Wildflowers of Spring

“Efflorescence”

Sere hills blaze with light:
nothing so beautiful and
numinous as spring

Limpid desert breeze
suffused with heady bouquet
of floral perfume

Here today and gone
tomorrow, a fleeting treat
for all our senses

The first week of May is National Wildflower Week, celebrating native blooms across the country. Enjoy this photo gallery of Great Basin wildflowers taken during previous years by Peter Pearsall!

Harney County Migratory Bird Festival

Written by Peter PearsallPhoto by Dan Streiffert

For the first time in 40 years, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival has been canceled out of concerns relating to the novel coronavirus. This festival, held annually in April in Harney County, coincides with the spring migration of birds passing through Harney Basin along the Pacific Flyway.

More than 300 bird species use Malheur Refuge and the greater Harney Basin every year, making the region a birder’s paradise. Spring migration is particularly exciting, with new bird species arriving by the week and hundreds of birders arriving to see them. Since its start in 1981, the Harney County Migratory Bird Festival celebrates this annual phenomenon with guided tours, workshops, and activities for all ages.

In the early 1990s the bird festival shifted its focus from self-guided tours to organized tours led by area bird experts. It was at this time that the Refuge, Bureau of Land Management and Forest Service took on a more active role in the festival. Organization of the festival was still directed by volunteers, but the tours were led by agency personnel in agency vehicles.

As the festival outgrew the capacity of the dedicated group of volunteer organizers, the Bird Festival Committee began exploring other options for oversight. The Harney County Chamber of Commerce was approached about hosting the event. The Chamber Board of Directors decided to take on the Bird Festival as one of their sponsored events.

The Chamber of Commerce receives a portion of the revenue from the festival to offset expenses they accrue during the planning and implementation of the festival. A portion of the profits is available locally as grants for wildlife interpretation, educational projects and other community projects associated with the festival.

The festival was formerly known as the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival, honoring the first on-site manager of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. John Scharff began his career with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He initially arrived at the refuge as the assistant manager in 1935 and was promoted to refuge manager in 1937.

When John Scharff was promoted to refuge manager, he oversaw not only the management of the refuge’s vast natural resources, but also a rotating crew of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees at three camps, who undertook a number of major projects in the Blitzen Valley alongside Scharff and his staff. These projects included the construction of reservoirs, staff buildings, water-control structures, and the museum at refuge headquarters; the reintroduction of trumpeter swans to the refuge; and initiating the ongoing struggle to control non-native carp in Harney Basin.

John and his wife Florence lived on the refuge at refuge headquarters until John retired. John served as Refuge Manager for more than 34 years until he retired at age 70. Scharff maintains the longest tenure for an on-site manager in the Refuge System and he was awarded the Department of lnterior’s Distinguished Service Award in 1971.

Farewell to Ed Sparks, MNWR Wildlife Habitat Biologist

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo courtesy of Ed Sparks

Ed Sparks, Wildlife Habitat Biologist at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, is moving on to a new position! Ed’s duties at Malheur were many—including conducting aquatic vegetation surveys, working with grazing permittees, developing protocol for integrated pest management, and much else—and he will be missed by all.

Ed accepted the Supervisory Wildlife Refuge Specialist position at Havasu National Wildlife Refuge along the Lower Colorado River in Arizona/California.

“I was floored to be offered the position,” says Ed. “I’m very much looking forward to the opportunity to develop new skills and participate in habitat-management decisions on a Refuge-wide scale.”

In his new role at Havasu NWR, Ed will oversee biological staff, direct Wilderness monitoring on the Refuge, and manage the vehicle fleet, among other duties. He is particularly excited about the prospect of spending more time in the field.

Some of Ed’s favorite experiences working at Malheur NWR involved being in the field. He particularly enjoyed submerged aquatic vegetation surveys, which often involved working out of a canoe while identifying aquatic plants.

“It was a very Zen-like process that I really enjoyed: sitting in a canoe with a pile of plants in your lap, keying them out,” he says.

Also memorable for Ed was assisting with duck banding endeavors, helping to pilot airboats alongside staff from Malheur NWR and Oregon Department of Wildlife, both at Malheur’s Boca Lake and at Summer Lake Wildlife Area.

Ed says he will miss working with the outstanding Malheur NWR staff and partners but is excited about moving forward. We at FOMR wish him the best of luck!

