaning returning to their nesting/natal territory) than in other areas where they nest. This is likely because the habitat for EAKI in Harney County is largely limited to Malheur NWR.  Meaning there aren’t many other places for them to go when they return year-to-year. This study also verified that while EAKI are socially monogamous, they are (like many songbirds) actually polygynous, with males and females engaging in “extra-pair matings” throughout the year. 

Possibly one of the more interesting things about this particular EAKI, and this particular study, is that this adult EAKI was likely color banded from 2002-2010. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the oldest EAKI on record was “at least 10 years, 1 month old when she was recaptured and released” in New York. If the EAKI on Malheur had been banded as a fledgling, 9-10 years ago, that would make this bird approximately the same age as the oldest EAKI on record. If it was banded before that, it could possibly be the older than the oldest known EAKI! What an exciting thought!

The visible color bands have been reported to the Breeding Bird Laboratory, in the hopes that the pattern and location will be enough for an ID. If it is, this data will go into the BBL database, and provide information about lifespan and site fidelity for researchers across the country. This is why it is so important to report birds that you see with color leg bands, neck collars, or patagial tags. This resighting information is an important part of these “mark-recapture” efforts. If you see a banded bird, take a photo and report it!

Slater Elementary Field Days

Written by FOMR volunteer Eileen Loerch/Photos by FOMR volunteers Patty MacInnis and Steve Loerch

When Janelle asked me to help with a first and third grade field trips to the Refuge, I happily accepted the offer. In the past, I worked with children to help them discover the wonders of birds and I missed the experience. 

Approximately 135 first- and third-grade children from Slater Elementary in Burns participated in a field trip over two days. 

Our first day was spent with the 1st graders. In addition to myself, Carey Goss, Alexa Martinez (Biologist) and Brett Dean (Refuge Law Enforcement) lead groups of students at four separate stations. I chose to help the children understand the differences between mammals and birds, and we congregated under the pavilion near the gift shop. With a ready supply of Belding’s ground squirrels and a variety of birds, the children and I had an opportunity to observe birds and mammals going about their lives.

Additionally, we shared hands-on activities that allowed us to touch bobcat pelts, look at replicas of eggs, observe several types of recovered bird nests, and hold and compare feathers of different types and from different types. To help work off excess energy we waved the feathers in the air and felt how they moved the air and practiced soaring like a vulture.

A highlight of the visit for the children was observing the resident adult and juvenile great horned owls through spotting scopes. The owls cooperated by roosting in trees near the gift shop, allowing a view through the scope that filled the field of view. I loved the children’s delight at seeing the owls so close. A frequent comment was “He’s right in there!”

When the third graders came a week later, it was myself with Carey Goss, and Janelle. I met my student groups over three rotations and took them on a bird walk around the David Marshall Trail. The students were fascinated with the bird blind, and quite adept at finding and identifying birds using field guides. All things wild caught their eye, including ants and other insects. They had fun looking at spider webs blowing through the silver maples along the trail. 

Watching the children reminded me to be aware of all the life that surrounds us at Malheur. Magic lives at Malheur. You only need see through the eyes of a child to notice it.

Field Days Addendum

Written by FOMR Director Janelle Wicks

It was such a joy to reach into my old bag of tricks and pull out some of my favorite activities for the Slater 3rd Grade students earlier this month. We began our time with a discussion about the role of a National Wildlife Refuge to conserve and manage the landscape to support healthy populations of native and migratory species that depend on it. Logically, this lead to a wonderful conversation about common carp and their impact on Malheur Lake which was originally protected for resident and migratory birds. 

From there we engaged in an activity I like to call Feed the Birds. Students pair off and are given a realistic image of a bird and asked to discuss that bird with their partner. Do you know what bird it is? What do you think it might eat? Why might it eat seeds versus small mammals? This discussion goes on for a bit of time before I show off my table of bird skulls where they try to find and stand by the skull that they believe belongs to their bird. This part is always fun – listening to them debate over the merit of one choice or another before settling and raising their bird in the air to let me know they’ve come to a decision. At that point it is up to each team to defend their choice. We talk about beak structure, eye location, size, etc until everyone has had a chance to speak. Helping the students articulate their observations and encouraging them to actively listen to one another is so much fun.

After that the students had the chance to do one more activity with me before we rotate. We discuss the needs that all wildlife have but then focus specifically on birds. When we learn about birds – what do we learn about? What do they eat? Where do they live? What kind of nest do they make? Answers to these questions are found in special books all about birds! Asking themselves these questions about their favorite bird, the students get to choose different colored yarn that represent their answers and braid a “Fingerwoven Field Guide”. 

Exclamations of “Mine is a hummingbird!” “Mine is a bald eagle!” “Mine is a flamingo!!!” all start to ring out all around me as we settle down to braid our bracelets. As we prepare to say goodbye and rotate to the next station, I share a little secret with them. 

“Today, every one of you is going to go home with a very special bird identification guidebook of your own!” Due to the generosity of author, naturalist, conservationist and Friends of Malheur NWR Board Member Kenn Kaufman, we passed out 68 of his Field Guide to Birds of North America books to 68 very keen young birders!

The Friends of Malheur NWR are so grateful to Kenn for his priceless gift to these local students. Thank you Kenn and thank you to all of you who in supporting our organization make things like this possible.