Save the Eagles Day

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

Today is National Save the Eagles Day, recognizing a lasting commitment made by scientists, lawmakers and the public to protect America’s wildlife and wildlands from human-caused harm. The bald eagle—national bird of the United States, found across the country—was once an endangered species. In the 1950s, bald eagle populations had dropped to just 412 breeding pairs in the lower 48 states. The culprits? Habitat loss and the widespread use of an insecticide known as DDT.

Developed in the 1940s-50s to combat mosquitoes and fleas during World War II, DDT was later sprayed on agricultural fields to kill crop pests. Environmental exposure degraded the insecticide into other chemicals, some of which interfered with calcium carbonate production in shell-based organisms such as crustaceans, mollusks, and egg-layers like birds. Small amounts of these chemical byproducts were retained in prey animals’ bodies, accumulating in predators until they reached harmful levels. The result for eagles and other predatory birds was eggshell thinning: eggs would break under the weight of the incubating parent, killing the nascent chick.

The precipitous decline of eagles, brown pelicans, peregrine falcons and other prominent birds during this period led to the United States’ banning of DDT in 1972, followed by the passing of the Endangered Species Act a year later. Coupled with habitat restoration and captive breeding programs, these efforts brought bald eagles and other species back from the brink, and today they are thriving. Their story reminds us that while humans are capable of inflicting great and sometimes unwitting harm on the natural world, we are also capable of righting those wrongs.

The bald eagle is resident throughout North America and can be found in almost every region of Oregon. With their distinctive white head and yellow beak—and incongruous, tittering call—these enormous birds stand out. The bald eagle’s wingspan can reach up to eight feet across, and its disheveled stick-built nest can weigh more than a ton. Listed as an endangered species until 2007, bald eagles are increasing in number across the country, becoming almost plentiful in some areas. At Malheur Refuge, bald eagles are most numerous in the winter, when they congregate near Malheur and Harney lakes to prey on waterfowl.

Bat Boxes for Malheur

Written by Debby de Carlo /Photo by Peter Pearsall

James Lane considered making bat houses for Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and Malheur Field Station when he was a junior at Catlin Gable School in Portland. “I’m interested in conservation and my stepfather, Scott Bowler, had introduced me to Malheur. It seemed a good way to combine my interests into a school project.”

Making bat houses is more complicated than one might think. In the end, Lane and his classmates made bird houses while they were at Malheur Field Station in the spring of 2019. Lane couldn’t forget the bat houses or their importance to the Refuge and the Field Station.

“There are 15 species of bats in Oregon,” according to Alexa Martinez, wildlife biologist for the Refuge. “Twelve of them are found at Malheur.” And, so far at least, those 12 species are free of white nose syndrome, a fungus decimating bat populations in some parts of the country.

“The bats at Malheur eat insects, including mosquitoes,” Martinez explained. “And they are a food source to hawks, owls, and some snakes. Weasels and raccoons will climb trees to get them.” They nest inside the bark of trees or under the eaves of buildings. Their droppings, which look like what mice or rats might leave, makes a great fertilizer.

Because the bats like tight spaces when they’re not out eating insects, bat houses have several layers. “You can only make 2 bat houses out of a sheet of plywood,” noted Bowler.

So, over the summer, James, using his father’s workshop, built 24 bat houses. That is a lot of plywood. Bowler, who now lives in Sisters, had to wait until early November before he could join James and deliver the bat houses. They left 14 with Doug Roberts at the Field Station and took ten to Martinez at the Refuge.

Martinez will is working with Refuge maintenance staff, but her plan is to have some installed at Headquarters, some at Buena Vista and some at Double O. The Friends of Malheur Executive Director, Janelle Wicks, and project committee co-chair Alice Elshoff are planning a Bat Box Installation work party for mid-March 2020.

Lane, meanwhile, has plans to go much further east. Next fall he will pursue his studies at Colby College in Maine.

2020: A Look into the New Year at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Written by Jeff Mackay, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Deputy Project Leader/Photo by Peter Pearsall

At the close of 2019, a promising snow pack on the Steens Mountains is building and Department of Interior agencies have an approved budget for the Fiscal Year.  While an adequate snow pack is yet to be seen, a budget will enable us clearly to continue working with our partners to accomplish Refuge goals and deliver conservation in the Harney Basin.

