Our Resident Quail

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Malheur Refuge is celebrated for the incredible quantity and diversity of migratory birds that use its many habitat types through the seasons, but the Refuge is home to many year-round resident species as well. One such bird—commonly seen but seldom appreciated—is the California quail.

Coveys of California quail weave their way among the high-desert shrubs and open woodlands of Harney County, clucking querulously and darting under cover at the slightest hint of danger. (Used as an adjective, “quail” means to shrink in fear.) These small, chunky birds are at home on or near the ground, foraging for seeds and insects. Intricately scaled plumage and a forward-drooping topknot are the best field marks for this widespread species.

In Oregon, these birds are originally native to the counties bordering California and Nevada. Beginning as early as 1870, state game regulators introduced California quail to other parts of the state, and today they are found across most of Oregon in brushy upland habitats. They are year-round residents of Harney County, and are common even in rural developments. In Burns and Hines, Christmas Bird Counts regularly turn up many thousands of quail, which have become dependent on backyard seed-feeders to survive the harsh high-desert winter.

Quail hens nest on the ground, laying as many as 12 eggs per clutch. Being small, ground-dwelling birds, quail and their young fall prey to a variety of predators, including Cooper’s hawks, coyotes, weasels and snakes. Given a choice, quail will usually flee on foot, but are also capable of exploding into direct, high-speed flight when pressed.

In many cases quail are heard before they are seen. The males’ call of “Chi-ca-go!” is given to establish contact with his covey, and the various clucks and pips uttered by females and young provide a constant dialogue between these gregarious birds. 

Quail, like a handful of other hardy native species, have managed to adapt to seasonal flux in the challenging environs of southeast Oregon. The fact that they thrive here—to the point of being one of the most numerous bird species found in the winter—should only increase our appreciation of them.

Responsible Recreation on the Refuge

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

With spring well under way and bird migration in full swing, Malheur Refuge would normally be heading into its busiest time of the year. During the COVID-19 health crisis, however, stay-at-home orders and nationwide closures of public spaces have kept most visitors indoors. As restrictions on travel and outdoor recreation are slowly scaled back, more people are keen to get out of their homes and enjoy the springtime scenery and wildlife.

Malheur Refuge has remained open to the public but the majority of its visitor-use facilities, such as the Refuge Visitor Center, Museum, Nature Center & Store and restrooms at Headquarters, were closed out of concern for public safety, says Brett Dean, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Law Enforcement Officer.

Dean is seeing more and more visitors on the Refuge as spring arrives to Harney Basin. He says that while it may seem as though staff are absent from the Refuge (as was the case during the last government shutdown), essential employees are very much hard at work through this crisis, ensuring that Refuge habitats are maintained, wildlife are monitored, and public safety is attended to.

“We’re out there patrolling, making sure folks are following the rules, writing citations if necessary,” Dean says. While there hasn’t been a noticeable increase in recreation violations, Dean says that one perennial issue is Refuge visitors trespassing into areas closed to the public. “We see a lot of people trying to get past those signs to get closer to birds and other wildlife for photos. We understand the urge, but those signs are there to protect wildlife and we ask that visitors respect that.”

Another recent issue was visitors camping on the Refuge, which is strictly prohibited. Dean suspects that since most parks and campgrounds have been closed during the health crisis (including Page Springs Campground, a BLM site just outside of the Refuge), visitors wanting to camp in the area decided to try staying on the Refuge.

Outside of those violations, Dean says that the majority of visitors respect the Refuge and practice responsible recreation: obeying signs and closures, packing out trash, and being respectful to wildlife and other visitors.

“Refuges are great places to experience nature and get away from home, especially in these current times, and we want to support that,” Dean says. “We just ask that visitors follow the rules. And most people do.”

Wildflowers of Spring

“Efflorescence”

Sere hills blaze with light:
nothing so beautiful and
numinous as spring

Limpid desert breeze
suffused with heady bouquet
of floral perfume

Here today and gone
tomorrow, a fleeting treat
for all our senses

The first week of May is National Wildflower Week, celebrating native blooms across the country. Enjoy this photo gallery of Great Basin wildflowers taken during previous years by Peter Pearsall!

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.

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