Eastern Kingbirds at MNWR

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Teresa Wicks

One of my favorite things about Riparian Surveys on Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are the Eastern Kingbirds. Showing up somewhere around late May/early June, their striking black-and-white plumage and noteworthy chattering provide entertainment for the duration of their time in Harney County. This year, the EAKI (the 4-letter code for Eastern Kingbirds) seemed to show a little later than last year, likely due to the abnormally wet and stormy May we had in Harney County. 

Aside from my inherent affection for EAKI, I have been thinking about them lately because I managed to capture a picture of an EAKI with color bands (pink above, red below) on its left leg. It likely also has a metal band on its right leg, but I couldn’t see it. One of the great things about the internet is that birders can look up research projects that involve color bands, collars (in geese and swans), and patagial tags (tags on wings, like in CA condor projects). Because Eastern Kingbirds tend to return to the area that they were born in, nested in, etc from year-to-year, it makes the study associated with this individual easy to find. 

Ultimately, this is what this one EAKI taught me: From 2002-2010, graduate students and researchers from Portland State University conducted in-depth research on EAKI at Malheur NWR. Throughout their range, EAKI have high site fidelity, with males often nesting in the same tree from year-to-year. However, Malheur EAKI have a higher likelihood of resighting (in this case meaning returning to their nesting/natal territory) than in other areas where they nest. This is likely because the habitat for EAKI in Harney County is largely limited to Malheur NWR.  Meaning there aren’t many other places for them to go when they return year-to-year. This study also verified that while EAKI are socially monogamous, they are (like many songbirds) actually polygynous, with males and females engaging in “extra-pair matings” throughout the year. 

Possibly one of the more interesting things about this particular EAKI, and this particular study, is that this adult EAKI was likely color banded from 2002-2010. According to Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, the oldest EAKI on record was “at least 10 years, 1 month old when she was recaptured and released” in New York. If the EAKI on Malheur had been banded as a fledgling, 9-10 years ago, that would make this bird approximately the same age as the oldest EAKI on record. If it was banded before that, it could possibly be the older than the oldest known EAKI! What an exciting thought!

The visible color bands have been reported to the Breeding Bird Laboratory, in the hopes that the pattern and location will be enough for an ID. If it is, this data will go into the BBL database, and provide information about lifespan and site fidelity for researchers across the country. This is why it is so important to report birds that you see with color leg bands, neck collars, or patagial tags. This resighting information is an important part of these “mark-recapture” efforts. If you see a banded bird, take a photo and report it!

Slater Elementary Field Days

Written by FOMR volunteer Eileen Loerch/Photos by FOMR volunteers Patty MacInnis and Steve Loerch

When Janelle asked me to help with a first and third grade field trips to the Refuge, I happily accepted the offer. In the past, I worked with children to help them discover the wonders of birds and I missed the experience. 

Approximately 135 first- and third-grade children from Slater Elementary in Burns participated in a field trip over two days. 

Our first day was spent with the 1st graders. In addition to myself, Carey Goss, Alexa Martinez (Biologist) and Brett Dean (Refuge Law Enforcement) lead groups of students at four separate stations. I chose to help the children understand the differences between mammals and birds, and we congregated under the pavilion near the gift shop. With a ready supply of Belding’s ground squirrels and a variety of birds, the children and I had an opportunity to observe birds and mammals going about their lives.

Additionally, we shared hands-on activities that allowed us to touch bobcat pelts, look at replicas of eggs, observe several types of recovered bird nests, and hold and compare feathers of different types and from different types. To help work off excess energy we waved the feathers in the air and felt how they moved the air and practiced soaring like a vulture.

A highlight of the visit for the children was observing the resident adult and juvenile great horned owls through spotting scopes. The owls cooperated by roosting in trees near the gift shop, allowing a view through the scope that filled the field of view. I loved the children’s delight at seeing the owls so close. A frequent comment was “He’s right in there!”

When the third graders came a week later, it was myself with Carey Goss, and Janelle. I met my student groups over three rotations and took them on a bird walk around the David Marshall Trail. The students were fascinated with the bird blind, and quite adept at finding and identifying birds using field guides. All things wild caught their eye, including ants and other insects. They had fun looking at spider webs blowing through the silver maples along the trail. 

Watching the children reminded me to be aware of all the life that surrounds us at Malheur. Magic lives at Malheur. You only need see through the eyes of a child to notice it.

Field Days Addendum

Written by FOMR Director Janelle Wicks

It was such a joy to reach into my old bag of tricks and pull out some of my favorite activities for the Slater 3rd Grade students earlier this month. We began our time with a discussion about the role of a National Wildlife Refuge to conserve and manage the landscape to support healthy populations of native and migratory species that depend on it. Logically, this lead to a wonderful conversation about common carp and their impact on Malheur Lake which was originally protected for resident and migratory birds. 

