Scrub Jays and Range Expansion

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Kay Steele

We marvel at birds for a wide variety of reasons: colorful plumage, melodious songs, intriguing behavior, canny adaptations, and so on. But perhaps most salient among those reasons is birds’ ability to transport themselves across the landscape. Many birds awe us with their seasonal migrations, which may span continents and oceans and challenge our notions of what’s possible in terms of navigation, endurance and site fidelity. When we pay attention to where birds go and why they travel, we often learn things about the wider world. Birds are harbingers of change—in season, climate, habitat suitability—and we can track those changes through their peregrinations, near and far.

As natural landscapes give way to human development, many native bird species lose prime habitat or shift their ranges elsewhere (if they can). Some birds, however, seem able to take advantage of the changes and instead ­expand their normal range. Consider the relatively recent arrival of California scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica) in southeast Oregon. While common west of the Cascades in Oregon and Sierra Nevada in California, this crestless, gray-and-blue jay was formerly scarce east of the mountains. Prior to 1990, California scrub jays were recorded just a handful of times in southeast Oregon. Today they are increasingly numerous here and in other places once outside their historic range; records indicate that these jays have been colonizing areas north and east of their range for the past 40 years.

California scrub jays aren’t considered a migratory species. When local populations of these birds reach a carrying capacity of sorts, the jays will often disperse en masse, particularly in fall. It’s likely during these periods of dispersal that scrub jays have expanded their range in recent decades. Like other native bird species such as grackles, blackbirds, ravens and crows, California scrub jays have adapted to living alongside human development—taking advantage of feeders, dumpsters and other human-made food sources—and this probably aids in their range expansion. As dispersing birds radiate out to seek less-crowded digs, with a bit of luck they might happen upon an area of concentrated food sources, such as a town or outpost. (They may also deliberately seek such places out.) If the jays can successfully compete with local birds for food and avoid mortality by predators or inclement weather, they could establish a new population.

In Harney County, birders began reporting California scrub jays in the towns of Burns and Hines around 2001. That year, the Christmas Bird Count turned up exactly one jay. Since then, CBCs in Burns/Hines have noted an overall increase in jays, with 16 seen in 2016, 40 in 2017, and an all-time high of 54 in 2018. Many residents in Burns and Hines set out feed for wild birds; the scrub jays apparently find this to their liking and have settled in for the long haul.

Christmas Bird Counts

Written by Peter Pearsall and Rick Vetter/Photo by Rick Vetter

Christmastime is all about traditions. Getting together with friends and family, exchanging gifts and good wishes, reflecting on one year’s end and looking forward to the next—all are part of the yuletide tradition, celebrated annually around the world.

Depending on which circles one moves in, Christmastime is also about birds —live birds, in situ. Not just basted turkeys. Nor that mixed flock of “four calling birds,three French hens, two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree”. The Audubon Society’s Christmas Bird Count, a citizen science effort aimed at monitoring bird population trends on a massive scale, is a long-standing tradition dating back to 1901. Born from an entirely different aim—that of shotguns trained on as many birds as one had shells for—the now-bloodless count turns an age-old maxim on its head: birds in the bush are worth infinitely more alive than dead by one’s hand, any ratios notwithstanding.

Now in its 117th year, the count draws more than 70,000 volunteer birders from across the Americas. They spend a day (or several days, contingent on their ardor) counting wild birds within a prescribed circle 15 miles across, sunrise to sunset. (Often a few hours are added after dark, to include nocturnal species). They move in flocks, much like their quarry, toting binoculars and spotting scopes and clicky metal tallywhackers for counting large, clustered groups of birds. They bicker and henpeck among themselves, among rival birders, because it is their contentious nature to question the observations of others, to remain unsatisfied until the putative bird is glimpsed with their own eyes.

As far as Christmas traditions go, counting birds makes about as much sense as the rest. That is, it does not, strictly speaking, make sense. It is an arbitrary artifact. Partly out of tradition (the shotgunning of yore was a holiday affair) and partly out of convenience (Christmastime affords people time off from work to do other things, such as watch birds), the count occurs from December 14 to January 5. This practice of citizen science is an inexact one, as amateurs and hobbyists are allowed—nay, encouraged—to participate in the count. Mistakes are unavoidable. But with enough counters involved, and with enough counts done successively in discrete areas, a fuzzy-edged census emerges, one that can be compared with those of years past and inform future conservation efforts.

