2020: A Look into the New Year at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Written by Jeff Mackay, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Deputy Project Leader/Photo by Peter Pearsall

At the close of 2019, a promising snow pack on the Steens Mountains is building and Department of Interior agencies have an approved budget for the Fiscal Year.  While an adequate snow pack is yet to be seen, a budget will enable us clearly to continue working with our partners to accomplish Refuge goals and deliver conservation in the Harney Basin.

What does 2020 hold for the Refuge?  Here’s a vision into a few key elements planned for the New Year…


The Refuge work force should grow as we plan to fill five vacant core positions: Project Leader, Administrative Officer, Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator (MHEO), Senior Firefighter (Engine Captain) and Forestry Technician (Fuels Specialist).  The Administrative Officer (AO) position has been vacant since April and Refuge Administrative Assistant Suzanne McConnell has been serving as the Acting AO skillfully accomplishing the full suite of administrative duties. The Project Leader (PL) position has been vacant since August when Chad Karges retired.  I have been serving as the PL and will continue in that role until the position is filled which perhaps will occur this spring. The MHEO position which serves as the Buena Vista Sub-station Manager has been vacant since fall 2018. Refuge Maintenance Mechanic (MM) Kenneth Berry has been serving as the Acting Sub-station Manager.  The Engine Captain and the Fuels Specialist positions have been vacant since fall 2018. We are fortunate to have a strong interagency relationship with the Burns District Bureau of Land Management and the Malheur National Forest and personnel from both agencies have served on work details to help cover the duties of these two important positions during this past fire season.  Filling these five vacant positions will return the Refuge to minimum staffing capacity and enable the Refuge to better achieve desired conservation outcomes.

Malheur Lake Restoration

In early 2020 Aquatic Health/Fisheries Biologist James Pearson will complete the Malheur Lake ecosystem model as part of his Doctoral graduate degree program at Oregon State University.  Currently Malheur Lake exists in a chronic turbid state prohibiting the growth of aquatic plants which provide important feeding and nesting habitat for wildlife. Through execution of certain large scale management actions we believe Malheur Lake can be restored to a healthy clear water state.  The ecosystem model will be used to analyze the influence of various system drivers on the ecological state of Malheur Lake enabling a focus on manipulation of key components. Complimentary to running the model, Habitat Biologist Edwin Sparks will oversee pilot projects to evaluate survival of planted emergent marsh vegetation (hardstem bulrush) in Malheur Lake.  Through a series of planting trials conducted in Malheur Lake, Ed will evaluate factors such as bulrush plug size, water depth, water and soil characteristics, and predation (by carp, muskrats, and waterfowl) on the survivability of planted hardstem bulrush. Model outputs and results from the vegetation planting project will help inform decisions on a suite of management actions leading to restoring a clear water state in Malheur Lake.  Restoration of Malheur Lake to a functional marsh ecosystem is years away, but by continuing to work with our partners in the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, we envision a clear path forward that will achieve our desired outcomes while maintaining an awareness that the path may meander as we continue to learn and understand the secrets of Malheur Lake. 

Refuge Management Direction

In 2013, the Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan was approved providing current management direction for various Refuge operational programs.  In 2020 we will continue to irrigate meadows and maintain ponds providing important wildlife habitat for migrating and nesting birds. Refuge maintenance staff, Maintenance Supervisor Edward Moulton, MHEO Bill Modey (Double O Sub-station Manager), MHEO Orritt Hoffman (P Ranch Sub-station Manager), and MM Kenneth Berry are invaluable for achieving the desired habitat management outcomes as they maintain water management infrastructure, manage water diversions, and oversee the Refuge vegetation management (haying) program.  Additionally, maintenance staff maintain Refuge roads allowing visitor access throughout the public use areas. Speaking of visitors, recently, Wildlife Refuge Specialist Carey Goss oversaw the installation of new directional and interpretive panels replacing old outdated signs. The new signs will enhance visitors experiences by providing interpretive information and updated and expanded directional information. Additionally, Carey will continue to work with Refuge volunteers and partners from Friends of Malheur Refuge and Portland Audubon to deliver the Refuge information and the environmental education programs.  Refuge Wildlife Biologist Melinda (Alexa) Martinez will continue to implement the Refuge inventory and monitoring programs. Working with the Refuge science partner from Portland Audubon, Alexa will continue to execute high priority wildlife surveys. A new survey of colonial nesting waterbirds (pelicans, terns, grebes, ibis, egrets, herons, cormorants) on Malheur Lake is planned this year using an Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle (UAV or “drone”). The use of UAV methodology is expected to reduce disturbance to nesting birds while enabling biologists to gather important data. Refuge Law Enforcement Officers John Megan and Brett Dean will continue to assure the protection of Refuge resources as well as continue to provide for staff and visitor safety.  Refuge Fire Management Officer Shane Theall along with Fire Operations Specialist Danny Yturriondobeitia and Rural Fire Protection Association Liaison Jacob Gear will continue working with partners to deliver the wildfire suppression and prescribed burn programs. Both programs are important for protecting and managing valuable wildlife habitat as well as protecting Refuge infrastructure and assets.

