Turbidity Mesocosms – A Pilot Restoration Project

Written by Casie Smith/Photos by James Pearson and Janelle Wicks

The absence of submergent vegetation and the minimal emergent vegetation existing in Malheur Lake is partially a result of the lack of available light to support development of aquatic vegetation in the system. The turbidity that limits light transmission through the water column is a result of wind fetch/wave action, phytoplankton abundance, and carp activity, among other factors. The pilot restoration project that will be conducted in Malheur Lake in 2020 and 2021 will 1) determine which factor, or combination of factors, can be manipulated or controlled to substantially reduce the turbidity in the water column, and 2) determine if that reduction in turbidity allows emergent and/or submergent vegetation to survive. 

In the first year of the project (FY2020), ten mesocosms will be constructed in the lake, and either one or multiple turbidity-causing factors will be manipulated or controlled in each. In the second year of the project (FY2021), the mesocosms will be reconstructed in the lake. The turbidity-causing factors will be treated again, and combinations of desirable emergent and submergent vegetation will be planted in each mesocosm. In both years, the water quality will be assessed within each mesocosm, and percent survival of plants will also be determined in year 2.  

This project will quantify the change in water-column turbidity and plant survival as a result of treatments. Results will be used to inform USFWS and HBWI about the potential to reduce water-column turbidity and increase emergent and submergent plant survival for large-scale restoration of the lake.  

Any questions concerning the upcoming project can be directed to James Pearson the MNWR Aquatic Habitat Biologist at james_pearson@fws.gov 

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.