Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The verdant meadows, marshes and upland areas of Malheur Refuge, so vibrant in spring and summer, change swiftly to a palette of umber, straw and gray-green in fall. This is the harbinger of winter: sun giving way to clouds, greens giving way to browns, and the nights waxing long, dark and cold. It is an inexorable shift; as the planet turns, so the leaves.

Our northerly latitude provides us with discrete transitions from season to season, where marked differences in day length and temperature dictate the cadence of life. The move from fall to winter represents the declension of daylight—a time when plants and animals must adapt to changes wrought by the sun’s ebbing rays. Nowhere is this change more apparent than in the foliage of our deciduous trees.

Like all green plants, trees are predominately autotrophic, meaning that they make, or “synthesize” food for themselves via photosynthesis. Inside the cells of every leaf are disk-shaped structures called chloroplasts, which contain the pigments necessary to turn solar energy into chemical energy. Photosynthesis—the process by which plants convert sunlight and carbon dioxide to sugars within their chloroplasts—relies almost entirely on chlorophyll, the green, light-absorbing pigment that gives most leaves their color. During a tree’s growing season chlorophyll is the dominant pigment, working literally all day to capture sunlight while the getting’s good.

But chlorophyll is a frangible compound, inclined to close up shop and dissolve when there’s little light. After the autumnal equinox, the photoperiod—or length of day—shortens by almost two minutes per diem until December 22 or so, when night reigns for nearly 14 hours at its peak. More influential than extremes of temperature or precipitation, this decrease in daylight is the tree’s signal to power down its chloroplasts and hole up for winter. Cells begin producing sugars and amino acids in lieu of chlorophyll, to act as antifreeze agents. Nutrients are drawn from the leaves down into the branches and roots for storage. The tree is undergoing “plant senescence”, a gradual paring down of its metabolic processes in preparation for months of cold, dark dormancy.

First and foremost is the matter of the leaves. Deciduous trees carry leaves that are fair-weather fans: thinly clad, built for maximum light absorption and therefore extremely useful in sunny months. Come autumn, however, the leaves become a liability, siphoning precious fluids through their veins and finding less and less photosynthetic work to do. Frail and unarmored, they are at the mercy of the wind and cold. Chlorophyll breaks down completely by this point, exposing the gaudy carotenoid, anthocyanin, and xanthophyll pigments hidden beneath. (These compounds, responsible for the reds, yellows, purples, and oranges so fancied in fall foliage, act as a sort of sub-dermal sunscreen for the leaf during periods of growth, protecting it from harmful solar rays.) Seeking to cut its losses, the tree forms a layer of cells at the petiole, or base, of each leaf, clogging its veins. Soft parenchymal cells adhere to the leaf side of each stem, while waxy, impermeable suberized cells stick to the tree side. This cellular cork, called the abscission layer, is built upon until the desiccated leaf hangs by a mere wisp of tissue, poised to tear free and drift down on the breeze.

Thus denuded, the tree bides its time through the too-short days and frigid nights, living sparingly on its sugar stores until spring. We marvel at the variegated exuberance of fall—the brilliant reds and lambent yellows of a globe-girdling conflagration—but it is simply a wardrobe change between seasons, as the raiment of the sun is cast off and the spartan coat of winter shrugged on in its stead.

Humongous Fungus of Southeast Oregon

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

What is the largest living organism on the planet? A number of candidates spring to mind, such as the 100-foot long, 190-ton blue whale, or the 350-foot tall coastal redwood tree, both giants in their own right. Surprisingly, another candidate is a honey mushroom (Armillaria ostoyae) growing in Oregon’s Malheur National Forest! This superlative organism, known as the “Humongous Fungus”, covers an area of 2,385 acres or 3.7 square miles—roughly the size of Burns, Oregon!

Honey mushrooms parasitize conifer trees by tapping into their roots and siphoning off water and sugars, eventually killing their hosts. In fact, the Humongous Fungus of Oregon was discovered by scientists investigating the cause of a massive die-off of trees in the area.

The familiar stalk and cap of a mushroom is but a small visible part—the fruiting body or “sporocarp”—of a vast fungal network of connected cells known as mycelium. The Humongous Fungus is considered a single organism because all the cells in its 2,385-acre network share the same DNA and communicate with one another, sharing resources via the mycelium.

Fungi are consummate decomposers, decontextualizers, virtuosic maestros of soil remediation. They liaise with plants underground, symbiotically exchanging those fundamental currencies of life: water, carbohydrates, protection from attack. In some cases—such as with the honey mushroom—the symbiosis is parasitic rather than commensal or mutualistic.