Vault Toilet Screens

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo of Northern saw-whet owl by Julio Molero

Anyone visiting public lands such as National parks, forests, wildlife refuges or other publicly accessible natural areas has likely used a vault toilet. Convenient, durable and relatively easy to maintain, vault toilets are a staple at trail heads, picnic areas and roadside pull-offs across the country. They help to manage human waste in these natural areas, which see more and more visitation each year. But visitors may be surprised to hear that vault toilets present an unexpected entrapment hazard to wildlife.

Vault toilets mitigate odors from the underground storage tank by venting air through a pipe in the roof. This pipe, while malodorous and uninviting to us, can look enticing to animals that nest, roost or otherwise utilize cavities in trees and rocks, such as birds and small mammals. When the animals enter the vent and tumble into the tank below, they’re often unable to escape and sometimes perish in the dark, damp, confined space.

Thankfully for wildlife, there is a tidy fix for this messy problem. The Teton Raptor Center, widely credited as being among the first groups to address this issue, teamed up with staff from the U.S. Forest Service to create screens that fit over the vent pipes, keeping wildlife out while maintaining proper air flow. In 2011 the Teton Raptor Center launched a public-awareness campaign called the Port-O-Potty Owl Project; they’ve since helped to distribute and install thousands of these screens on vault toilets on public lands. Friends of Malheur is currently looking to raise money to purchase these screens for the four vault toilets currently installed at Malheur Refuge.

These screens are inexpensive, easy to install and immediately resolve the issue of animal entrapment in vault toilets. For the four screens required at Malheur Refuge, FOMR needs just $200. Please help us reach this goal and ensure that the Refuge’s vault toilets don’t pose unnecessary risks to wildlife. To donate and learn more about how to help, contact us at friends@malheurfriends.org.

Long-eared Owls

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Some may argue that humans never “find” owls; owls find us, and our interactions with them are nearly always on their terms. When we chance upon them in the daylight or listen in on their hooting, barking nocturnes, they are almost certainly aware of us before we perceive them.

The long-eared owl is a year-round resident of Malheur Refuge, but its nocturnal habits and cryptic coloration ensure that it is seldom detected by human observers. This medium-sized owl is active mainly at night, when it flies low over fields and grasslands in search of prey including small rodents, bats, birds and reptiles.

The “ears” of owls are in fact feathery tufts, not true extensions of the ears. It was once thought that these tufts aided owls in locating nocturnal prey by sound, but biologists today think that the tufts serve either to communicate non-verbally or as a camouflage mechanism, helping to break up the owl’s outline as it roosts by day in thick cover.

During the day long-eared roost in trees adjacent to hunting areas, such as in stands of willow or juniper. In winter long-eared owls are known to roost communally—sometimes a dozen or more (even up to fifty!) individuals have been found using the same general area. Long-eared owls usually roost close to the trunks of trees, and in Western junipers they effectively disappear behind the tree’s bushy gray-green boughs.

Long-eared owls are sporadic nesters at Malheur Refuge: some years several nests are reported, other years none. Availability of prey— particularly small rodents such as mice and voles—partially explains this. Another explanation relates to suitable nesting habitat. Long-eared owls in our region almost always appropriate abandoned black-billed magpie nests for their own use; the local abundance of breeding magpies may dictate how many long-eared owls nest in a given area. Ornithologist Robert Ridgway encountered long-eared owls regularly during his explorations of the West in the 1800s and noted the same magpie-owl relationship:

“Seldom, if ever, did we enter a willow-copse of any extent, during our explorations of the West, without starting one or more specimens of this Owl from the depths of the thicket. This was the case both near Sacramento and in the Interior, and in summer as in winter. In these thickets they find many deserted nests of the Magpie, and selecting the most dilapidated of these, deposit their eggs on a scant additional lining. This practice is so general, so far as the birds of the Interior are concerned, that we never found the eggs or young of this species except as described above.”

Keen of sight and hearing, often cryptically patterned and hidden by day, owls avoid detection because their lives depend on it. Many species rely on stealth to capture prey; most are equally reliant on camouflage to avoid becoming prey themselves. Thus, it is important to avoid causing undue stress to roosting owls: If you find one, it’s likely seen you first, and further pursuit could jeopardize its safety.