A Summer at Malheur

Written by Ryan Robles, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern/Photo by Edwin Sparks

Editor’s note: Ryan Robles is heading in to his senior year at Burns High School. In the spring of 2019, Ryan’s biology class came to the Refuge for a Benson Pond BioBlitz Field trip lead by Portland Audubon’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, Teresa Wicks, supported educational components from the Friends Director and Refuge Habitat Ecologist Ed Sparks. Ryan learned about summer internship opportunities conducting field work and would become the Refuge’s Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern for the summer of 2019. Sparks became Ryans’s supervisor and mentor over the summer through this position which was funded through the Refuge Grazing program and managed by Friends of Malheur Refuge.

Out here at Malheur there is a great deal of work required for the refuge to accomplish its goals. Meaning a lot of help is needed to get things done. My name is Ryan Robles and this summer I was granted the opportunity of being the Vegetation Inventory and Monitoring Intern for the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. I was able to work with some of the Refuge Biologists on various projects. Some of which included bat surveys, wet meadow surveys, and water quality sampling. 

Overall this summer has been extremely educational. Since I want to pursue a career in wildlife management this internship has been pivotal to laying down a base of knowledge for my future. The projects I was able to work on were great learning experiences. The SAV, or submerged aquatic vegetation survey was one of those experiences. I was able to learn about a plethora of aquatic and emergent vegetation and how to identify them. Also, I was able to partake in a couple of Bird Impoundment Surveys. The surveys were located on Boca Lake where we counted which species of waterfowl were present, how many there were, and if there were broods, how old they were. We collected data at multiple points across the lake to make sure all birds were counted. There was also a bat survey that I took part in where we set up recording equipment at predetermined locations on the refuge. This equipment would then record bat calls at certain frequencies which could then later be used for identification of what species are out there and how many there are. Other work I took part in was out on the Malheur Lake which included water quality sampling and capturing live carp. Overall the experiences I’ve had over the summer were extremely beneficial and I know will help me immensely in the future.

Though it would be difficult to choose a favorite part of this past summer, if I had to choose one it would be the SAV survey. I have always had a strong interest in aquatic ecosystems and being able to learn about what is present in the wetlands around the refuge was awesome. Not only was I able to learn what plants there were, but how to tell what species they were too. The SAV survey was also my favorite because of what it taught me. I was able to learn about the methodology and the equipment used such as the YSI probe and secchi disk.

I was very lucky to have the opportunity of working out at the refuge this summer. Thanks to the wonderful staff, it was a very fulfilling experience that I will likely not forget as I go on into college and beyond. I look forward to working in this field in the future.   

Waterbirds at Malheur Lake

Written by Alexa Martinez, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Wildlife Biologist/Photo by Peter Pearsall

The National Wildlife Refuge System Improvement Act of 1997 mandated that all National Wildlife Refuges develop and abide by a Comprehensive Conservation Plan (CCP). This document would be developed in earnest through collaboration with partners and stakeholders who hold diverse interests in the management of a Refuge. The CCP would prioritize the needs of each Refuge based on the science that supports sustainable habitat management for the best possible outcome for wildlife. At Malheur NWR, a list of priority bird surveys is found within our CCP which was developed over three years and adopted in 2013. One of these surveys is known as the Colonial Nesting Waterbird survey. 

The purpose of the Colonial Nesting Waterbird Survey is to assess the impact on these populations as carp management is implemented on Malheur Lake. Historically, waterbird colonies were located on Malheur Lake, Sodhouse Ranch, and Boca Lake. Surveys were done once every three years using aerial photography to count breeding pairs of these colonial birds. Targets included American white pelicans, double crested cormorants, and Caspian terns. 

The trouble with having one aerial flight every three years is that it does not tell us much about nest success of these species; nor does it help the Refuge understand what may happen to the populations and the habitats they depend on between surveys. In addition, aerial surveys come at a great financial and logistical expense. Recent advances in technology have allowed biologists to explore utilizing drones as a survey method to monitor colonial nesting colonies.

With known success using drones to count pelican colonies at Minidoka NWR in eastern Idaho, we thought Malheur NWR would be a great area to apply this technique. 

This month, with the help of Teresa Wicks, Portland Audubon Society’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator based in Burns and a Portland Audubon volunteer and drone pilot, Nick Wagner, we were able to spend a week troubleshooting the new survey protocol. Our goal from the Wildlife Working Group for using drones on this survey is to see how many breeding pairs are utilizing Malheur Lake. This whole event was exciting yet extremely nerve wrecking! 

We took a lot of baby steps to test the effect of how high the drone needs to be above the birds before causing any sort of disturbance, whether we can distinguish terms from gulls; we also tested whether it was possible to launch a drone near the area of a giant metal machine such as the airboat. We did a few test flights around Malheur Lake before taking the final flight over open water. Do you know how nerve wrecking it is to fly a drone over open water and just hoping it comes back to you before you lose signal or battery life? It’s rough! The adrenaline rush is real!

Overall, we had great success during the week of testing this new protocol. It was such an amazing feeling to know how new technology can be helpful in the current biological field. We can’t wait to clean up the protocol and see this survey method in action next season.

Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Training

Written by Edwin Sparks, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Habitat Ecologist/Photo by Edwin Sparks

During the last week of June, most of the Malheur Refuge biology staff traveled to southeast Idaho for a submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) protocol training. We were hosted by the beautiful Gray’s Lake National Wildlife Refuge and were accompanied by biologist, interns, and technicians from Camas, Minidoka, and Bear Lake Refuges. This is the third time I have attended the training. This year I brought our Vegetation Inventory & Monitoring Intern, Ryan Robles, along to learn the sampling protocol and get a primer in wetland plant identification. Alexa Martinez, Malheur NWR Wildlife Biologist, also joined us.