Akin to a universal solvent, fungi liberate nutrients that others find impossible to extract and digest on their own. They sequester toxins in their flesh and synthesize potent chemical compounds de novo in a sort of mycological alchemy. Fungi achieve these inimitable feats, among much, much else—and they get it done with absolutely zero fanfare. Theirs is a dirty job, lowly and thankless, but it is an indispensable service nonetheless.

Mammals of Malheur

Written by Peter Pearsall

The unique wetland oasis of Malheur Refuge, surrounded by the sagebrush and juniper desert characteristic of the northern Great Basin, is well known for its migratory bird life. While a few of those bird species live year-round at the Refuge, most move on as seasons change. By contrast, nearly all of the mammals occurring at Malheur Refuge stay put all year. Smaller mammals hibernate or otherwise go into torpor, while others weather the frigid winters by layering up under fat and fur and being resourceful.

Distinctive mammalian habitats on the Refuge include large freshwater marshes containing extensive stands of emergent aquatic vegetation; riparian areas bordering streams and canals; irrigated meadows; semi-arid grassland desert areas dominated by sagebrush and greasewood; and basaltic rimrocks.

Some sixty mammal species call Malheur Refuge home. There are, for instance, at least 13 species of bats, as well as 25 different rodent species. But the mammals that capture visitors’ attention most readily tend to be the large ones: deer, coyotes, bobcats, pronghorn. Highlighted here are a few of our favorites.

Mule Deer

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Nearly every terrestrial habitat type at the Refuge is used by these widespread ungulates. Mule deer possess the keen senses required to avoid predation: acute hearing and sense of smell, as well as large eyes with a wide field of view. During the winter rut, bucks clash antlers to compete for breeding partners; these antlers are shed every spring to regrow in full by late summer.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Kay Steele

The cunning and adaptable coyote is also widespread at Malheur Refuge. These omnivores consume a wide variety of plants and animals, allowing them to flourish in a variety of settings, from remote high desert to dense urban sprawl. The quiet mornings and evenings at the Refuge are often punctuated by yips and howls of these highly intelligent, social canids.

American Badger

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

These large, stocky members of the mustelid family are usually nocturnal, using their massive claws to unearth burrowing prey such as ground squirrels and other rodents. Amazingly, badgers and coyotes are known to sometimes hunt burrowing mammals together! The coyote will chase down prey if it runs, while the badger will dig after prey if it heads underground into its burrow systems.

River Otter

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Sleek, powerful and playful, river otters are adapted to life in water, equipped with webbed hind feet and thick insulating fur. Related to badgers and weasels, otters prey on a variety of creatures including fish, crustaceans, and the occasional bird or small mammal.

Black-tailed Jackrabbit

Photo by Peter Pearsall/USFWS

Black-tailed jackrabbits (along with true rabbits) belong to the mammalian order Lagomorpha, a classification that sets them apart from other groups of small mammals such as rodents and shrews. While both rabbits and jackrabbits sport long ears and long hind legs, jackrabbits tend to be larger, with longer ears and limbs. In the heat of summer at Malheur Refuge, jackrabbits conserve energy by resting during the day and being active by night; this behavior switches over in the winter.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Kay Steele

Pronghorn are capable of sustained sprints topping 50 miles per hour, making them the fastest land mammal in the Western Hemisphere. It’s thought that this impressive speed—which far outpaces any extant North American predator—is a vestigial trait that arose during the Pleistocene, when cheetah-like cats roamed North America’s grasslands and preyed on pronghorn. Read more about pronghorn in our blog post here.


Photo by FOMR volunteer Dan Streiffert

The bobcat is one of two felids native to Malheur Refuge–the other being the mountain lion. Both are shy, solitary and mostly active at night, so sightings at the Refuge are uncommon to rare. Occasionally visitors are treated to the sight of a bobcat padding silently down a Refuge road, availing itself of a well-groomed trail as any sensible creature would.

Welcome Alan and Sheran to FOMR Board!

Friends of Malheur Refuge’s Board of Directors is pleased to announce the addition of Alan Contreras and Sheran Wright to its roster. Both are longstanding members of Oregon’s birding community and bring a diverse set of skills and experience to the board.

Alan Contreras is a fourth-generation Oregonian born in Tillamook County. A birder from the age of 11, Alan first visited Harney County in 1969. He has made biannual trips to the Refuge for the past 50 years.

From 2011-2012 Alan served on FOMR’s board while also serving on the board of the Great Basin Society, which operates the Malheur Field Station. “I’ve been a part of the interest groups at Malheur Refuge for quite a while now,” he says.

