The Burrowing Owls of Sodhouse Lane

Written by Darrell Smith/ Photos by Darrell Smith

My wife Lorna and I are career wildlife biologists and ecologists. We belong to Friends of Malheur and enjoy working as volunteers at the Refuge.

Although we’re officially retired, Lorna is a member of Washington State’s  Fish and Wildlife Commission. I am the interim Executive Director of the nonprofit organization Western Wildlife Outreach,  which seeks to educate folks about our large carnivores and to advocate for coexistence with them. Our extended family loves Malheur NWR, and has been visiting this wonderful Refuge most years since the early 1980s.

Just 2 weeks ago, we returned from a wonderful week-long trip to the Malheur country with family members who are also avid birders and naturalists. BUT, we enjoyed a fascinating twist to an already great visit. After we’d set up our little RV camp in an appropriate area near the Refuge, a Burrowing Owl male showed up on our second evening to claim an abandoned badger burrow with a small colony of Belding’s ground squirrels right next door!  We were separated only by a fence and just 25 yards of the sparsely vegetated grassland which these beautiful little owls prefer for their nesting burrows.

That night, we went to sleep listening to the all night-long soft Cu-Woo, Cu-Woo, Cu-Woo calls of this dynamic fellow.  He was advertising forcefully for a mate. The next evening, the calls dropped off dramatically. We were worried he’d moved on. By mid-morning, he was standing watchfully at the burrow entrance as something in the burrow was sending small plumes of dirt into the air. Mystery solved a few minutes later as another beautiful little owl head popped up to look at us. His new mate was remodeling the home.

Over the following two days, we watched this confiding and active pair mate repeatedly at the burrow entrance. Pretty passionate stuff in one of the photos I’ve included. In the meantime, the male actively caught beetles and moths near the burrow, and later brought back at least one northern pocket gopher during deep twilight.

It was also very interesting to see the male bring back bits of aged horse and cow manure. His mate would later emerge from the burrow to select pieces of this to line the underground nest. This is a well-known feature of Burrowing Owl nest construction.

The females are known to lay six, eight or more eggs and to raise large broods. Many of the females begin to brood as soon as the first egg is laid and the young are born sequentially. During this time, the female drops mostly from view and the male rarely enters, but hunts day and night to provide food. This appears to have been happening during our last 2 days of our camp-out. Lots of views of the male, only a couple of fleeting glimpses of the female.

Despite their long legs and impressive wing-span, these are LITTLE owls. If you drink two cups of coffee in the morning, you’ve consumed more than the male and female weigh together (ave. about 6.3 oz apiece).  Also, unusual among the world’s owls and avian raptors as well, the male is typically larger than the female, as depicted in my accompanying photos. Nesting near humans may provide additional protection from predators. Red foxes in Oregon are known to use this strategy.

We all wish them well and hope this dynamic little pair are successful this year. If so, young should start to emerge over the next month. Due to habitat loss and many other factors, even, ironically, the killing of badgers (which are owl predators, but also provide their most useful nesting burrows) have led to dramatic declines in historic Burrowing Owl numbers on and around the Refuge and throughout their North American range.

Take care, little owls!

The Acoustics of Malheur’s Wet Meadows

Written by Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon

As most fans of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge know, Malheur is a large and ecologically complex place. Some of this complexity comes from its geographic situation near the Steens and as a snowmelt fed closed basin and some comes from the changes to the hydrology and ecology of the basin since the arrival of settlers. The lasting effects of changes in hydrology and ecology can be seen in various ways across the basin, including in vegetative communities.

For example, though reed canarygrass is native to parts of North America it has become weed-like as water management has changed. In areas that are continuously inundated with at least 3” of water, reed canarygrass thrives. One of the interesting things about reed canarygrass is that it can convert a field that appears dominated by sedges to a field of tall grasses within a season. The sedges are not necessarily replaced. Rather the reed canarygrass grows with the sedges. Because reed canarygrass changes the height and density of vegetation, there is some belief that many birds will not use meadows dominated by reed canarygrass. However, many studies in other high desert ecosystems indicate this may not be the case.

In an effort to better understand the effects of reed canarygrass invasion on bird communities some intentional monitoring work needs to be done in reed canarygrass dominated fields at Malheur. However, at nearly 190,000 acres Malheur can be a difficult place to effectively inventory and monitor bird populations. To better understand the effects of reed canarygrass dominance on bird populations, and to help create a climate resilient Malheur that continues to effectively support migrating and breeding birds there needs to be an innovative way to expand current monitoring efforts.