What does 2020 hold for the Refuge?  Here’s a vision into a few key elements planned for the New Year…

Staffing

The Refuge work force should grow as we plan to fill five vacant core positions: Project Leader, Administrative Officer, Mobile Heavy Equipment Operator (MHEO), Senior Firefighter (Engine Captain) and Forestry Technician (Fuels Specialist).  The Administrative Officer (AO) position has been vacant since April and Refuge Administrative Assistant Suzanne McConnell has been serving as the Acting AO skillfully accomplishing the full suite of administrative duties. The Project Leader (PL) position has been vacant since August when Chad Karges retired.  I have been serving as the PL and will continue in that role until the position is filled which perhaps will occur this spring. The MHEO position which serves as the Buena Vista Sub-station Manager has been vacant since fall 2018. Refuge Maintenance Mechanic (MM) Kenneth Berry has been serving as the Acting Sub-station Manager.  The Engine Captain and the Fuels Specialist positions have been vacant since fall 2018. We are fortunate to have a strong interagency relationship with the Burns District Bureau of Land Management and the Malheur National Forest and personnel from both agencies have served on work details to help cover the duties of these two important positions during this past fire season.  Filling these five vacant positions will return the Refuge to minimum staffing capacity and enable the Refuge to better achieve desired conservation outcomes.

Malheur Lake Restoration

In early 2020 Aquatic Health/Fisheries Biologist James Pearson will complete the Malheur Lake ecosystem model as part of his Doctoral graduate degree program at Oregon State University.  Currently Malheur Lake exists in a chronic turbid state prohibiting the growth of aquatic plants which provide important feeding and nesting habitat for wildlife. Through execution of certain large scale management actions we believe Malheur Lake can be restored to a healthy clear water state.  The ecosystem model will be used to analyze the influence of various system drivers on the ecological state of Malheur Lake enabling a focus on manipulation of key components. Complimentary to running the model, Habitat Biologist Edwin Sparks will oversee pilot projects to evaluate survival of planted emergent marsh vegetation (hardstem bulrush) in Malheur Lake.  Through a series of planting trials conducted in Malheur Lake, Ed will evaluate factors such as bulrush plug size, water depth, water and soil characteristics, and predation (by carp, muskrats, and waterfowl) on the survivability of planted hardstem bulrush. Model outputs and results from the vegetation planting project will help inform decisions on a suite of management actions leading to restoring a clear water state in Malheur Lake.  Restoration of Malheur Lake to a functional marsh ecosystem is years away, but by continuing to work with our partners in the Harney Basin Wetlands Initiative, we envision a clear path forward that will achieve our desired outcomes while maintaining an awareness that the path may meander as we continue to learn and understand the secrets of Malheur Lake. 

Refuge Management Direction

In 2013, the Refuge Comprehensive Conservation Plan was approved providing current management direction for various Refuge operational programs.  In 2020 we will continue to irrigate meadows and maintain ponds providing important wildlife habitat for migrating and nesting birds. Refuge maintenance staff, Maintenance Supervisor Edward Moulton, MHEO Bill Modey (Double O Sub-station Manager), MHEO Orritt Hoffman (P Ranch Sub-station Manager), and MM Kenneth Berry are invaluable for achieving the desired habitat management outcomes as they maintain water management infrastructure, manage water diversions, and oversee the Refuge vegetation management (haying) program.  Additionally, maintenance staff maintain Refuge roads allowing visitor access throughout the public use areas. Speaking of visitors, recently, Wildlife Refuge Specialist Carey Goss oversaw the installation of new directional and interpretive panels replacing old outdated signs. The new signs will enhance visitors experiences by providing interpretive information and updated and expanded directional information. Additionally, Carey will continue to work with Refuge volunteers and partners from Friends of Malheur Refuge and Portland Audubon to deliver the Refuge information and the environmental education programs.  Refuge Wildlife Biologist Melinda (Alexa) Martinez will continue to implement the Refuge inventory and monitoring programs. Working with the Refuge science partner from Portland Audubon, Alexa will continue to execute high priority wildlife surveys. A new survey of colonial nesting waterbirds (pelicans, terns, grebes, ibis, egrets, herons, cormorants) on Malheur Lake is planned this year using an Unoccupied Aerial Vehicle (UAV or “drone”). The use of UAV methodology is expected to reduce disturbance to nesting birds while enabling biologists to gather important data. Refuge Law Enforcement Officers John Megan and Brett Dean will continue to assure the protection of Refuge resources as well as continue to provide for staff and visitor safety.  Refuge Fire Management Officer Shane Theall along with Fire Operations Specialist Danny Yturriondobeitia and Rural Fire Protection Association Liaison Jacob Gear will continue working with partners to deliver the wildfire suppression and prescribed burn programs. Both programs are important for protecting and managing valuable wildlife habitat as well as protecting Refuge infrastructure and assets.

