White Geese in the Harney Basin

Written by FOMR President Gary Ivey/Photo by Gary Ivey

In addition to serving as President of the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I work on Sandhill Crane conservation and research throughout the Pacific Flyway as a Research Associate for the International Crane Foundation. I help with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, almost every year, by giving talks and tours, mostly about cranes and waterfowl.

During my two days at the Festival this year, I noted that there were at least 150,000 Ross’ Geese, and perhaps 500 Snow Geese, in just the flocks on the private lands around Burns. I know this sounds like a lot, and it is.

I served as a Malheur Refuge wildlife biologist from 1983 through 1998 and one important survey we conducted was to fly all wetland and meadow areas in the Harney Basin in spring and fall, to count numbers of migrating waterfowl.  I personally tallied peaks of over 300,000 “white geese” using the Harney Basin during some spring aerial survey flights in the late 1990s (during aerial surveys, Ross’ and Snow Geese are lumped into this white goose category because they are difficult to distinguish from the air).

These geese use the Silvies Floodplain, Malheur Lake and the Double-O Ranch areas extensively during spring migration. More recently, numbers of wintering white geese have dramatically increased in the Pacific Flyway and recent estimates of Ross’ Geese total about 450,000 and estimates of Snow Geese total about 750,000; a total of about 1.2 million white geese!

From my past experience, a very high percentage of these Pacific Flyway white geese (up to 90%) stop in the Harney Basin for a few weeks each spring on their way back to their arctic nesting areas. Most of the Ross’ geese, the smaller of the two species, are on their way to nesting grounds in the central Canadian arctic.  The snow geese migrate to northern Canada as well, but also return to nesting areas in northern Alaska and Siberia.

On one of my festival tours this year, we had the pleasure of getting really close to a flock of about 50,000 Ross’ Geese in the flooded hay meadows of the Silvies Floodplain near Burns. The flock included at least eight blue-phased birds, which was a highlight of that tour.  I first observed this rare color of this species in the spring of 1984 and back then they were rare and hard to find. My impression is that the blue-phase of the Ross’ Goose has significantly increased since the 1980s in the flocks that use our Pacific Flyway.

This blue-phase of the Ross’ Goose was described in a research paper by Dr. Robert McLandress in 1979, and he theorized that it was so rare because this blue-phase gene likely recently entered the Ross’ Goose species, either through mutation or through hybridization with Snow Geese where the blue-phase is much more common. This latter theory is more likely, as he also documented hybrids between Snow and Ross’ Geese. If you haven’t seen these beauties, you should plan on attending the Festival next year!

The Ingenious Rust Fungus

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

A walk through the sage-steppe this time of year usually turns up some of the first high-desert wildflowers blooming between the dormant shrubs and still-brown grasses. Sagebrush buttercup, Beckwith’s violet, yellow bells and several biscuitroot species are among the earlier species to flower. But there is another springtime plant, superficially flower-like in appearance, that bears a closer look.

This rosette of yellow “blossoms” is in fact a rust fungus (Puccinia monoica) infecting a native mustard species. The fungus commandeers its host, altering its natural growth habit to produce yellow rosettes of “pseudo-flowers” which offer no real nectar or pollen but instead serve the reproductive purposes of the fungus.

By forcing its host’s pseudoflowers to manufacture floral scents and sticky, sweet “pseudo-nectar”, Puccinia deceives insects into landing on the infected plant. The fake flowers even mimic the lines and patterns known as nectar guides, visible under ultraviolet light, that many real blossoms sport to visually attract pollinators.

Once the insects alight, they inadvertently collect fungal gametes from the hundreds of “spermatogonia” that cover each pseudoflower. These insects then fly off to visit other pseudoflowers, bringing the hitchhiking gametes along to effectively “pollinate” the fungus.

But this is just one phase of Puccinia‘s life cycle. Once a Puccinia pesudoflower receives the right gametes to undergo sexual reproduction, it loses its bright color, attractive odor and sticky exudate and starts producing spores. These spores, carried by the wind, eventually land on certain grass species, which are the fungus’s secondary hosts. Once the spores germinate and infect the grass, a new, special set of spores is produced–these drift on the wind and eventually attach to mustard plants, starting the cycle anew.

A Long-Awaited Return to Malheur

Written by Steven Kratka/Photos by Steven Kratka

I find it hard to believe that it has been eight years since I last visited Malheur. I used to be a regular visitor to this amazing place, coming at least once a year for 20 years straight, so it was with much excitement that I return to the place that meant so much to me. I wondered if things had changed, if I would find my experience lacking from those I had enjoyed in the past.

On the first day of my return to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, I was greeted with the trumpeting call of Sandhill Cranes flying high overhead. A good omen, I thought, and I was not wrong. I spent a total of four days exploring the Refuge, looking into all its nooks and crannies. I was pleasantly surprised that this wonderful place had not changed at all and I fell into the familiar groove of slowly driving through the Refuge like I had done so many times in years past. The open vistas, the sound the wind makes as it whooshes through the sage, the calls of red-winged blackbirds and meadowlarks in the distance all telling me that Malheur was as beautiful, serene and every bit the extraordinary place that it has always been.

I practically had the entire Refuge to myself. Must be the time of year. In the four days that I traveled its roads I encountered practically no other people except for very rare fellow visitors. I relished in my solitude.

