Is it a Bird? A Plane? No, it’s a Drone!

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo of Windmill Pond by Doug Peterson

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge has several methodologies for trying to find the best ways to collect data to help provide a biological assessment for management decisions. Whether it’s walking transects through a field, driving an airboat on Malheur Lake surveying for shorebirds, flying in a small aircraft to count waterfowl, or conducting point-count surveys from a fixed position, all these methods help improve the quality of our surveys that provide important information, not just to Malheur NWR, but also to any biological program. As scientists, we are always looking for the latest and best practices to improve efficiency and accuracy, as well as finding affordable ways to collect data.

Today, the use of drones for biological assessments is becoming a very popular way to collect data. Through the Department of the Interior (DOI), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service offers classes to become a certified drone pilot for DOI. This certification requires potential pilots to take certain online aviation safety courses as well as a knowledge test. Once tests are completed, each individual needs to attend a week-long course through DOI to learn the ins and outs of flying a drone and to understand the laws and regulations one needs to be aware of before flying. Only after that are individuals certified as unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots for DOI.

At Malheur NWR, currently we use drones to take aerial photos for our carp biomass study, which will help provide valuable information about how carp affect aquatic vegetation. We are now trying to move forward using drone technology for bird monitoring surveys. One potential application is to use drones to monitor colonial nesting birds on Malheur Lake. In the past, these birds were monitored via small-plane flights once every 3 years. These flights are very spendy; the lengthy intervals between surveys limits the data we’re able to collect. This is why we would like to use drones to see if we can monitor densities of colonial nesters on the lake. Some of our neighbor National Wildlife Refuges in Eastern Idaho are using drone technology to monitor their American White Pelican colonies and are finding success. Granted, there are downsides to using drones. They have limited battery life and memory space, but despite these drawbacks, in the end drones are an amazing tool. Drones are not as invasive to wildlife and are more accessible when needed compared to a small aircraft or airboat, are cheaper and have multiple applications that assist biologist staff in fulfilling the Refuge’s mission. 

Trumpeter Swan Restoration Efforts in Oregon

Written by FOMR President Gary Ivey

Grace is not just any trumpeter swan, she has quite the story to share! We are proud to announce that FOMR Vice Chair, Alice Elshoff, has just had a part to play in the beginning of Grace’s story and even now, as she has just penned How Grace Got Her Name. This children’s story book has been stunningly illustrated by Jennifer Curtis and published locally through Moonglade Press in Bend, OR. Alice shares with readers the trouble that Grace finds herself along the Deschutes River in downtown Bend and the trials she endures alongside a community of people that set themselves to task in helping her survive and thrive.

Even more impressive is that Grace is but one swan of a much larger story for trumpeter swans. Young produced by Grace and her new mate will be released into the wild at Summer Lake Wildlife Area to help build a self-sustaining trumpeter flock as her two past broods were. Grace is owned by The Trumpeter Swan Society and hosted by Sunriver Nature Center, in a partnership aimed at building the wild population of trumpeter swans in SE and South-Central Oregon. The Trumpeter Swan Society and its other partners, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR), have been working to expand breeding trumpeter swan numbers and distribution in south-central and southeast Oregon since the 1990s with what’s called the Oregon Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project.

In the late 1930s through the 1950s trumpeter swans were released at MNWR to restore this once present Oregon species. The first nesting occurred in 1958 and the MNWR trumpeter swan flock slowly grew until its numbers peaked at 19 breeding pairs and a total of 77 individuals in 1986. Flood conditions in the mid-1980s reduced their productivity and allowed high numbers of common carp to invade traditional MNWR wintering sites and reduce aquatic food supplies, resulting in degraded wetland conditions and a declining trend in swan numbers. Shortage of winter food caused by degraded wetland conditions and low recruitment were the primary factors limiting the population and these problems were compounded by the sedentary behavior of the flock. The MNWR flock has persisted to the present, though the flock is currently very small (4 adults) and is in danger of local extinction. MNWR still provides excellent sites for breeding trumpeter swans; however, the wintering area in the south Blitzen Valley that the flock is imprinted on is marginal and likely limits the carrying capacity of the refuge for the existing flock. In recent years, brood survival has been minimal, likely due to reduced water availability in the Blitzen Valley.

Although the project originally began in 1991 and some progress was made on establishing a new flock focused on Summer Lake Wildlife Area, the project was halted in 1998 due to political concerns. Unfortunately, most of the new breeding pairs established from the 1990s releases were gone by the 2009, when restoration efforts were restored. Since 2009, 9 new pairs have nested in this region, which fledged a total of 17 wild hatched cygnets. We are hopeful that Grace’s young will survive to breed in the wild and contribute towards a self-sustaining trumpeter swan flock in Oregon.

Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge supports the Oregon Trumpeter Swan Restoration Project by contributing to The Trumpeter Swan Society as a member.

