Rare Owl at Malheur Refuge

Written by FOMR Secretary Rick Vetter/Photo by Rick Vetter

Conducting raptor surveys on Malheur Refuge usually turns up something special, like a barn owl hunting during the day, diving into deep snow; or 36 coyotes in one hour hunting mice at 20 degrees below zero. But never anything this special.

During the November 22, 2019 survey, Joan Suther and I saw a suspected short-eared owl at dusk perched on a fence post just off of Center patrol Road south of Benson pond, which is a good bird for a Harney County “winter” raptor count. 

But as we approached the bird, something appeared odd. When the owl turned his head to look at us, it had big black shiny eyes, which meant that this was a rare barred owl or a humongous flammulated owl in disguise!

This is only the third observation of a barred owl on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The other two observations were made at Refuge Headquarters, with one on March 26, 1996 by myself, Joan Suther, Larry Hammond and others; and another on October 6, 2000 when Noah Strycker, Alan Contreras and others watched a barred owl fight over a snake with a great horned owl. Headquarters makes a bit more sense for this species, as there are trees. It was odd that this one was hunting a clear cut hay meadow and competing with a coyote for food. Both were hunting by ear, listening for the sounds of meadow voles in the dry grass.

Several other sightings have occurred in Harney County or nearby. The first one was observed in the mid 1980s at Delintment Lake on Malheur National Forest by Charlie Bruce while elk hunting. Mark Armstrong found one dead below his picture window in the mid 1990s in Hines after he heard a loud thump that shook the front of his house. A pair was also heard calling in the summer of 2013 on Malheur National Forest. 

There are no records in CD Littlefield’s book, “Birds Of Malheur Refuge”, because the book was published in 1990 before most of the known observations occurred. 

Barred owls have been expanding their range in the NW and into California and prefer the moist forests on west side of the state where they compete with spotted owls and smaller owls.

Volunteering: The Year in Review

Written by Janelle Wicks/Photo by S. Loerch

“Spending this time just being here has been such a meaningful opportunity.”

“I’ve never done anything like this before and I will do it again.”

“Spending my time on the Refuge is important and fulfilling to me.”

“Malheur is magical.”

It is not uncommon for me to hear sentiments such as these on a monthly, if not weekly, basis throughout the year. It’s a moving experience to meet and work with people who have never set foot on Malheur before or have visited and deeply loved this place for over 30 years. Cohorts of volunteers formed bonds with one another and with me. Working with these more than 40 people who gave over 3,100 hours of their time to the Friends of Malheur NWR has been both professionally and personally rewarding.

In 2019, volunteers came from as far as Massachusetts and as near as Hines, OR. The primary responsibility assigned to volunteers from March through October is the staffing of our Crane’s Nest Nature Center & Store. Folks come for a minimum of 1 month and stay sometimes as long as 3 months. During that time they become critical staff that our organization depends on in order to run the store, support educational field trips, babysit eagle nests, maintain groundskeeping or engage in light construction projects. Regardless of the task at hand, our volunteers spend 100% of their time as ambassadors to the public and it never ceases to amaze me earnestly this role is taken on.

During a one-month stint we only require that each volunteer is only required to work 3 days/week, which leaves 4 days for adventuring! This exploration time allows our volunteers the opportunity to really know the Refuge. When they return to work their shifts, they know where the hoards of flickers are, how the swan nest is coming along, if the otters are out and about, and they share that with our visitors…and me.

I could not begin to express how fulfilling it has been to work with and get intimately acquainted with such a diverse group of spectacularly creative, intelligent, compassionate people. This is particularly resounding for the 19 residential (and 2 local) volunteers that worked so closely with me throughout the year in keeping our Crane’s Nest open and events staffed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (and again), a deep well of gratitude is owed to those who choose to share their time and talents with the Friends of Malheur. Without volunteers we would not have the capacity that we do in order to meet our mission of supporting the Refuge staff in the never-ending work of promoting the conservation and appreciation of Malheur NWR.


Discovering the Moths of Malheur

Written by Dana Ross/Photos by Dana Ross

Sampling moths at a new site is always exciting.  The canvas is blank and every species documented is new for the checklist.  As the day wanes toward night and I turn on each blacklight trap, I wonder what will magically appear in the bottom of the bucket by morning.