The CBC in Burns, Oregon, has taken place since 1998. The one at Malheur Refuge’s P Ranch is more venerable, dating back to 1945. Rick Vetter, FOMR Secretary, has organized and participated in CBCs for several decades now, alongside his wife Joan Suther.

The Burns count is famous for its California quail tallies. These small game birds, incredibly numerous in Harney County, play a notable role in the Burns/Hines CBC. Backyard feeders concentrate quail flocks in winter, and in 2004 CBC participants counted a staggering 10,011 quail in Burns and Hines, setting a world record for the highest number of California quail found during a CBC! This broke the previous record of 6,800 set in Orange County, California in 1963. Shortly afterward that record-setting 2004 count in Burns, populations of quail and chukar crashed across southeast Oregon, resulting in a low count of 2,123 quail in 2007. Their slow recovery might be attributed to an increase of feral cats in Burns and Hines. The ceremonial town Christmas Tree is also a factor, since the city cuts one of the largest spruce or similar trees in town for free each year. These trees are the favorite roost of quail to avoid great horned owls at night.

Please consider joining us for the 2019 CBCs in Burns and at P Ranch! Portland Audubon and FOMR are also hosting a CBC4Kids, new this year! Due to increasing popularity of the counts, the size of Harney County and the size of Green’s home (where they have traditionally hosted a post-count dinner and party), there will be a limit of 16 people.

Special thanks go to Mike and Joyce Green for hosting another post-CBC dinner at their home, where birds of the day are reviewed and awards given out for especially good bird/wildlife sightings or unique happenings.

In Crust We Trust

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

As most of Malheur Refuge’s wildlife takes leave for the season, as many of the shrubs and grasses die back or slip into winter dormancy, the arid landscape is laid bare, somehow emptier and more desolate than before. But the grand architects of this high-desert ecosystem remain in place as they always have, humble and unassuming, right below your feet. They are known as cryptobiotic soils, or microbiotic soil crusts.

The organisms largely responsible for fostering desert ecology are not charismatic. Outwardly, their appearance does little to suggest importance in any capacity. They are not showy; they do not burst forth in flower, brighten hillsides in their profusion, or otherwise attract the eye to their presence. They scarcely rise more than a few centimeters off the ground. But they are everywhere. In fact, if you’ve spent any time at all exploring the Harney Basin shrub-steppe, admiring its spartan flora and fauna and puzzling apart the underlying glue that holds this ecosystem together, you’ve probably trod all over them.

Fragile, slow-growing and long-lived, these soil crusts are assemblages of minute organisms living commensally, a chunky mix of cyanobacteria, fungi, lichens and mosses daubed almost uniformly over the desert. Almost every undisturbed patch of non-wetland, non-bedrock substrate in the basin boasts a layer of crust, the expanse sometimes constituting thirty to forty percent of a given area’s biomass. Like most soils on earth, they are very much alive. Also like most soils, they serve absolutely essential functions in sustaining ecosystems, literally supporting them from the ground up.

Perhaps the most influential constituents of this living crust are the cyanobacteria. Unicellular, possessed of photosynthetic powers, these primordial lifeforms have a storied past on this planet, namely due to their pioneering role in colonizing its nascent landmasses some three billion years ago. At that point, earth’s atmosphere was devoid of oxygen. Not a single air-breathing organism lived above the waves. Born of the sea like all else, certain species of cyanobacteria washed ashore and slowly adapted to the environs, finding loads of carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen in the newly-minted atmosphere. Under an intensely burning sun, they began photosynthesizing en masse, converting carbon and water and sunlight to sugar and fresh air. For eons they breathed life into the void. Without cyanobacteria, there would have never been any accumulation of atmospheric oxygen on earth, and hence no terrestrial life as we know it. Their expirations paved the path from sea to shore, a groundbreaking happenstance that changed the world forever.

In the desert, cyanobacteria pump out oxygen as they always have, but their keystone function is one of cohesion. That is, keeping the friable desert soil from blowing or washing away. This they accomplish by binding particles to form clods, in much the same way a plant’s root system clumps dirt together, thereby slowing erosion. These types of colonial cyanobacteria occur in filaments, essentially gossamer strands of cells strung between soil specks. When wet, these bacteria navigate the soil’s porosity, twisting and tunneling and expanding their colonies, dragging their filaments between particles like a snail’s trail of slime. As the soil dries, so too do the filaments, resulting in a rigidized, weather-resistant mass. These filaments retain their hold long after the bacteria die, and can sometimes penetrate several inches below the soil’s surface. Water is soaked up by these filamentous accretions. Various nutrients and other fertilizers are trapped in the crust’s corrugated surface. The bacteria build the soil; the xeric plants take root.