We look forward to sharing 2020 with you and hope that you will have an opportunity to visit Malheur Refuge.  Plan to spend some time at the Refuge Headquarters where you will find Refuge staff to answer questions unless of course if they are out completing field work.  We encourage you to wander through the Refuge Museum and visit the Cranes Nest Nature Center before making the short hike on the Marshall Trail.

Happy New Year!

Malheur Moth Inventory: The Never-ending Story

Written by Dana Ross/Photos by Dana Ross

A moth inventory can be virtually impossible to complete. Whereas common and widespread species are nearly always captured within the normal course of a sampling regime, it is the rarer species that require significantly more effort to detect and yet add enormously to the total checklist. Each moth species has specific resource requirements and is influenced by various environmental and ecological conditions. Thus, any species may be relatively more or less abundant in a given year. Rare moths (those that are infrequently sampled) may be those whose larval host plants are also rare or whose habitat is limited. They may also be species more prone to succumb to natural enemies or suffer from interspecies competition. Finally, species on the edge of their range tend to be uncommon.  

A species accumulation curve (x-axis = cumulative # of samples; y-axis = cumulative # of species) can suggest when an inventory is approaching a point of saturation, that is, of having documented nearly every species at a given site. And yet with additional effort through time and space species will continue to be added, if at a much slower rate. The challenge is to adequately sample the diversity of plant communities throughout the entire season of moth activity–functionally April through October at the Malheur refuge–such that a baseline of both the common species and the majority of the uncommon to rare ones are detected.

To date, a grand total of 66 black light trap moth samples have been taken from a variety of refuge plant communities. So far, sampling has occurred only during late April and intermittently from mid-July through mid-September. This means that, at the very least, the vast majority of spring-flying moths (May-June) await discovery. To that end, moth sampling will take place in late May, 2020 thanks to funding through the Pacific Region Inventory & Monitoring Program.

For those of you who would like to know more about the impressive moth diversity of the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend spending some time browsing Pacific Northwest Moths. For a broader look at what we have throughout the United States and Canada, visit the Moth Photographers Group or Butterflies and Moths of North America.

Bohemian Waxwings in Harney County

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

At Malheur Refuge in spring, summer and fall, cedar waxwings are commonly observed giving their high-pitched trilling calls, flocking from tree to tree in search of ripening fruit or sallying from perches to capture insects. With their subtly tinted plumage, rakish eye mask and crest, and often confiding nature, these gregarious birds are a welcome, if commonplace, wildlife sighting in Harney County.

But in winter, long after the cedar waxwings have departed south, the Refuge is occasionally host to another, less common waxwing, a wide-ranging species of North America and Eurasia: the Bohemian waxwing. Larger and deeper-voiced than cedar waxwings, with brown-accented plumage rather than yellow, Bohemian waxwings breed in the spruce-dominated northern forests of Canada, Alaska and across Eurasia. Large, garrulous flocks of this species are highly mobile in winter, roving constantly about for berries and other fruit. This itinerant, free-wheeling behavior gives these birds their “bohemian” moniker.  

The other part of their name refers to the fact that both cedar and Bohemian waxwings sport distinctive red-to-orange waxy tips on the ends of their secondary flight feathers. These tips, which are the flattened ends of feather shafts pigmented by the carotenoid astaxanthin, only occur on adult birds two to three years in age. While their purpose isn’t fully clear, it’s estimated that the waxy tips signal age, maturity and social status to other waxwings in a flock.

During this year’s Harney County Christmas Bird Counts, participants found 11 Bohemian waxwings busily feeding on berries despite below-zero temperatures and dense fog. These birds are adapted to metabolize the ethanol occurring naturally in fermented fruit, but occasionally they will overindulge and become intoxicated or even die from alcohol poisoning!

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.