Moths of Malheur – Part 1

Written by Dana Ross/Photo by Dana Ross

Brightly colored butterflies may catch the attention of even the most casual naturalist, but what about moths?  As largely nocturnal creatures, moths are less often noticed and tend to be unappreciated for their more subtle beauty.  And of the relatively few moth species that may mingle with the daytime butterflies? My sense is that they are generally mistaken for the latter.

Twenty-five years ago I had the good fortune to be accepted as a student worker into the lab of Dr. Jeffrey Miller in the Department of Entomology at Oregon State University in Corvallis.  I had been a butterfly guy (the “kid with the butterfly net”) since the age of 4, but little did I know that my insect universe was about to expand enormously. Jeff was deep into a project that involved the field collection of Pacific Northwest caterpillars from a large number of tree and shrub species and the lab rearing of each larva on its field-associated larval hostplant.  He would photograph the caterpillars as they went through a series of growth stages toward pupation. Once the adult imago eclosed (“emerged”) and was subsequently identified the complete adult-caterpillar-larval hostplant relationship was confirmed (often for the first time) augmented by Jeff’s beautiful macro-photography.

Around that same time, Dr. Paul Hammond – moth taxonomist extraordinaire – was collaborating regularly with Dr. Miller.  It was then that I – having officially joined the team as a Faculty Research Assistant – began to appreciate the remarkable abundance and diversity of moths.  It became my task to regularly sample these insects using light traps at the H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest in the Western Cascades of Oregon. Each visit entailed deploying the night-time sampling devices (and their heavy 12 volt battery power source) late in the day and rounding them up early the following morning.  Samples were processed back at Jeff’s OSU lab with Paul sorting, counting and naming each species.  I was his scribe, dutifully searching through an enormous moth checklist and scribbling down abundance numbers for moths like Eosphoropteryx thyatiroides and Pseudobryomima muscosa.  I eventually learned hundreds of moth Latin names and “faces” (wing patterns) and have been able to use the resulting skill set and Dr. Hammond’s continued mentoring to begin the documentation of moths at various ecologically important sites throughout the Pacific Northwest.

Financial support from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s Inventory and Monitoring Program has provided for the first time documentation of moths at a number of Pacific Region National Wildlife Refuges, including Malheur NWR.  I’ll give you the run-down on what I’ve discovered while “Mothing Malheur” in the next part of this series. Stay tuned!

My Malheur Summer

Written by Norman Clippinger, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Biological Science Technician/Photo courtesy of Norman Clippinger

I have spent the last five years working as a seasonal Wilderness Ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park, but due to budget constraints, they halved their number of rangers park-wide. If I couldn’t be a park ranger, I wanted to continue my seasonal work as a biologist. I applied for what was nominally a Biological Science Tech position at a number of locations, and nearly landed one close to my Colorado home working on an endangered species in Wyoming. So when I got a call from James Pearson, a Fish Biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), it wasn’t clear to me at first what I’d be doing out in eastern Oregon, at that place where some folks took over the Refuge headquarters for a while. I’m not a fish biologist—I did my Ph.D. dissertation on an endangered mammal. I could have waited for another job somewhere else, but it was late in the hiring season—I took a chance and accepted James’ offer.

I found out in my first week that there were big problems in ecosystem function in the Harney Basin, specifically with Malheur Lake. The wind blows strong nearly every afternoon in the spring and summer, and that mixes sediment into the water. On my first day of duty here we went out on the airboat to check on the “sondes” (more on that later).  You can’t see your hand one foot under the water in most places in the lake. There are very few fish in the lake compared to others of its size, and what few are in the lake are the invasive Common carp. I read that back in the 1930’s people in the basin (and elsewhere during the worldwide Depression) were starving, so it seemed like a good idea to add a quickly reproducing fish in what seemed like an endless wetland.  While there were reductions in the water quality after the introduction of the Common carp, it seems that the combination of the carp and the massive expansion of the lake in the 1980’s lead to a dissipation in the number of birds utilizing Malheur Lake. Still a great many, mind you, but many fewer than when biologists observed the lake just decades ago.

What happened? As biologists, it’s our job to try to find out why the bird populations have dwindled, and that’s why the team of paid biologists and volunteers from USFWS, High Desert Partnership (HDP), US Geological Survey (USGS), the Friends of Malheur, Audubon Society, local tribes, and other agencies have come together to try to diagnose the ecological malfunction as quickly as possible. Only then could we come up with possible solutions. One thing we did know was that Malheur once had very little open water, with lots of emergent vegetation like cattails, rushes, sedges, and grasses in one huge hemi-marsh. The invertebrates (snails and insects) that fed on the vegetation were food for the huge population of migrating birds. Now it’s mostly a large, shallow, open water lake. Was it the carp eating the emergent vegetation? Or are the carp mostly a symptom of ecological dysfunction, and the main culprit is wind-driven sediment in the water, preventing the growth of new vegetation? Or do blue algal blooms feed off nutrients in the water to block light and choke out other plants?