On the first visit to Malheur in September 2012, I had no idea what I was getting into.  The 15 traps that I had placed throughout the various plant communities between the headquarters and the south end of the refuge generated a whopping 5,218 individual moths and over 100 species!  One of the biggest sample-processing challenges was separating several similar looking species of Euxoa noctuid moths.  I relied heavily on my mentor Paul Hammond’s keen ability to decipher subtle differences in wing patterns until I developed my own search image.

In contrast, this past chilly, wet April fellow lepidopterist Gary Pearson and I scattered 30 light traps throughout the refuge and were able to sample just 154 moths and 18 species for all traps combined. Surprisingly, the most abundant moth was the rarely collected Agrotis longicornis and 14 of those species collected were sampled for the first time.  Whereas the cool, wet weather appeared to have suppressed moth activity it did not keep us from making important discoveries.

County records are another way to evaluate the contributions of a moth study to larger scale species distributions.  As one who tracks such things for Oregon, I’ve been able to confidently claim that sampling the Malheur refuge has contributed at least 20 first time species occurrence records for Harney County.

Another essential aspect of a moth study is the acquisition of voucher material.  Vouchers are the physical pinned and labeled specimens which serve as evidence for one’s claims.  Whenever possible, at least one pinned specimen per species sampled is deposited into the Oregon State Arthropod Collection (OSAC) at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  A selection of Malheur moths are also displayed in the refuge headquarters natural history museum. Have you gone in and had a look? If not, please do!

Over 170 species of moths are now known from the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge yet that is probably only one-half of the species that actually occur there.  In Part 3 of this story I will discuss what is left to be accomplished to obtain a more fully robust baseline of the present-day moth fauna of the refuge and where you can learn more about moths if you are so inclined.  So, y’all come back now, hear?

Do Birds Get Cold Feet?

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Flickr user sankax (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Birds, like all mammals and some fish, are homeotherms, meaning that they internally regulate their body temperature by burning calories to create and conserve heat. The challenge of maintaining a narrow, near-constant range of internal temperature during colder months is met by various means: some animals layer on heaps of energy-rich fat to metabolize in leaner times, others rely on thick, insulating coats or feathers; and some just eat continuously. (Humans, of course, avail themselves of each methodology.) Birds that spend their winters swimming, diving, and dabbling in cold water need to take particular care in keeping warm and dry, and thus many species sport a pillowy layer of down feathers overlaid by waterproof plumage. Their feet and beaks, bared to the elements, require warmth as surely as other parts of their bodies, but the route taken is a bit more circuitous (if you’ll pardon the anatomical pun).

In order to keep those exposed areas alive and warm, blood must flow freely to and from the extremities, nourishing tissues—and it must do so economically, with minimal loss of heat. Too much heat loss leads to hypothermia; too little blood flow invites frostbite and gangrene. The bird’s circulatory system achieves this balance by employing what’s called countercurrent, the side-by-side pairing of opposite flows—in this case, venous and arterial blood. Veins transport cool, oxygen-depleted blood back to the heart, while arteries furnish tissues with the warm, oxygenated stuff. In the beaks and feet of these cold-adapted birds, the veins and arteries are intertwined like a caduceus, so that arterial heat is transferred to venous chill and vice versa, ensuring a low, stable temperature in the extremities and minimizing the unavoidable loss of heat to the water. Of additional benefit is the fact that bird legs are mostly tendon, scales, and bone—the muscles are nestled close to the warm, feathered body and thus amply insulated. Mallards, for all their incessant dabbling on slushy ponds in the dead of winter, surrender a paltry five percent of their total body heat through their orange, webby feet.

This physiological countercurrency was first discovered by Galen, the second-century Greek physician-surgeon-philosopher who called the convoluted networks of veins and arteries retia mirabilia, Latin for “miraculous nets”. It is a feat of natural engineering, remarkable in its efficiency, and since Galen’s time the countercurrent has been emulated and expanded upon by humans in a variety of industrial applications, including petroleum refining, nuclear waste processing, and the extraction of gold from nickel-cyanide slurry.

Profile of FOMR Director Janelle Wicks

Written by Debby De Carlo, FOMR Volunteer/Photos courtesy of Janelle Wicks

She wouldn’t see the ocean until she was 17, yet Janelle Wicks knew at age 11 she was going to study marine biology and dreamed of one day saving manatees. She didn’t lose sight of that goal and enrolled at Lock Haven University in north-central Pennsylvania. Though landlocked, the school had a marine biology program, and even better, was part of what was then the Wallops Island Marine Science Consortium (MSC) in coastal Virginia. There she lived, worked and took classes each summer of her undergraduate tenure. During those months, each class was 3 weeks and equated to a semester’s week worth of content each day. “I’d conduct field research, go out of research vessels and complete reports,” she remembered. “It was life-changing to have that kind of immersive educational experience,” she says of that first summer. “For the first time I excelled academically.” 