One current project associated with the Harney Basin Wetlands Collaborative and led by Portland Audubon is the seasonal installation of six songmeters in the Blitzen Valley. Three of these songmeters are in reed canarygrass dominated and three of these songmeters are in non-reed canarygrass dominated areas of flood-irrigated wet meadows. Songmeters, more technically known as Autonomous Sound Recorders, are basically computers that record the sounds of ecosystems in which they are deployed. They can be programmed to record as often and for as long (or short) as needed.

These songmeters were deployed this spring and will be retrieved from their fields by August 1st. They record for two hours at sunrise (one hour before and one hour after) and for two hours at sunset (one hour before and one hour after). They will record all vocalizing wildlife at that time, though the focus is on understanding which bird species are using these areas and whether or not reed canarygrass has a negative impact on wet meadow bird communities.

This project has two goals. The first is to understand the effectiveness of using songmeters for monitoring birds at Malheur. The second is to develop an understanding of bird use of reed canarygrass dominated meadows and whether or not there appears to be a difference in bird communities in these meadows compared to non-reed canarygrass dominated meadows.

A Magnificent Mother-Daughter Malheur Excursion

Written by Kimberely Stephens, Photos by Kimberely Stephens

I’ve lived in the Willamette Valley for the majority of my life. One of the joys I find is in visiting the refuges, observing, and photographing Oregon’s abundant wildlife. One day I got to thinking ‘I’d love to photograph Wild Mustang’s!’ Surely there had to be somewhere in Oregon that I could, so off to the internet to research I went. I was happily surprised that within driving distance, just a six-hour drive, there was a herd of Wild Mustang’s. Fondly, and might I say, appropriately named The Hollywood Herd!

Now that I’d found the who and where, I continued my research, and found accommodations near Malheur National Wildlife Refuge at the Steens Mountain Resort. Lovely people, comfortable, and very affordable. We now had our mother and daughter trip all planned.

Though, I must say, the internet was lacking on images of the landscape. I made a note to myself to rectify that and happily took many pictures of the stunning views.

We arrived Friday evening, checked in, and did a little surveying before dark. Setting out Saturday morning to explore what we could of the refuge in a day. The mountains, and of course to visit the horses. We began our morning as though we had spent the night right on the refuge. Not an experience one could have here in the valley, so it was a magnificent feeling.

Though, we were unsure what the weather might do in the middle of Spring. We were delighted the passing light rain left the surroundings clean and fresh in appearance. Nature just gave everything a quick rinse and left a beautiful rainbow in its wake.

I was delighted to have captured this image as though the road and clouds were going right under the rainbow.

I fell in love with all the contrasting colors. The Spring foliage of greens and yellows just popped against the dark trunks of the trees. Everything was visually pleasing, magical, and so charming. From Canada Geese, Red Wing Black Birds, Killdeer, Belding’s Ground Squirrels, Ring-necked Pheasants, to the Black-tailed Jackrabbit, and many other species. I never lacked a subject to photograph.

The day did not lack comical occurrences. One such was the longest piddle I’ve ever witnessed by a Mule Deer. Still working our way out to see the horses. We spotted a few mule deer crossing the field, to cross the road, to get to the other side of the refuge. This one (pictured above) stopped and squatted, so I grabbed the camera, thinking I’d better be quick. I started snapping pictures. Looking this way, looking that way, it was still going, took a few more pictures, still going… My arm actually got tired from holding the camera up, but the deer really had to go.

Another thing I found was the people on and around the refuge were so kind. Slowing down for the now very relieved mule deer to cross the road. I captured an image I’ve seen in various wildlife photos over the years. Now I had one of my own.

The Sandhill Crane has been on my list of birds to photograph. Previously, I’d planned on one day making my way to Sauvie Island, where they are known to frequent. Thankfully, I will not be having to drive through Portland traffic, and was able to mark this one off my list.

“We got Cows!” A statement that was said many times throughout our visit. In conjunction with the Cow Guards, you know those no matter how slow you drive, you get jostled when driving across them? We speculated many things, maybe it’s for the snow run off, or a gate that is raised when moving the herds? Nope, just invisible Cow Gates!

After returning home and revisiting our adventure. My husband had a good laugh that we did not know what these were. He explained that the bars in the road are spaced out enough that the cows will not cross because they know their hooves will get stuck. Well now that makes perfect sense! Smart cows! Us girls, well, it is open range. Not exactly something you find in the Willamette Valley. How were two city girls to know they were just invisible cow gates….

Finally, we had arrived to photograph the Hollywood Herd! Such beautifully majestic creatures and as if on que to a new visitor. They began trotting up from the salt flats, one by one, to three at a time, as though they were introducing us to their herd. We were given quite the show!

To say the least I got what I’d come for….to photograph the Wild Mustang’s!