From there we engaged in an activity I like to call Feed the Birds. Students pair off and are given a realistic image of a bird and asked to discuss that bird with their partner. Do you know what bird it is? What do you think it might eat? Why might it eat seeds versus small mammals? This discussion goes on for a bit of time before I show off my table of bird skulls where they try to find and stand by the skull that they believe belongs to their bird. This part is always fun – listening to them debate over the merit of one choice or another before settling and raising their bird in the air to let me know they’ve come to a decision. At that point it is up to each team to defend their choice. We talk about beak structure, eye location, size, etc until everyone has had a chance to speak. Helping the students articulate their observations and encouraging them to actively listen to one another is so much fun.

After that the students had the chance to do one more activity with me before we rotate. We discuss the needs that all wildlife have but then focus specifically on birds. When we learn about birds – what do we learn about? What do they eat? Where do they live? What kind of nest do they make? Answers to these questions are found in special books all about birds! Asking themselves these questions about their favorite bird, the students get to choose different colored yarn that represent their answers and braid a “Fingerwoven Field Guide”. 

Exclamations of “Mine is a hummingbird!” “Mine is a bald eagle!” “Mine is a flamingo!!!” all start to ring out all around me as we settle down to braid our bracelets. As we prepare to say goodbye and rotate to the next station, I share a little secret with them. 

“Today, every one of you is going to go home with a very special bird identification guidebook of your own!” Due to the generosity of author, naturalist, conservationist and Friends of Malheur NWR Board Member Kenn Kaufman, we passed out 68 of his Field Guide to Birds of North America books to 68 very keen young birders!

The Friends of Malheur NWR are so grateful to Kenn for his priceless gift to these local students. Thank you Kenn and thank you to all of you who in supporting our organization make things like this possible.

Spring Inventory and Monitoring at Malheur

Written by Teresa “Bird” Wicks, Portland Audubon Society Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator/Photo by Teresa Wicks

This spring has been a particularly wet one at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. Between spring snowmelt and rainstorms, things are lush and green throughout the Refuge. Particularly in the Blitzen River Valley, where the main channel of the river is rushing with abundant runoff from Steens Mountain. As water levels rise in the Blitzen River and in the east and west canals, more snow has been deposited on Steens. Because of the snow, the Bureau of Land Management is saying that the loop road likely won’t be open until July!

As expected, the water and weather have affected birds on the Refuge, with the first-of-the-year Eastern Kingbird recorded May 27th, during the second round of Woody Riparian Landbird surveys.  Woody Riparian Landbird surveys are one of several spring Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) surveys at Malheur. These I&M surveys provide data about management efforts on the Refuge, including management of wet meadows, riparian areas, springs, and lacustrine habitat (lakes and impoundments). Additionally, I&M survey priorities are selected to meet state, local, and regional efforts.

Many of the spring avian I&M surveys are completed via a partnership between Portland Audubon and Malheur NWR. Portland Audubon has been involved at Malheur since its designation as a wildlife reservation in the early 1900s. Over approximately the past decade, Portland Audubon has provided seasonal biological staff, to complete biological surveys and docent work with the Refuge. Finally, last year, Portland Audubon hired me as their full-time year-round Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator. This has allowed Portland Audubon to work more closely with our Eastern Oregon partners, including Malheur NWR and Friends of Malheur NWR.

I started with Portland Audubon in April 2018, making this spring my second field season at Malheur. One of the more interesting things about the difference between last winter/spring and this winter/spring is the amount of water everywhere. While Malheur Lake still hasn’t reached the Narrows (It will! Soon!), many of the canals, ponds, and wetlands are brimming with water, including in places that last season seemed like there should have been water but wasn’t. As a student of nature, this dichotomy (abundant water vs little water) is providing important lessons. Lessons that are potentially clouded by the near-constant rain that May brought to the Harney Basin. But, they are lessons nonetheless. Some of these lessons include remembering that when the water is hip deep, and the clouds are emptying their contents on the field you’re in, you can definitely still make it back to the truck. The wildflowers that this wet winter and spring have called forth have been a lesson in remembering to stop and enjoy the hidden beauty of this place that provides solitude, solace, and endless vistas.

This spring’s data are an important addition to the I&M database. The lessons that we will learn, as more information is added to this database, will help shape management and conservation efforts at Malheur. These lessons are less subtle than wildflowers and more subtle than water levels, and will help create successful strategies for adapting to a changing climate.

Partners in Science

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo of APHIS drone by Edwin Sparks

Here at Malheur Refuge we engage in a lot of partnership opportunities. I have heard it called “The Malheur Model” more than once. I want to take the time to highlight one of these ongoing partnerships that we have been engaged in for a few years that is probably not well known at this time.