We look forward to sharing 2020 with you and hope that you will have an opportunity to visit Malheur Refuge.  Plan to spend some time at the Refuge Headquarters where you will find Refuge staff to answer questions unless of course if they are out completing field work.  We encourage you to wander through the Refuge Museum and visit the Cranes Nest Nature Center before making the short hike on the Marshall Trail.

Happy New Year!

Malheur Moth Inventory: The Never-ending Story

Written by Dana Ross/Photos by Dana Ross

A moth inventory can be virtually impossible to complete. Whereas common and widespread species are nearly always captured within the normal course of a sampling regime, it is the rarer species that require significantly more effort to detect and yet add enormously to the total checklist. Each moth species has specific resource requirements and is influenced by various environmental and ecological conditions. Thus, any species may be relatively more or less abundant in a given year. Rare moths (those that are infrequently sampled) may be those whose larval host plants are also rare or whose habitat is limited. They may also be species more prone to succumb to natural enemies or suffer from interspecies competition. Finally, species on the edge of their range tend to be uncommon.  

A species accumulation curve (x-axis = cumulative # of samples; y-axis = cumulative # of species) can suggest when an inventory is approaching a point of saturation, that is, of having documented nearly every species at a given site. And yet with additional effort through time and space species will continue to be added, if at a much slower rate. The challenge is to adequately sample the diversity of plant communities throughout the entire season of moth activity–functionally April through October at the Malheur refuge–such that a baseline of both the common species and the majority of the uncommon to rare ones are detected.

To date, a grand total of 66 black light trap moth samples have been taken from a variety of refuge plant communities. So far, sampling has occurred only during late April and intermittently from mid-July through mid-September. This means that, at the very least, the vast majority of spring-flying moths (May-June) await discovery. To that end, moth sampling will take place in late May, 2020 thanks to funding through the Pacific Region Inventory & Monitoring Program.

For those of you who would like to know more about the impressive moth diversity of the Pacific Northwest, I highly recommend spending some time browsing Pacific Northwest Moths. For a broader look at what we have throughout the United States and Canada, visit the Moth Photographers Group or Butterflies and Moths of North America.

Bohemian Waxwings in Harney County

Written by Peter Pearsall/Photo by Peter Pearsall

At Malheur Refuge in spring, summer and fall, cedar waxwings are commonly observed giving their high-pitched trilling calls, flocking from tree to tree in search of ripening fruit or sallying from perches to capture insects. With their subtly tinted plumage, rakish eye mask and crest, and often confiding nature, these gregarious birds are a welcome, if commonplace, wildlife sighting in Harney County.

But in winter, long after the cedar waxwings have departed south, the Refuge is occasionally host to another, less common waxwing, a wide-ranging species of North America and Eurasia: the Bohemian waxwing. Larger and deeper-voiced than cedar waxwings, with brown-accented plumage rather than yellow, Bohemian waxwings breed in the spruce-dominated northern forests of Canada, Alaska and across Eurasia. Large, garrulous flocks of this species are highly mobile in winter, roving constantly about for berries and other fruit. This itinerant, free-wheeling behavior gives these birds their “bohemian” moniker.  

The other part of their name refers to the fact that both cedar and Bohemian waxwings sport distinctive red-to-orange waxy tips on the ends of their secondary flight feathers. These tips, which are the flattened ends of feather shafts pigmented by the carotenoid astaxanthin, only occur on adult birds two to three years in age. While their purpose isn’t fully clear, it’s estimated that the waxy tips signal age, maturity and social status to other waxwings in a flock.

During this year’s Harney County Christmas Bird Counts, participants found 11 Bohemian waxwings busily feeding on berries despite below-zero temperatures and dense fog. These birds are adapted to metabolize the ethanol occurring naturally in fermented fruit, but occasionally they will overindulge and become intoxicated or even die from alcohol poisoning!