Also of importance is the cyanobacteria’s fixing of nitrogen, a trick vascular plants have yet to master. The bacteria pull nitrogen gas from the atmosphere and sequester it in the soil, where it is available to searching roots. In nutrient-poor desert soils, much of the nitrogen present is put there by bacteria. It is a limiting factor to the plants’ growth. Without the crust, there would be few plants, and without plants, there wouldn’t be much around but rocks and dust.

Alas, the living crust is almost unbelievably delicate. Footsteps and truck treads and cattle hooves wreak havoc on the dormant colonies, the damage sometimes taking decades to repair. And as soon as the crust is broken, erosional processes go to work: soil dries up, breaks apart and is blown or washed away, opening rifts that weaken surrounding colonies and can eventually kill plant communities through drought or lack of nutrients. The area loses its soil stability and capacity for water retention. Desertification sets in. It is a brittle thing, this cryptobiotic crust, and the living desert depends on it.

There is a memorable U.S. Forest Service poster exhorting hikers to stay on trails, a plea for wildflowers that pertains equally well to soil crusts. Under the slogan, “Wildflowers grow by the inch and die by the foot”, it depicts a hiking boot coming down on a blossom, about to snuff out its life. If anything, cryptobiotic crust is even more fragile—so watch your step as you traverse the shrub-steppe. You’re walking over the groundwork of terrestrial life itself.

Winter Wildlife at Malheur Refuge

Written by Noah Strycker/Photo by Dan Streiffert

A few years ago, at dawn on an early winter’s day, my dad and I were driving out of the Malheur Field Station when we noticed something on top of a power pole.

“Great Horned Owl,” my dad said, and I mumbled agreement.

The shape was round and fluffy, grayish brown, and it had two distinct ear tufts. Having seen my share of Great Horneds on countless trips to southeast Oregon, I hardly bothered a second glance – but I should have known better than to take anything for granted at Malheur.

As we passed under the power pole, my dad simultaneously hit the brakes and exclaimed, “Whoa, it’s a bobcat!”

We eased a hundred yards down the road and gingerly opened the car doors, angling for a good view. The bobcat didn’t budge. On its high perch, surrounded by sagebrush, it was safe and seemed to enjoy the early slanting rays of sunshine.

Around us, the high desert was quiet. Winter brings a sweeping peace to Malheur, the priceless solitude that is usually reserved for inaccessible wilderness. A person fills more room in wide-open spaces, and it doesn’t take many fair-weather tourists for Malheur to get crowded. In winter, when hardly anyone visits, the landscape exudes meditative calm.

A deep chill had settled in overnight, and this bobcat curled itself into a tight ball, peering down at us with evident curiosity.

“You never know what’s around the next corner,” my dad murmured, with appreciation, as he snapped a photo. We watched the cat for a couple of minutes before leaving it to its sunrise vigil, and continued down the Center Patrol Road to see what else the day might bring.

For years now, my dad and I have made a near-annual wintertime pilgrimage to Malheur. We also go in other seasons-each has its attractions-but winter stands out.

Our tradition started when, fresh out of high school, I spent a fall season volunteering at the wildlife refuge. Having decided to defer college for a year, I called to ask if I could help the biologists with their work. They promptly set me up in a three-bedroom house at headquarters, loaned me a pickup truck, and dispatched me for bird surveys and fencing projects. I hung around the office, staffed the visitor center, and went birding every day from September through November.

That fall, I watched the seasons change in increments. The cottonwood and aspen leaves flamed out, and then the nights turned brisk. The first snow fell on Halloween, dusting headquarters in several inches of light powder; that same day, thousands of Snow Geese and Tundra Swans streamed overhead, aiming south, in continuous flocks.

By the time I departed in mid-November, the visitor center was virtually unvisited – most days, nobody stopped by. I packed up to spend the rest of my gap year in Taiwan, Mexico, and Panama before starting college the following spring. But I often thought about those tranquil days at Malheur and wondered what it was like when winter really took hold.

The following year, my dad and I planned a long weekend at the Field Station in January. We’ve been regular winter migrants ever since.

Midwinter is not the time to see a ton of birds. A few hardy species remain year-round, sticking it out through the most desolate conditions: Golden Eagles, Common Ravens, and Canyon Wrens haunt the rimrock, and the occasional Ruby-crowned Kinglet flits in bare willows.