We continued up the mountain to find the road was closed, which was completely alright with me, fear of heights, and Oregon’s most dangerous road and all…. so we turned back and I spotted this little critter just off the road. We were not sure if it was a badger or what it was, though, not the best of images. I did get one passable picture so we could look it up later.

Well later came instantly. As we were driving out, another visitor stopped to tell us there were horses on the road behind them. We told them what we had just seen, and they knew exactly what it was. A Yellow-bellied Marmot, aka, a Rock Chuck. Oh yeah, we went there! How many rocks can a rock chuck-chuck if a Rock Chuck-chucked rocks? Neither of us could say it three times fast but we did have a good laugh!

In conclusion, our visit was the perfect day, and so much fun. I have already booked my next trip and can’t wait to visit the Steens Mountain and Malheur National Wildlife Refuge again. On that note, if you have never been, I highly recommend making the trip. From the wildlife to the awesome people, to the tremendously gorgeous views, those skies, you will not be disappointed. Also, don’t forget to stop in at the Mercantile in Frenchglen for a souvenir. I always try to support locally owned businesses and the people were just amazing. Moreover, a hoodie is always a great buy for remembering a remarkable vacation, especially, if one lives in Oregon. I purchased two!

Until next time – stay Wild Mustang’s! I’ll be back!

New Board Member William Tweed

A native Californian, environmental historian William C. Tweed attended the College of the Sequoias, the University of the Pacific, and Texas Christian University, where he earned both master’s and doctorate degrees in history.

For more than thirty years he pursued a career with the United States National Park Service, where he worked at various times as a historian, ranger-naturalist, park planner, concessions management specialist, public affairs specialist, and park program manager. He spent most of these years at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, California, enjoying the final decade of his career there as the parks’ Chief Naturalist. In that role he oversaw not only the parks’ interpretive programming but also its visitor center design, wayside exhibit, and public affairs programs.

In the years since he left Federal service in 2006, Dr. Tweed has pursued his interests as an author, newspaper columnist, field naturalist, lecturer, and consultant. During these years he also served on the Board of Directors of both the Sequoia Natural History Association (2006-2010) and the Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks Foundation (2006-2012). He spent time as chairman of both organizations.

Dr. Tweed is the author or co-author of a number of books, including Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, the Story Behind the Scenery; Challenge of the Big Trees, A Resource History of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks; Recreation Site Planning and Improvements in National Forests, 1891-1942; Death Valley and the Northern Mohave, A Visitor’s Guide; and Uncertain Path: A Search for the Future of National Parks.

Late 2016 saw two new books by Dr. Tweed published: King Sequoia: The Tree that Inspired a Nation, Created Our National Park System, and Changed the Way We think About Nature (Heyday), and Challenge of the Big Trees: A History of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, Revised Edition (George Thompson Books).

His latest book, Granite Pathways: A History of the Wilderness Trails of Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2021 by the Sequoia Parks Conservancy.

Dr. Tweed resides in Bend, Oregon, with his wife Frances.

Welcome, New President Alan Contreras

It is no small thing to follow someone with Gary Ivey’s reputation and longevity into the role of President of Friends of Malheur NWR. I am fortunate in that the organization is in good shape both financially and structurally, with excellent new board members coming on (see the introduction of Bill Tweed in this issue). Much of this stability and capacity is the result of several steady hands on the tiller, all of whom remain active on the board. Gary himself will be involved on projects that interest him and remain on the board. Janelle, our remarkably active and effective Executive Director, continues to improve our services and programs.

I served on the FOMR board ten years ago and more recently as Secretary, so I have a handle on where we have been and are going. It’s a very bright picture. Membership continues to rise (we hope to pass 1,000 this year) and fundraising has been excellent. This combination enables us to contemplate some exciting new projects including a significant tree management and replacement program so that as our ancient trees at HQ, Benson and P-Ranch die off, we can be assured that our grandchildren will enjoy an experience similar to ours. We are also looking at possible new picnic shelters and other improvements recommended by refuge leadership. One of my goals is to increase our mutually supportive work with the Malheur Field Station, operated by our sister nonprofit, the Great Basin Society.

What does this mean to you as a member? First, Thank You! Membership in FOMR is not a small or casual thing. It makes you part of a team of people committed to supporting Malheur as the uniquely valuable place that we all know it is. We appreciate your financial support but we also encourage you to consider volunteering for one or more events at the refuge. We expect fall 2021 and especially late spring 2022 to be times of exceptional need for volunteer support at the Nature Store and for other refuge activities.

Finally, visit. Malheur is not an abstraction, it is a phenomenon. When were you last here? Come again.

Alan Contreras