My part in trying to find the answers was to lead the water quality team. You might ask, what’s water quality? I asked—and found out that water quality is a combination of many water characteristics including pH, dissolved minerals, suspended sediment (turbidity), and algal components that are suspended in the water. How do we measure these? In part by using a device called a sonde: an array of instruments attached to a computer, memory, and set of batteries that will measure the factors of water quality listed above. Part of my job is maintaining and calibrating these instruments, something I’d never done before. We would go out on the lake in airboats to reach the sondes we put out there for week after week recording of data. Oh, and as James told me on my first day, I wouldn’t have another bio-tech to work with—I’d be “in charge”—i.e. doing all this on my own. 

All life requires nitrogen and phosphorus sources (“nutrients”) to make proteins and DNA. That includes the blue-green algae and other varieties of photosynthetic organisms floating in the water. A second part of my job is carefully taking samples of water from Malheur Lake and the two major streams flowing into the lake: the Silvies, and the Donner und Blitzen rivers. These samples will help us determine if nutrient levels are driving algal blooms in different parts of the lake. In other words, if there’s lots of nitrogen/phosphorus in the water, algae grows quickly, and could be blocking light from reaching the shallow lake bottom, preventing the growth of emergent plants. We also collect suspended sediment samples to see if the wind-driven sediment was blocking the life-giving light. Fish biologists were also conducting another study of carp effects on vegetation up at Windmill Pond, but they also required water quality samples for comparison to Malheur Lake. It was turning out to be a very intense summer job!

But as it turns out, I didn’t do the job on my own. I was taught about the various aspects of the job by James, and Casie Smith of the USGS. They did a great job teaching me, and so I was soon calibrating the sondes and deploying them more easily. Ben Cate, Mark Chowning, J.P. Friedrichsen and many other technicians at HDP and Audubon helped me gather samples, transport me and my gear, and calibrate sondes. Ben and our USFWS office-mates Ed Sparks and Alexa Martinez ferried me on the lake via the airboats. The administrative and maintenance staff of both USFWS (thanks to Suzanne McConnell and Jeff MacKay) and HDP provided my finances, ground support and transportation needs. I discovered again that it takes a small army of dedicated people to make any scientific endeavor a reality. (I couldn’t list you all here!) And our scientific work is only possible if interested people in the area and nationwide provide the financial and political support. 

Now nearing the end of my summer at Malheur, I was able to learn a great deal, work hard, and explore the surrounding countryside in eastern Oregon.  I discovered the hardworking and supportive people of this area were my safety net and partners in discovery. I hope the work here continues to shed light on the problems plaguing the Malheur Lake system. Together we can address the problems we’ve all had a hand in causing, and find solutions that will lead us back to a more productive ecosystem. I’m glad I took a chance on Malheur. It is a journey worth taking.

Duck Banding at Malheur

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photos by Teresa Wicks

During the months of July and August, staff and volunteers from Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) and Malheur NWR come together on nights of the new moon for a week of duck banding.

What is the point of duck banding? Duck banding, conducted throughout North America, was originally used as a method to determine which species of waterfowl were traveling through the different migratory flyways, and how many of each species. For Refuges and other wildlife areas, banding also helps to determine the species of waterfowl that are actually utilizing the land for breeding, food, and shelter. Now, biologists use this technique to gather information on points within our four flyways where hunters and others recover waterfowl with bands. The band recovery data show biologists how the harvest is distributed throughout the flyway.

Depending on the location, different techniques are used to capture ducks. At Malheur Refuge, airboats are integral to duck banding operations. The shallow, expansive waterways at the Refuge are best navigated by these highly maneuverable, flat-bottomed watercraft. Airboats also give us the opportunity to capture a diverse variety of waterfowl species, as opposed to capturing a specific range of waterfowl with different methods, such as pre-baiting an area for the use of rocket nets. Instead of attracting only those species that prefer a specific type of bait, airboats allow us to pursue any and all species present in a given area.

Why are these operations conducted at night, under a new moon? In essence, the darker the night the better! We need full use of our spotlights in order to capture these ducks at night. Any additional light (from the moon, for instance) gives ducks the opportunity to see us and elude capture.

Once captured, a leg band is then placed on either leg. This band has unique identification characteristics that describe where, when, and by whom the individual was banded. If this individual was ever found in a different location, we can track it back using the ID and have some sort of idea where this duck was located. 

Duck banding in our the area is unique in that we primarily use spotlights and airboats to capture ducks out on the water. This technique has been used since 1993 by ODFW at Summer Lake Wildlife Area in Summer Lake, OR. Collaborating with Marty St. Louis, manager at Summer Lake Wildlife Area, and staff from Malheur NWR, we are able to make an effort to band both locations during the week of the new moon.

It works like this: We have two airboats, each with an airboat operator and two netters. Each netter is on the left and right side of the bow. The driver will then use the spotlight to point at a particular duck on the water and maneuver the boat as close as possible for one of the netters to capture the duck. Once captured, the duck is placed in one of our duck crates located on the boat. Once crates are filled, the ducks are then returned to the banding station where they are identified to a particular species, age and sex. Then a band is placed on their leg. Meanwhile another set of netters and empty crates are out on the airboat gathering more ducks. We repeat this cycle from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. Talk about a true night shift! 