With Wicks still in college, her mother decided to move from Pennsylvania to Georgia and Janelle moved in with a friend when school was out of session. “Nothing was going to stop me,” she said. “I worked at Wendy’s, was president of the Gay-Straight Alliance and administrative assistant to the resident hall director and about to graduate. With two weeks remaining in college, her mentor and boss insisted she work on her resume and apply for jobs every day. It was only a week before the Education Program Director at the MSC called me up and asked, ‘Can you be here on the 6th?’ Graduation was on the 5th. 

“To go back to this place I loved and serve as the residential coordinator for summer programming was a dream start.” At the end of that summer, Wicks was hired to stay on at the MSC as a marine science educator, teaching middle and high school students, often working six days a week. “We’d have a 30-minute lecture and then go into the field. These were high-performing students. It wasn’t meant to be camp in the traditional sense.” 

“I always thought I’d be a scientist, but I became an educator and administrator. I was fortunate to always have strong female mentors who saw my potential and helped me achieve it.” After three years at that job, she was offered a job at Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge where she led field crews monitoring piping plovers, American oystercatchers and colonial nesting birds. Eventually she moved west, landing a seasonal job with the US Forest Service in the Gold Beach Ranger District of southern coastal Oregon. “I told myself I’d go to grad school at OSU,” Wicks recalled. Instead, she found another good fit with the Corvallis Environmental Center’s Avery House Nature Center. 

It didn’t take long for her to transition from nature program coordinator to administrative director. She managed to take marketing, accounting and entrepreneurship at Linn-Benton Community College part time. Laura Peterson remembers working with Wicks there. “Janelle has this great way of observing how a person of any age is connecting with their environment, and then building on that spark of curiosity as she asks questions, educates, listens, and discusses. Her inviting and informative manner extend warmth and inclusiveness as she draws in others to share in her enthusiasm,” Peterson noted. “Working with Janelle was one of the best opportunities I have ever had both in a job and as a beginning naturalist. Janelle was always open to questions and explained things to me in a way I understood. She would often take those conversations deeper, and circle back to them in later discussions. I always felt like she had this wealth of information about ecosystems and relationships and interconnectedness, and our conversations and working together served to enrich how I thought about the world around me and how to engage others in connecting to it as well.” 

In the fall of 2015, Janelle recalls, “an old colleague from Chincoteague NWR called to let me know there was an opening for the Environmental Education Specialist at Klamath Basin Refuges.” By then, she’d been dating Teresa Wicks for well over a year. The two moved to Klamath where Teresa accepted a position as director of the Great Outdoor Alliance, an environmental education collaborative. Janelle quickly secured the position with the Klamath Basin Refuges. The two married in July of 2017, happy with their lives and jobs when Teresa was hired for her dream job: Eastern Oregon Field Biologist for Portland Audubon. They packed up their belongings, three dogs and a cat and moved to Burns in April 2018. Janelle was looking forward to being jobless. “I needed a break anyway,” Janelle noted. “It was nice to have one of us not working, to establish relationships in the community. Besides, I like to knit, cook and play with the dogs.” The two bought a house in Burns last summer, giving her the space to create a home. She met people in the community and got involved, yet still found some time to volunteer at the Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge where she met Jerry Moore, FOMR board member. 

When Peter Pearsall, executive director of FOMR, gave his notice late last summer it opened up a new door. “For this job to open was almost too perfect,” she said. “At this point, I have a strong sense where FOMR is and where it can go. We’ve gone from 550+ members to over 775 in a year. I want us to create more education opportunities, increase capital fundraising and develop lasting projects and programs.” “She’s everything we could want in an executive director,” board member Moore notes. “All of her previous experience has prepared her for this job.” Her entire staff is made up of volunteers. She’s expert at putting each person’s expertise to work, and patient with the vagaries of staff who are often retired. 

Malheur may not be the ocean, but it is a sea of sagebrush. As she walked into the Crane’s Nest Nature Center and Gift Shop recently after a night of rain, she took a breath of the sage-scented air. “I’ll never grow tired of that,” she said.