Painted Lady Butterflies

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Perhaps you’ve seen a few of these butterflies recently, flitting about in your garden. Or perhaps you’ve seen hundreds, coursing along coastlines or crossing highways in steady streams, with many sadly meeting their ends splattered on car windshields and grills.

Measuring two inches from wingtip to wingtip, with black and white markings against an orange backdrop, these scale-winged insects are a familiar sight to people around the world. The painted lady (Vanessa cardui) is one of the most widespread butterfly species on the planet, found on every continent except South America and Antarctica.

In years of abundant winter rainfall, painted lady numbers can skyrocket, as early-blooming wildflowers provide nectar for butterflies and food sources for their larvae.

Like the famous monarch butterfly, painted ladies are migratory, following favorable conditions with the seasons. In the American West, these butterflies generally move in a north-northwest direction, leaving the Southwest and Mexico at winter’s end and traveling toward the Pacific Northwest with the onset of spring.

Painted ladies aren’t picky in their choice of plants to nectar on. Adults will use almost any plant in flower but they show preference for those in the Asteraceae family, including thistles. These plants are the butterfly’s hosts—their larvae eat leaves of asters and spin silken webs to protect themselves from predators.

Interestingly, painted ladies are known to breed and lay eggs in all seasons. A single year’s migration can involve several successive generations of painted ladies, each born and raised along the migration route.

It’s estimated that millions of these butterflies are migrating across North America this spring. Enjoy this natural spectacle while it lasts!

Malheur Refuge Loves Its Volunteers!

Written by Carey Goss, Refuge Specialist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge/Photo by Carey Goss

“There is nothing stronger than a heart of a volunteer.” I learned this when I began managing the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Volunteer Program in 2001. I realized that I could not manage the Visitor Services Program alone. With more than 28,000 visitors visiting the Refuge annually, it was a challenge to provide visitors a genuine welcoming and a true orientation to the Refuge and complete other duties assigned to my position.

Let me introduce myself. My name is Carey Goss and I have been working at the Refuge for 21 years. I began as a trainee in 1998 under the management series and then graduated from Humboldt State University. I was fortunate enough to be hired full time at Malheur Refuge to manage the Visitor Services Program, which included the Volunteer Program. I am now the Wildlife Refuge Specialist, but I still have the wonderful opportunity to work with volunteers.

Things have changed over the years in the Volunteer Program at the Refuge, but not the gentle presence of volunteers and how much I appreciate them. Today, I work with volunteers to help me welcome and orient visitors in the Visitor Center, provide birding expertise to visitors from beginners to skilled birders, assist visitors as docents at the historic Sod House Ranch, and accomplish various tasks with maintenance.

Last year, Refuge volunteers provided more than 4,000 hours of service and I am grateful for what they have achieved. This year already, five Refuge volunteers have helped me with the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, staffed the Visitor Center, provided excellent birding advice to visitors, and completed various maintenance tasks.

I am excited to see the changes with the recent hire of FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks, the new Friend’s Nature Store and their expanded volunteer program. Together with the help of volunteers, we will make positive strides for the benefit of our visitors.

FOMR Sponsored County-wide Arts Education Program

Written by Carey Goss, Refuge Specialist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge/Photo courtesy of USFWS

This February, students all around Harney County had the opportunity to learn about shorebirds, gulls and terns and created unique pieces of art during this year’s Art Residency Program developed by Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Bend Art Center for the annual Harney County Migratory Bird Festival.

This program would have not been possible without Friends of Malheur Refuge, who was the main sponsor bringing this program to Harney County.

Refuge Specialist Carey Goss, of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, and artist Liz Foster, of Bend Art Center, traveled to schools across the area sharing their knowledge with local students. This year’s program served over 600 students in grades K – 8.

Students they visited each chose a bird image to study and re-create using watercolor paint. Every class learned about a variety of species of shorebirds, gulls and terns, as well as their habitats, calls, and how far they can migrate. They also learned some tips for drawing what they see, and multiple watercolor painting techniques. The integration of art and science made this program especially notable. Participating in this program was fun for the students and the instructors alike.

Each student worked hard on his or her piece of art and was proud to show it off. The paintings from this Art Residency Program were displayed around Burns and Hines at local businesses for visitors to see during the week of the festival.

Additionally, at least one student’s painting from each grade is featured in specially-designed nature note cards. The note cards are available for purchase at the Friends Nature Store, with all proceeds supporting FOMR’s local arts education program. In addition, five students’ pieces were selected to be printed on canvas and auctioned to support FOMR’s Art Residency Program in Harney County next year.

Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and the Bend Art Center thanks Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and all Harney County schools for participating in the Art Residency Program. Helping our youth through art programs may be one of the most important steps we can take together. Investing in youth art programs not only expose students to the benefit of the arts, but also help youth success in all school subjects and in life.