We are still working on processing data from our last duck banding session in August. But during that first weeklong session in July, between Summer Lake Wildlife Area and Malheur NWR a grand total of 1,565 waterfowl were banded! From the grand total, Malheur NWR contributed 1,003 of those individuals from Boca and Malheur Lake!

This amazing effort wouldn’t have been successful without everyone’s help. Special thanks to Marty St. Louis and his crew from ODFW, Friends of Malheur Volunteers, Friends of Malheur summer technician, Refuge volunteers, Portland Audubon, High Desert Partnership technicians, Malheur NWR staff, Paiute Tribe biologists, ONDA volunteers, and National Wild Turkey Federation. It is amazing how many agencies and partners can work together for conservation efforts. It is always a pleasure to work with all sort of personalities during these efforts. Thank you all again for your hard work!

A Rare Bird at Refuge Headquarters

Written by Rick Vetter, FOMR Secretary/Photo by Renee Tressler

When Tim Rodenkirk, a botanist and well-respected avid birder from Coos Bay, made a road trip to Malheur NWR on Sept 14, 2019, he was hoping to relocate a rare bird sighting of a phainopepla at Page Springs Campground. He never did find it, but he found something better at his first stop at Malheur Refuge Headquarters. A small, brilliantly colored bird that has been documented over 99, 389 times in North America, but only twice in Oregon before this sighting: seen in John Day, September 12-14, 1998 and Clatsop, Oregon, October 6-14, 2001. A male Broad-billed Hummingbird! Aside from a combination of bright iridescent colors that will knock your socks off, it has a red and black bill the width of a two-by-four, broadest in the hummingbird world!

Once he posted his sighting, birding enthusiasts already on the Refuge were the first to enjoy its presence. As the news of the bird spread across the region, hundreds of birders from all over Oregon and parts of Idaho headed to Malheur Refuge over the next several days. Some drove all night. They were rewarded with views of a cooperative bird that enjoyed the diverse habitat at Refuge headquarters, fed at numerous hummingbird feeders and visited the new pollinator garden with red flowers and fresh nectar. He also feasted on the small insects in the trees and shrubs near the feeders at the Crane’s Nest Nature Center and Store.

This wandering species has been recorded as far north as Quebec City, Nova Scotia and the upper peninsula of Michigan, and has visited more than half of the states. Within the United States, the broad-billed hummingbird breeds in a small corner of southeast Arizona, and a sliver of southwest New Mexico, where it prefers riparian areas, wooded canyons, flower gardens and the occasional feeder. It also breeds and winters in Central Mexico, almost to Guatemala.

Fall is a rewarding time to bird Malheur NWR for rare birds. During September, the following rare or uncommon birds were observed on or near the Refuge this year: solitary sandpiper, green heron, red-necked grebe, red-shouldered hawk, peregrine falcon, plumbeous vireo, Hutton’s vireo, red-eyed Vireo, hermit warbler, chestnut-sided Warbler, Blackburnian warbler, Tennessee warbler, prairie warbler, red-breasted sapsucker, phainopepla, broad-tailed hummingbird, fox sparrow and golden-crowned sparrow. And with autumn now upon us, it is anyone’s guess what will be the next rare bird sighting at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

Basin and Range Topography

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

“The mountains form a ribbon of familiar landscape separating two vast spaces, blue haze above, a mosaic of cracked mud below. The desert almost seems to mirror the sky in size. It complements it and completes it.” -Stephen Trimble, “The Sagebrush Ocean” (1989)

Southeast of the Refuge lies the pancake-flat expanse of the Alvord Desert, an 84-square-mile former lakebed along the eastern escarpment of Steens Mountain. In much of the Great Basin, blocks of the Earth’s crust that fractured along fault lines have gradually tilted under their own weight, creating sloped mountain ranges that generally trend north-to-south. Steens Mountain is a striking example of this fault-block phenomenon: 50 miles long from north to south, its gentle western slope rising to 9,734 feet and dropping abruptly into the basin of the Alvord, more than 5,000 feet below.

Basin and range topography—those hundreds of north-south-trailing mountain ranges separated by broad, flat basins—owes its almost orderly appearance to the tectonic peregrinations of the Pacific Plate. Extending from approximately San Francisco to Tokyo and from Anchorage almost to New Zealand, the Pacific Plate is on a leisurely course headed due northwest, three inches a year, and the North American continent seems reluctant to let it go. As the Pacific Plate shears up and away from the continent, enormous cracks called normal faults split western North America’s crust into roughly parallel blocks, which tilt as one crustal edge slips beneath the other. An upwelling of magma beneath the stretched-thin crust helped to spread these blocks apart, giving rise to the Great Basin’s mounded convexity, in which the highest elevations lie at the basin’s center.

The ascending edges of these crustal blocks, now thrust up from the plain, become subject to an eternity of weathering processes: wind, rain, snow and ice. All the eroded sediment flows down into the gaps between faults, creating wide basins adjoining ranges. In days of yore these basins were filled with water, but few such lakes remain. Most are now dry, barren, leveled by millennia of alluvial deposits. These basins are some of the flattest areas on earth.