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.

Rx Burn for Birds

Written by Debby de Carlo/Photo by Janelle Wicks

Sandhill cranes and other birds wintering to the south will be flying north to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in the months ahead. Many will stop, rest and refuel at the refuge.

Refuge wildlife biologist Ed Sparks and others on the Refuge staff are already making sure there will be places for migrating birds. “Bulrush and other perennials don’t get enough sunlight in the spring as the tops die off and get matted.” Those areas are less productive, Sparks noted. “By burning bulrush, we hit the reset button. The roots don’t burn, but the rest of the grass does, allowing sunlight to get through and createnew growth.”

This year, Dan Yturriondobeitia, Forestry Technician for the Refuge will be at work burning an area of about 1700 acres on the Double O Ranch. “There’s bulrush, cattail and native meadow grasses,”  Yturriondobeitia explained. By opening it up, nutrients are released for deer and antelope. “We plan on doing the burn in February just before nesting birds arrive.”

Yturriondobeitia and his fellow fire manager Shane Theall use drip torches to set the fires, making sure conditions are just right. Relative humidity and winds are factors. They use a computer program to tell them when the time is optimal.  Still, even with such technology, it’s only a guide, he said. “Conditions are dynamic.”Fire trucks are on hand just in case the wind kicks up, and the area mowed as well, making sure neighboring property is safe.Part of the prep is meeting with RefugeMaintenance staff. “They identify things we don’t want to burn like fish traps. They let us use a lot of their tractors,” Yturriondobeitia added.

“Fighting fires evolves,” he continued. “We use best practices.” In fact, Yturriondobeitia worked at a desk job in Boise for a while, where he helped design new equipment. But he missed being outside, and so, he and other staff will be on the ground later this month, creating resting–and nesting– areas for the birds to come.

Double-crested Cormorants

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Double-crested cormorants (Phalcrocorax auritus), widespread across North America, are goose-sized waterbirds that feed predominantly on fish captured via surface diving. They are the most abundant of Oregon’s three cormorant species, found in both freshwater and saltwater habitats. Their common name refers to the twin white head plumes worn by adults during the breeding season.

Cormorants’ dark, prehistoric appearance and voracious appetites have long given them a malign connotation among humans, especially those that perceive the birds as a direct competitor for fish. The name itself comes from the Latin words “corvus” and “marīnus”, meaning “sea-raven”; for centuries the word “cormorant” was used to describe someone that was gluttonous or greedy.

In North America, prior to passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act in 1918, humans persecuted double-crested cormorants at will. The scourge of DDT in the 1950s took an additional toll, and by the 1970s populations of this bird had plummeted across much of the U.S.

Despite these setbacks, cormorants proved remarkably resilient and adaptable. Regulatory protection, coupled with the 1972 banning of DDT in the U.S., led to an incredible resurgence in double-crested cormorant populations: In the Great Lakes region alone, the breeding population went from around 200 pairs in the early 1970s to 115,000 by 2000.

Today, cormorants across the country are thriving, and their ever-growing need for fish is coming into direct conflict with the interests of commercial fisheries, aquaculturists, anglers and more. In some cases federally threatened and endangered fish species are also targeted by cormorants. Wildlife authorities at the state and federal level now find themselves in the ironic and unenviable position of needing to “control” cormorant populations to protect fish, including captive-reared fish destined for human consumption.

Thus the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services and state wildlife agencies, has developed policies aimed at addressing human-cormorant conflicts in the foreseeable future. These policies include authorizing an annual “take” of cormorants—by culling adults or oiling eggs—to reduce pressure on fish stocks without significantly affecting cormorant populations.

Read the latest updates on USFWS policy regarding double-crested cormorant management here.