Malheur & Me: A Love Essay

When I moved to Wisconsin in 1975, I fell head-over-heels in love with its lush green pastures, rolling hills and woods. Maybe it reminded me of the Western Pennsylvania landscape where I grew up. Aldo Leopold died the year I was born, but he left Wisconsin love letters in the form of essays. In 1999, I moved to Puget Sound and joined the local birding group. People would ask me if I had been to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeast Oregon. It was an incredible birding destination, they said. To me, though, it was an amorphous place in an arid corner of the state. It held no allure.

A few years later I moved to Forest Grove, west of Portland and decided I would use some of my vacation to visit Malheur in late May. As I turned south onto 205 just east of Burns, still 30 miles north of the Refuge, I was surprised to see flooded farm fields with wading birds foraging. Yellow-headed Blackbirds dotted the same fields and wire fencing, scolding me with their screechy, territorial call. A flock of White-faced Ibis flew overhead. Cinnamon Teal, along with other ducks, swam in the ditches on either side of the road. Sandhill Crane pairs walked in the fields a little further south. I was intoxicated. As I drove over Wright’s point, I saw Steens Mountain, the largest fault block mountain in the Great Basin. While the flooded fields around Burns owed their temporary abundance of water to the Silvies River, the Refuge was an oasis in the high desert thanks to the snowmelt from Steens. It took me two hours to drive that 30 miles to the northern edge of the Refuge, simply because I had to stop so often to see birds and take in the varied landscape.

In the years to come, I would spend a week or more camping at Page Springs at the southern end of the refuge where I could wake up each morning ready to explore, slowly making my way to Refuge Headquarters.

On the last day of one trip, I woke up to the sound of Canyon Wrens, their sweet descending calls filling the air as they left their nests in the canyon wall just across a creek from the campground. Soon, I had walked the mile or so to the beginning of the North Steens Loop Road, still closed to cars because of snow even though it was late May. I sat on a large rock about knee high, looking out across the south end of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The sun hadn’t begun to peek above the mountain yet, but it was close, casting a pink glow to the desert hills to the southwest. The peace I felt was palpable. Here, I always remembered this land was the home of the Northern Paiutes, even if they’d been relegated to a small reservation north of Burns for over a century. The sun rose above the mountain behind me, and I lingered. Certainly I came here each spring to witness the migration of millions of birds. But it was more than that. Here, I felt the connection to the land so strongly.

Restored, I walked back down to the campground where other campers who had come to watch birds or to fish were stepping out of their tents or RVs. It didn’t take long to put my tent, duffle bag and small cooler in the car. I looked around, satisfied I’d left the site ready for the next visitor and got in my car. 

I drove slowly on the gravel road between Page Springs and the paved highway at Frenchglen. There were Western Tanagers, a Bullock’s Oriole, a Wilson’s Snipe. Once out of Frenchglen, the speed limit on 205 increased. Though I would still stop at a few places to see more birds on my way home, I was usually ready to return to the other side of the Cascade range where I lived and a hot shower awaited. This time, though, perhaps my seventh or eighth annual trip to the high desert since moving to Oregon in 2002, there was something welling up inside me just as I came to a pullout. I parked the car and looked out over the wetland. Suddenly I was sobbing. I didn’t know where all the tears and emotion came from. Surely I would be back again. I wiped away the tears and stayed a little longer before getting back on 205.

In the beginning, still working, my trips to Malheur were limited by vacation time that I portioned out with other birding destinations. Later, I would volunteer for weeks and months at a time.

The spring of 2018 was the first migration I missed since moving to Oregon. Instead, I drove to radiation treatments every day. By late July, the treatments were over, and my strength returned. I told my daughter I was going to Malheur. “But Mom, it’s July. There aren’t any birds there now.” But I knew it was as much about place that drew me. And of course there were birds, the ones that had nested, including Bobolinks and their happy song. That fall, I volunteered again, and the following spring as well.

Now I am in Hawaii, with its own magic. Yet I am confident my next trip to the mainland will include a trip to Malheur.

I wish I’d written multiple love essays about Malheur as Leopold had about Wisconsin. I invite you to write yours.

Species Spotlight: Ross’s Geese

Written by Teresa Wicks/Photos by Dan Streiffert

Ross’s Geese are the “stubby-billed” and smaller white geese that arrive in the Harney Basin in large numbers each spring. One of two species of ‘white geese’ that migrate through the Pacific Flyway, they regularly use the Harney Basin as a stopover during their flight from their winter grounds in CA to their breeding grounds in the Canadian Arctic. Ross’s Geese have expanded their breeding and wintering territories eastward in the past several decades, encroaching on Snow Goose breeding grounds, and in some cases creating hybrid Ross’s/Snow Geese. In areas where there are large nesting populations of Ross’s (and Snow) Geese, the tundra is sometimes so denuded of vegetation that the impact is visible from space!

In the Harney Basin, Snow Geese tend to arrive in the Basin a little earlier than the Ross’s Geese, the former peaking later in the spring. These large flocks of geese tend to congregate in the agricultural fields of the Silvies Floodplain. Historically, they would have been drawn to the myriad of desert wetlands throughout the intermountain west. However, as wetland habitat diminished across the intermountain west, the agricultural stubble (mowed fields) of the Harney Basin has become increasingly important for migrating waterfowl. This is, in part, because of the protein rich grass and forb shoots found in these fields that provide ample fuel for northward migration.

Like Snow Geese, Ross’s Geese sometimes come in a dark morph that gives them a blue appearance. However, in Ross’s Geese, these dark morph individuals tend to be less common than dark morph Snow Geese. Interestingly, Ross’s Goose goslings hatch with light down or gray down, though goslings with either shade of down grow into light-morph adults.