Two years ago I got a phone call from a gentleman that works for USDA/APHIS down in Phoenix, AZ. He is working with a consulting firm based out of Michigan looking at using new technologies for grasshopper control projects. For those who haven’t worked with the hopper folks, current practices are as follows: A field crew of two people go out and walk or ride ATVs across the landscape looking for grasshoppers and Mormon crickets. If they find either of these they will continue to monitor the sites and see if treatment is needed in certain areas. If treatment is deemed necessary, they will typically use a fixed wing aircraft to spray a chemical in the area that stunts grasshopper growth keeping them from being able to reach the last metamorphic growth stage. This, in turn, keeps them from laying eggs. The chemical that has been used lately is called Dimilin. It is safe around birds, mammals, fish, etc. This chemical specifically stops chitin production, a process crucial to invertebrate development.

The problem is that while this chemical is safe around most animals, there are more insects out there that produce chitin that are more than likely being affected by these treatments. So enters APHIS into the picture. They wanted to know if the Refuge would partner with them to try a pilot study to attempt to see if they couldn’t produce an early detection, rapid response protocol. They reached out primarily because we have clearwing grasshoppers on the Refuge and we don’t graze any fields during the growing season. They are wanting to use drones to accomplish both the task of detection and the response. They have so far tried two different rigs, one with an infrared camera looking for different color bands to determine plant health associate with hopper predation. The second used “light detection and ranging” (LiDAR) to measure the amount of light bounced back from the landscape to determine percentage of available leaf. The hope is that once a suitable method of detection is found, the same drone could then be outfitted with a bait box system that could then be deployed at the hatch site.

I don’t need to go into too much depth explaining why this would be a great technology once they get the kinks ironed out. APHIS works mostly with private landowners who look to control grasshoppers in order to keep losses down. That program is not likely going to go away anytime soon. The dream is that this project will keep thousands of acres treated (if not hundreds of thousands) down to hundreds. Given that our pollinators worldwide are facing dire times, every little thing we can do to help keep the amount of treatment down is a huge success.

Western Burrowing Owls

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The Western burrowing owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) is a ground-dwelling owl that inhabits areas of short vegetation and bare ground, including deserts, grasslands and shrub-steppe across the West. In Oregon, they are usually associated with sagebrush-steppe, grasslands, pastures, roadsides, and other areas characterized by sparse vegetation and level terrain. East of Oregon’s Cascade Range, burrowing owls are known to breed in all or nearly all of Oregon’s counties, being most common in Wasco, Morrow, Umatilla, Malheur, Harney, and Lake counties.

Its common name refers to the fact that this owl nests and roosts in underground cavities. While capable of small amounts of earth-moving with their taloned feet, burrowing owls usually seek out the previously dug cavities of burrowing mammals (such as ground squirrels, kit foxes or badgers) in which to take residence and raise young.

Burrowing owls spend much of their time on or near the ground, where their spotted buff-brown plumage keeps them relatively inconspicuous as they stand outside their burrows or perch in low vegetation. Always alert to potential danger, the rounded heads of these owls swivel about fluidly, their bright yellow, forward-facing eyes constantly surveying their surroundings.

These small, long-legged owls—seven to ten inches from head to tail—prey on a wide variety of small animals including rodents, reptiles, amphibians and insects, which they capture with their feet and usually ingest whole. They sometimes employ a hovering flight to scan the ground below for prey; they also sally to the ground from perches to chase and capture prey on foot.

Unlike many owl species, burrowing owls may be active both day and night. In the height of summer, they tend to forage more at night, when temperatures are cooler. Similarly, their active period shifts to a more diurnal schedule as daytime temperatures drop in fall and winter.

Burrowing owls do not “hoot” in the traditional owl sense, but males give a two-note coo-coo song when courting a mate. Both sexes give a barking alarm call when intruders approach a nest burrow. When young burrowing owls are threatened, they retreat underground and make a harsh rasping or hissing sound. From the confines of the burrow, this sound very closely resembles the rattle of a disturbed rattlesnake and probably serves to deter predation.

During the Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, which began in northeastern California and went through Nevada to southern Utah from 1867 to 1872, the expedition’s then-teenaged ornithologist, Robert Ridgway, remarked that “Although the ‘Ground Owl’ was found at widely-separated places along our entire route, it was abundant at very few locations…Eastward of the Sierra Nevada we found it only at wide intervals.” That description is perhaps even truer today, as burrowing owl populations across western North America are seeing declines, primarily due to habitat loss from land conversions for agricultural and urban development, as well as habitat degradation and loss due to reductions of native burrowing mammal populations.