Alan is semi-retired from a career in higher-education oversight, mostly for the state of Oregon. He is also a writer and editor, notably serving as the editor of “Edge of Awe”, a collection of writings on Malheur Refuge and Harney County from birders, naturalists and other high-desert devotees.

Alan is looking forward to bringing more of Oregon’s birding community into the FOMR fold. “The Refuge is going through a number of transitions now; membership is healthy but we can do better,” he says. “Neither Sheran or I are biologists; neither will we be doing any trail maintenance or tree planting because we’re older—but we do know lots of contacts in the Oregon birding community and we look forward to finding more ways to involve them.”

In 1981 Sheran Wright moved to Oregon from the eastern U.S. and took her first birding trip in August 1983 to Tillamook County, with the Portland Audubon Society. “We saw more than 200 species on that trip, and I was hooked,” she says.

Sheran first visited Malheur Refuge in the spring of 1984, staying at the Malheur Field Station. She’s been back almost every spring and fall, staying a week or more each time. A retired federal labor investigator, Sheran has served on the boards of the Great Basin Society and the Oregon Birding Association (OBA). For years she’s helped organize OBA trips to Malheur Refuge.

Sheran was urged to join FOMR’s board by Alan Contreras. “I thought about it: I’ve been visiting the Refuge for 36 years, I have an ongoing interest in several conservation issues here, such as tree cover and birder access…I was happy to be recommended to the board and look forward to getting more involved here,” she says.

Congratulations, Alan and Sheran! The FOMR Board is fortunate to have them.

FOMR’s Virtual Gathering

Written by Debby de Carlo

First the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival, scheduled for mid-April, was canceled. Then the Friends Annual Meeting and Weekend Gathering, was canceled. As COVID 19 spread around the United States, people scrapped their travel plans and stayed home.

For those who love Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, many of whom make an annual spring visit, it’s been especially difficult. But the vital work at the refuge continues, and FOMR Executive Director Janelle Wicks brought the experience to us via a virtual series of programs on Zoom. Each presentation is available on YouTube which you can get to from our Facebook page.

The first program began Monday, Aug. 17, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Janelle invited viewers to bring a glass of their favorite beverage to the computer or tablet and hear staff talk about their work for a virtual Happy Hour and Refuge Update.  

Board director Gary Ivey presented a program on Trumpeter Swans Tuesday. 

Wednesday afternoon’s program was Principles and Pitfalls of Bird Identification by prolific writer and birder Kenn Kaufman who spoke via zoom from his living room in Ohio. His tips numbered 12 in all, summarized here. “Focus on understanding and not just naming birds,” he began. “Think of it as a spectrum of understanding.”

Learn various aspects of the shape, color and feathers of a bird as well as habitat. Start with more common birds, he counseled. Notice the shapes as they fly. Put the bird in a family if you can. Get to know the fluidity of feathers, the tail pattern and colors keeping in mind color can change in the light and depending on the season. And understand it’s going to take time.

That evening musician and songwriter presented Stephan Nance with compositions inspired by avian life. There were some technical difficulties, but you can listen to Nance’s music on a variety of platforms.

Did you know adult male Sandhill Cranes are called roans, females mares and chicks, colts? Gary Ivey shared his extensive knowledge and experience with these magnificent birds with an extensive slide presentation Thursday.

He began with some history: While once abundant in the West, populations were reduced in the late 1800s and beyond due to hunting and habitat loss. By the 1940s, just 5 breeding pairs remained in California and 100 in Oregon. None remained in Washington State. While they have made a comeback, threats remain. 

Dan Streiffert and the East Cascade Audubon group shared their Birders’ Night program Thursday evening. Dan gave his presentation Birding Malheur & Beyond which is a 3 part tour of birding through Harney County accompanied by his photography.

Friday afternoon brought the return of super birder Kenn Kaufman with a must-see (and hear) presentation on shorebirds. What IS a shorebird? Why are some found nowhere near water? Again, a detailed slide presentation filled with information and photographs helped those of us who have struggled for years with identifying these birds.

On Friday evening, Janelle was joined by her wife, Teresa ‘Bird’ Wicks for their 4th rendition of Malheur Trivia. This casual, pub-style trivia program allows for participants across the country to form or join groups to play and learn. This month’s winners were the Peeps and each will receive a bumper sticker!

Finally, the week was wrapped up on Saturday with a virtual auction that raised ~$400 off of items that were donated in large part by local businesses.

To see the whole line-up of programs, visit our Facebook page or website. Links to the YouTube presentations are available on the website.