Despite being less common than a dark morph snow goose, it is likely that one or two dark morph Ross’s geese will appear in the Harney Basin each spring. This photo was taken in April 2019.

Now, about that name. Ross’s Geese are named after the first white guy to shoot and preserve a specimen that was sent back east to the Smithsonian. Some readers may know about the #BirdNamesForBirds effort that started in earnest in 2020. The purpose of this project is to remove honorific patronyms from birds and give them names that actually tell us something about the bird we are observing. For example, a new name could be an onomatopoeia. That is, their name could be what they say. This is a common naming practice in many Indigenous cultures around the world and can be pretty effective. Ross’s Geese could transform from a patronymed bird to the Woo’woo [Goose], as I hear them, or as described by Cornell, the Keek-keek Goose. Or perhaps a physical descriptor would be more popular in Western culture. They could become the Short-billed Goose. Or the Dower Goose, since they lack the grin-patch of the Snow Goose. The possibilities are fairly endless.

YoYo Pond Prescribed Burn

Written by Ryan Curtis, Malheur NWR Fuels Technician/Photo by Kay Steele

In March 2021, Malheur Refuge staff conducted a prescribed burn at the Refuge’s 746-acre YoYo Pond Unit. The intent was to reduce decadent areas of vegetation that were not treated mechanically by cooperators in the fall. According to local knowledge this area has not been burned in at least 23 years.

The objective of these burns is to rejuvenate new growth and remove decadent overgrown areas, removing dead or dying vegetation. Implementation of prescribed fire takes a lot of coordination and prep work: Refuge staff spend fall and winter months mowing and cleaning containment lines to keep the fire within pre-determined boundaries.

Coordination with all Refuge staff, from biologists to substation managers, is essential for meeting these objectives. Weather parameters are also set within the burn plan to insure objectives are met and the fire can be implemented safely; these parameters are set to maintain desired flame length and fire intensity.

Some key objectives:

  • Remove at least 30% of dense vegetation along waterways and in lowlands.
  • Remove vegetation and release tied up nutrients, provide underwater waterfowl food (both plants and invertebrates).
  • Provide safe brood rearing habitat
  • Provide better access to water control structures that have become overgrown

During ignition and while smoke is present, there is signage for the public. The burn took place over a total of 2 days. The burn location is South of P-Lane and north of West canal where you will notice an early season burn scar and new growth through the summer months.

Lead Poisoning in Wildlife

Lead has the dubious distinction of being among the most useful—and most toxic—heavy metals found in our environment. A soft, ductile, corrosion-resistant metal, lead has been used by humans in myriad ways for thousands of years. From early on, humans understood the inimical effects of lead exposure. Many countries have long-standing laws limiting its use. Yet lead still factors heavily in certain applications, particularly in the manufacture of ammunition and fishing weights. These two sources account for a significant portion of wildlife-related lead poisonings in the United States.

Wildlife can be exposed to lead when lead-based ammunition and sinkers are left in the environment by hunters and anglers. Sometimes the exposure is direct: Sinkers are sometimes mistaken for food items and swallowed by diving birds; lead-based shot can find its way into the crops of ground-foraging birds. In other instances, the exposure is indirect, as with rifle hunting using lead-based bullets. The soft lead bullet shatters into tiny pieces upon impacting the target animal; these fragments embed themselves in the animals’ organs, which are often discarded as “gut piles” in the field by hunters. Scavengers are later poisoned as they feed on the gut piles. This problem is compounded when hunters or farmers shoot nuisance animals such as ground squirrels or gophers with lead ammunition and leave the entire carcasses in the field, dispersing even more lead fragments into the environment.

There is almost no bodily function of the vertebrate animal that isn’t adversely affected by lead. It can cause permanent damage to the brain and kidneys, sometimes resulting in death. For vertebrates, lead is most acutely toxic when inadvertently consumed; stomach acids dissolve the lead, allowing it to enter the bloodstream and affect organs.

A fragment of lead no bigger than a grain of rice is enough to kill an eagle. The bird pictured above is a dead sub-adult golden eagle discovered in Harney County by FOMR Board member Rick Vetter. The eagle, found in an alfalfa field where nuisance ground squirrels are often targeted by farmers, was very thin; extreme lethargy in lead-poisoned animals can negatively impact their ability to find food. Vetter suspects the eagle died from lead poisoning but hasn’t confirmed it.

It’s unknown how many raptors and other wildlife fall victim to these lead-infused ground squirrel carcasses in Harney County, but this eagle is surely not alone. Other species known to scavenge ground squirrel carcasses in Harney County include bald eagles, Swainson’s hawks and ferruginous hawks. Lead’s long-term persistence in the environment means that exposure to lead-based ammunition and tackle will continue to be a conservation issue for many decades to come.

Coming to the Crane’s Nest Nature Store

The Friends of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is eager for the Spring to spring and are cautiously preparing for the possibility of reopening the Crane’s Nest Nature Store. When the store does open we will have a special treat for our visitors.

In April 2006 Linda Whiting opened Designs By Linda Art Studio & Gift Shop on her family ranch just east of Burns. She has been painting and creating for over 40 years and will now be selling custom Malheur designs at the Crane’s Nest Nature Store.

Working with Friends Director, Janelle, for content topics and ideas Linda is curating a collection of hand sewn wall hanging tapestries and hand painted and beaded ornaments. These wall hangings will come in a variety of square and landscape layouts and sizes to fit any space! Linda’s ornaments are a great gift or memento for any occasion. Each piece is created with Linda’s personal touch and attention to detail.

Faux leather painted and beaded ornaments: $20.00 – $22.00
Hanging tapestries will vary in price from $45.00 – $98.00 depending on size and detail.