Weed-Control Prioritization at Malheur Refuge

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by High Desert Partnership

After an initial setback due to the furlough, Refuge staff and partners were able to participate in our Weed Prioritization Workshop February 12-13. The workshop was held at the High Desert Partnership office and put on by Region 1’s Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) team. Jess Wenick, who became one of the regional I&M biologists after leaving Malheur as the habitat ecologist, came back to lead the workshop. In attendance from the Refuge were biology staff, maintenance, and our deputy project leader. Also in attendance were weed experts from Oregon Department of Agriculture, Harney County Cooperative Weed Management Area, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, local landowners, and owners of Ecosystems Management, Inc. (a private chemical sprayer who works on the Refuge).

The first day of the meeting we tasked the experts in the room to go over Malheur Refuge’s extensive weed list so we could discern 1) how far away from the Refuge the weed was known to exist and 2) how invasive it would be if it made to the Refuge. This information was plugged into a computational model that created a score based on whether or not we could prevent, eradicate, or suppress the weed. The model then ranked out where our highest priorities should lie with our treatments. I won’t give the entire list here but our top five priorities (for the weeds on Refuge only) came out as follows: Salt cedar, Perennial pepperweed, Russian olive, and then Mediterranean sage, Medusahead rye, and Russian knapweed tied for fourth on the list.

On the second day of the meeting, the expert panel departed and it was down to just Refuge staff and members of Ecosystems Management, Inc. Day one focused on what to prioritize and day two focused on where. We broke down the Refuge to the management units (there are twelve) and then broke that down to habitat type. We then looked at each habitat and graded the current condition, resistance to weeds, and proximity to other activities on the Refuge. This was all plugged into the model to produce scores that tell us what the model expects to be our highest priority areas. The top five areas the model said deserve our highest attention were as follows: P-Ranch wetland, Krumbo meadow, P-Ranch meadow, Double O wetland, and BV meadow.

At this time the model results are only in draft form. I look forward to receiving the full package from the I&M team once completed. The idea here is that we can take this information and ensure that we are allocating our resources in the most intelligent way possible. One thing to keep in mind though is even armed with this information, we are allowed to use our best judgement. For example, the highest priority weed is currently only found in an area that ranked 20th in the area model. Since that weed has a high chance for eradication, we will be working diligently to eradicate that particular species regardless of how low the area ranked. Overall the workshop was a huge success, it was great to catch up with Jess, and I look forward to putting this new information on the ground this spring.

The First Butterflies of Spring

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Spring is slow to arrive to Malheur Refuge. Frost clings to the ground well into April most years; the austere high-desert vegetation stubbornly refuses to show signs of life until even later. But the subtle lengthening of days doesn’t go wholly unheralded. Resident birds begin warming up their vocal repertoires, migratory ducks and geese arrive to still-frozen waterways, and hibernating squirrels and other mammals rouse from their dens, all anticipating the change in seasons.

With below-freezing temperatures occurring regularly at night, one doesn’t expect to see many poikilothermic, or “cold-blooded”, creatures out and about. But one resident poikilotherm that stirs to life on warmer days in early spring is, improbably, a butterfly: the mourning cloak (Nymphalis antiopa), a widespread species found across North America and Eurasia, is usually the first butterfly seen at Malheur Refuge each spring.

Seeing a butterfly on the wing when the landscape is still icy and winter-browned can be startling. Across their range, chocolate-brown mourning cloaks are often the first butterflies to emerge each year, fluttering across snow-drifted fields and through leafless forests at a time when very few invertebrates are active. Unlike most temperate insect species that overwinter as larvae or pupae and emerge as adults in spring, mourning cloaks emerge in summer and spend the bulk of their 10-month lives as adults during the coldest period of the year. So how do these delicate insects survive below-freezing temperatures at night? And what are they eating during the day, when flowers are but a distant memory of seasons past?

To address the first question, mourning cloaks engage in “cryo-preservation”—that is, they allow themselves to literally freeze solid. Like other freeze-tolerant organisms such as certain frogs, turtles and insects, mourning cloaks will concentrate the sugar alcohol glycerol in their hemolymph (analogous to blood in vertebrates) to serve as an antifreeze. The glycerol helps to slow down and isolate the formation of ice crystals in the butterfly’s hemolymph-filled body, preventing lethal damage to organs and tissue. This adaptation allows the butterfly to spend the colder months of winter nestled in leaf litter or tree cavities, as frozen as its surroundings and hidden from predators. With the arrival of longer days and warming sunlight, the butterfly thaws out each morning to begin its search for food and mates.

This brings up the second question: What do mourning cloaks eat when the ground is still frozen? While the majority of butterflies require flower nectar of some sort for food, mourning cloaks are adept at sipping tree sap, which also thaws during sunny winter days and provides a crucial source of sugar in a nectar-barren landscape. Trees damaged by winter weather can often be found oozing sap as the weather warms. In Harney County, juniper trees sporting “wells” drilled by red-naped sapsuckers are another reliable source of sap. Mourning cloaks may also find fermented fruit left over from the previous summer.

Finding fully fledged butterflies at winter’s end might seem like an anomaly to us homeotherms, but in the case of mourning cloaks, it’s simply an aspect of their unique life history.

Winter Swan Surveys at Malheur Refuge

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo by Peter Pearsall

During the months of January and February, trumpeter and tundra swans begin their migration north to breeding grounds in Canada and Alaska. Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is one of the few locations in Eastern Oregon that provides an area for migrating swans to rest; a small population of trumpeter swans remains here year-round. Once a week, a biologist will go out to areas where swans are known to be present, thanks to previous collected data. This survey gives us an idea of the number of swans utilizing the Refuge as a checkpoint during their migration. This includes areas located on the south end of the Refuge, such as Krumbo Reservoir, Benson Pond, Dredger Pond and Boca Lake.

Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife conducts a winter swan survey once a year to count migration of wintering swans throughout the state of Oregon. This year’s survey was conducted in early February 2019. Over the month of February there has been a total of 1,037 swans seen on the Refuge. Three of those swans were seen with green collars and marked as Θ64, Θ76, and 2@1. All three swans are Malheur resident swans, so it’s great to see them return after their winter vacation. Θ64 is our resident female trumpeter swan at Benson Pond. She was born at Benson Pond in 2009, collared later that summer, and became the breeding female at Benson in 2014.

At Malheur Refuge all staff, volunteers, and visitors are encouraged to report sightings of both trumpeter and tundra swans on the Refuge. Please let us know if you see swans during your Refuge visit!

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.

On December 21 and 22, 2018, CBCs were conducted in Burns, Oregon and at P-Ranch at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, respectively. The CBC in Burns has taken place since 1998. The one in 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.

Despite cold conditions during the Burns count this year, there were 16 participants and 64 species were tallied, including 5,222 California quail. 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. They are slowly recovering, with this year’s count being the second highest since that record low count and a few shy of last year’s count of 5,581. Rick speculates that one reason for the slow recovery may be the increase of feral cats in Burns and Hines, with a total of 57 counted this year. 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.

A welcome surprise was the diversity of waterfowl at the Burns sewage pond, all crowded into a small 1/2-acre patch of open water on one pond. The Canada geese and larger ducks kept the ice from forming by moving around all night. Without the open water, participants would most likely have seen 13 fewer species.

The P Ranch count enjoyed better weather, and ended with a total of 66 species, including five different owls: short-eared, long-eared, great horned, barn, and western screech owl. Twelve hardy souls took part in this count, including an early evening search for owls.

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

Please consider joining us for the 2019 CBCs in Burns and at P Ranch! 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.