I came to Malheur to photograph the wildlife and with that I was rewarded with encounter after encounter of photographing opportunities. Usually when I go on photo expeditions my goal is to end up with two or perhaps three fantastic photos that are suitable for framing and hanging in a gallery display.  This trip to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge resulted in well over a dozen images of that quality. The great horned owls are always my favorite and I was able to photograph four different ones this trip. One of my favorite photos is of a female great horned owl incubating eggs in the crotch of a tree. So camouflaged was her plumage that I actually passed within ten feet a dozen times before I spotted her. Of course the entire time I was under the watchful gaze of the male owl perched nearby. I also photographed the nesting red-tailed hawks at Refuge Headquarters and Northern Harriers throughout the Refuge. Both golden and bald eagles were nice enough to pose for my lens. Other favorite images were of the singing meadowlark, cedar waxwings and mountain bluebirds showing up in their finest colors. Mule deer, marmots and even the cute gophers also put in an appearance. Thousands of snow geese filled the sky on several occasions. My list of sightings goes on and on.

Throughout my four days here, I posted my photos on wildlife, birding and community Facebook pages in the Willamette Valley. I received thousands of likes and hundreds of comments about what a special and extraordinary place Malheur is. Many readers that have been to Malheur before say they plan to return soon and readers that have never been here before are excited to add this wonderful Refuge to their bucket list.

I leave Malheur knowing that I will return again soon to this special place. I think back to that omen of the Sandhill Cranes trumpeting on my first day back to the Refuge after so many years away. I’m not sure what they were really saying but I would like to think it was “Welcome back”.

Prescribed Fire at Malheur Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by Daniel Yturriondobeitia

In March this year, the Refuge conducted a prescribed burn along the Blitzen River’s West Canal. We use prescribed fires in order to meet a few different objectives. One is that when we treat some of these areas with a prescribed burn, we can reduce the “fine fuel loads” and keep a larger uncontrolled wildfire from occurring on the Refuge. Another is to stimulate plant growth by releasing stored carbon back to the soil in the form of charcoal and to enhance habitat.

Many landscapes across the west have evolved with fire and have grown into a symbiotic relationship with the destructive mechanism. With current fire management practices and climate change, we have seen a significant rise in mega fires recently. As annuals continue to grow, spread seed, and die, litter is accumulated year after year and forms mats of tinder across the landscape. If this litter is allowed to build up without anything to cut it back, a potential wildfire can move in and dominate the area. Given how dry this fuel typically is and how much wind we get here in the west, these fires can move rapidly and cause massive damage to sensitive areas and cultural resources. Burning this fuel load in a more “controlled” setting can act as a buffer should a fire break out on or near the Refuge boundary.

When thatch is allowed to accumulate excessively, it can shade the ground to the point where it becomes less productive than it would be normally. When natives are outcompeted or shaded out of their habitats, opportunistic species (weeds) are more easily able to take over a site. Shaded-out ground also take longer to thaw out in the spring which can delay sprouting and keep macroinvertebrates inactive in a site. When this happens, food resources for migrating birds are low early in the season which can be detrimental to the early migrators. Nesting species can also be negatively impacted. Ruby Lake National Wildlife Refuge used to complete surveys looking at the amount of thatch cover and the quantity of nesting birds. Lower levels of thatch provided nesting materials and cover for these birds. Once the threshold was reached and the layer of dead plant material got too deep, bird usage would drop drastically which would trigger treatment in these areas for the Refuge. After completion of treatment, bird usage would spike the next year.

It is easy to drive along the Refuge and see the black, scorched earth and feel scorn for what you see. It is important to remember that here at the Refuge we don’t do prescribed burns as a means of getting the fire crews a practice run on the upcoming season. We burn to have a positive ecological impact on the areas in order to make a better home for all of our feathered friends that we anxiously await to come visit every year. Our water outlook is pretty good this year–should be a great one for our migratory birds. I hope everyone has a wonderful spring!

A Bird’s Eye View of Malheur Refuge

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo by Alexa Martinez

Malheur Refuge provides crucial staging and breeding habitat for waterfowl migrating along the Pacific Flyway. The Refuge supports up to 66 percent of the total waterfowl population using the Pacific Flyway during migration. To monitor this incredible abundance of ducks, geese and swans as efficiently as possible, biologists rely on aerial surveys to get a bird’s eye view of the Refuge.

Monitoring wildlife on Malheur, Mud and Harney Lakes is a challenging endeavor. The dynamic hydrological conditions in the Harney-Malheur Sub-basin can cause the lakes of Malheur Refuge to range in size from as little as 500 surface acres to as much as 172,000 surface acres, or 279 square miles. Due to the inaccessible and remote nature of waterfowl habitat on the Refuge, aerial surveys have been determined to be the most feasible and efficient method to effectively document waterfowl population size and distribution.

During spring migration, Malheur Refuge runs one aerial survey every two weeks, for a total of four flights from late March to early May. The purpose of this survey is to estimate migratory waterfowl population trends associated with habitat management practices on the Refuge. Currently Refuge staff have completed one of the four total flights.

On flight one, early migrant waterfowl were observed. The Harney-Malheur Sub-basin hosted large populations of Northern pintail moving through, along with American wigeon, Canada geese, snow geese, mallards, and swans.

At the end of March we’ll complete the second survey. During last year’s surveys, there was a distinct change in waterfowl densities just two weeks from the first flight. Instead of Northern pintail being the most dominant species seen, Northern shovelers rose to the top as the densest species in the basin. It’s amazing how in a couple of weeks the numbers of certain waterfowl species can change, as one pulse of the northward migration leaves the basin while another arrives to take its place.