But minimalism is itself a virtue, and the cold months at Malheur present a chance to set aside the usual distractions. When a landscape is laid bare, so, too, is the life within it.

Some birds, such as owls, are easier to find in midwinter. Take a slow January drive down the Center Patrol Road, eyeballing each leafless cottonwood tree and willow thicket, and you’ll invariably spot one – most likely a Great Horned, though with patience you might discover a placid Barn or even a snoozing Long-eared. Without layers of foliage, owls have nowhere to hide.

In the high desert, winter draws back the curtain, unmasks the actors, and simplifies the plot lines. Nests from previous seasons reveal themselves after the leaves drop, reminders of birds that have since flown thousands of miles to warmer climes. The birds that stay tend to be approachable in winter, when they are more preoccupied with warmth and food than avoiding predators.

Birding is also, in a way, much more civilized when the sun rises late and sets early. In December, unlike May, it’s unnecessary to rise at 4:30 a.m. to catch the early birds. You can sleep in, grab a cozy mug of something hot, and venture out without missing a thing. After a day in the field, you may return to a long, relaxing evening of editing photos and thumbing field guides.

For me, Malheur will always be special. Over the years, I made my way through college and then around the world on birdwatching projects, returning home to Oregon. My dad and I still make our annual wintertime journey to the place we’ve explored so many times together. It’s now been 15 years since our first pilgrimage, and every visit brings something new. These days, the trips also offer precious time to catch up between other adventures.

People and jobs may come and go, but Malheur, and its birds, have an enduring quality best appreciated in winter. When the snow falls, the thermometer drops to near zero, and fog freezes on the sage, my dad and I will pack up the car, head over the mountains, and see what awaits in the high desert.

Noah Strycker is a 32-year-old writer, photographer, and bird man based in Oregon. In 2015, during a quest spanning 41 countries and all seven continents, he set a world record by seeing 6,042 species of birds – more than half the birds on Earth – in one year.

Short-eared Owls at Malheur Refuge

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The short-eared owl (Asio flammeus) is a cosmopolitan bird of the open country, found in marshes, grasslands, shrublands, and tundra across North America and in similar habitats around the world. With cryptic plumage streaked in shades of tan and brown, this owl blends in perfectly with its surroundings, particularly when perched on or near the ground. Its common name refers to the sometimes-visible tufts on either side of its rounded head, which are thought to aid with camouflage and non-vocal communication between owls.

Short-eared owls are predominately a crepuscular species, actively foraging for mice, voles, and other small prey in the dim hours of dusk and dawn. While hunting, short-eared owls employ an erratic, buoyant flight—looking almost like an owl marionette—floating low over the ground, wheeling sharply about, listening intently for prey below. Their long, broad wings make hardly a sound as they crisscross open areas in the gloaming. If telltale rustling reveals a rodent underwing, the owl stoops, banks and dives into the grass, often emerging empty-taloned but sometimes coming up with a mouse or vole.

The beautiful, elaborate courtship displays performed by male short-eared owls during spring evenings are a sight to behold, complete with wing-clapping and hooted songs. In North America, this ground-nesting species breeds in open areas across the northern United States and Canada, including at Malheur Refuge. Local abundance is often tied to rodent populations: In years of high rodent production, short-eared owls can be particularly numerous at the Refuge, while in low years the species is virtually absent. Most short-eared owls overwinter in the United States and Mexico; a few have been known to remain at Malheur Refuge all year.

While widespread and commonly observed, this species is suffering population declines largely due to habitat losses to agriculture, livestock grazing, recreation, and development. According to the Western Asio flammeus Landscape Study (WAfLS)—considered the largest short-eared owl project in the world, spanning eight western states—short-eared owl populations are experiencing long-term, range-wide, substantial declines in North America, and the National Audubon Society Climate Program has classified the species as “Climate-Endangered”.

Efforts are underway to monitor this species in eastern Oregon. Klamath Bird Observatory partners with WAfLS to assess population status, trends, and threats against the short-eared owl; last spring, WAfLS launched its first set of short-eared owl citizen-science surveys in Oregon, with many of the survey locations near Malheur Refuge. You can read last year’s survey report here.

If you’re interested in making a valuable impact as a citizen scientist, sign up and participate in a WAfLS survey near you! Participating only requires two visits and many of the survey locations are close to Malheur Refuge. Visit the website for details and contact your Oregon state coordinator with any questions.