Malheur NWR has been a part of the SAV project since it started around 2012. The project has been put together by Refuges that volunteer to add data for a state and transition model that can be used in great basin wetlands. The Region 1 inventory and monitoring program teamed up with Region 6 (mostly Montana based National Wildlife Refuges) to create this database. The model takes into account years between management activities and what activities were employed. This, along with consecutive years of data collection, feed information into the model that can help Refuges make management decisions regarding semi-permanent impoundments or water holdings.

Overall, I feel that the training was a success, Ryan and Alexa both nailed their plant ID and are comfortable with the protocol. The drive to Gray’s Lake NWR is a long and tedious one, but I feel that it is always worth it. This little gem is tucked away in the mountains right along the Idaho/Wyoming border and is largely ignored by passersby. While it seems a shame that this place doesn’t garner much attention, I think that it adds to how truly great this Refuge is. I quiet little oasis, or refuge, left in peace to the wildlife that depend on it for sanctuary and an excellent place to bond and grow as a team. I am already looking forward to next year’s training.

The Blue Hour at Malheur

Written by Robert Steelquist/Photo by Robert Steelquist

It is too dark for pictures. The western light has simply faded without a hint of color in a progression of grays fading to black. Twilight, he so-called “blue hour,” is a favorite of nature photographers. It takes place twice a day, when the sun has just set or not yet risen. Shadows don’t exist. Neither do highlights. Digital cameras, in this light, begin to invent colors that aren’t there, creating what photographers call noise, pixels of greens and magentas that serve as stand-ins for things the camera sensor cannot really detect.

This thing I’ve been strapped to all day (since the morning blue hour) is no longer of any use and so I choose simply to look and listen as night closes on the Refuge Headquarters Pond and to gather directly its sights and sounds: a pair of bothered geese, silhouetted shovelers, dipping swallows, a distant yips of a coyote and the who of the owl in the nearby spruce. This, perhaps, was the mood of the anonymous namer of this region when “malheur” was labeled: misfortune. For the photographer, the misfortune of a missed shot. Of natural unfoldings that will escape photographic capture. The hour of gloom before darkness encloses—blue hour—as in The Blues. Misfortune.

Yet, another feeling rises in me: the good fortune of seeing the vast basin without a frame; the liberation from the rule of thirds, f-stops, menus and buttons. Now it is raw, presenting itself to me directly. To see into the shadows, I must let my eyes adjust. To hear the sounds of coming night I must concentrate. I trace the distant rim of horizon; a few lights prick the dark of the distance. More sounds come and my bare eyes open to the details emerging within the growing shades of night.

It’s time to leave. (The sign says “closed at sunset”—but when was sunset?) This early in the season, it will soon be cold. Clouds will obscure the stars. The big space of the basin will be black and I have a few miles to drive back to Malheur Field Station. I take stock of everything my senses convey. I follow the arc of a silent owl in flight. I start the truck and turn up the road, switching on the headlights. Just as quickly, I turn them off because they insult my eyes and mar the scene unnaturally. Without them I can see the road just fine, even in the twilight. The gravel under the tires sings. The shadowy forms of fence posts and bare trees slip by. The sage flats tighten their hold on their secrets.

I’ve been coming to Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for just over 30 years. Not every year—maybe once every four or five. It’s a long haul from the Olympic Peninsula, where I live, but in many ways, it’s everything that the Olympics are not. Toward the end of winter, I am ready for something that the Olympics are not. I come in early spring, when the ponds are full, the snow geese, curlews and cranes are in the wet fields and the whole flyway is full of waterfowl migrants, turning the world under them, it seems, with their wing beats. Nights are cold, Steens Mountain is pressed flat under its glacier-like snowcap, and the weather is unpredictable. I’ve dodged snow squalls on the Alvord on one visit, driven the cracked and dry playa the next. I’ve experienced the place with my growing sons (now grown), my closest friends and my students. In each of my companions, I’ve witnessed wonder: the hyper-blue of a mountain bluebird, the haunting thrums of sage grouse, the canyon wren’s descant, the scale of the basin and range landscape, the past violence of volcanic eruption, the inconceivable timespan of the lift and roll of the Steens Mountain fault block.

I have photographed—or tried to photograph—wary raptors, curious pronghorn, indifferent ducks, and landscapes for which no lens is wide enough. I’ve fought with the light: Wrong angle—another silhouette bird; Midday—blown out highlights. In these experiences, I’ve come to appreciate something far richer than even my finest photographs. It’s been the moments when I know that even the best camera will fail. It’s when the place itself exceeds the limits of containment and what is unfolding before me is too vast or wild to capture. And I’ve learned that it is wise to lower the viewfinder from my eye and experience the subtlety and awe of what is there. Even after 30-some years, those memories are far more durable than any picture. The sage in me knows this, even if the photographer doesn’t.

It’s late in the blue hour. Time to head home. The photographer’s misfortune—malheur. But the awakening of the senses in the experience of the wild. Bon chance.

Robert Steelquist is a naturalist, writer and photographer based in Washington State. He is author of The Northwest Coastal Explorer, published by Timber Press.

Carp Biomass Study at MNWR

Written by James Pearson, Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Fish Biologist/Aerial photo of Malheur Lake by Peter Pearsall

My name is James Pearson and I am the new Fish Biologist at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (MNWR). I was born and raised in Sacramento, California, where immediately after completion of high school I joined the U.S. Marines where I served for four years completing two deployments. After the Marines, I received my Undergraduate in Biology at Willamette University. Once finished with school I worked as a biological technician for multiple projects with ODFW, OSU, and USGS of which the projects mainly focused on the effects of forest practices on Adult and Juvenile Coho salmon (Onchorhynchus kisutch) in the Coastal Range of Oregon.

Next, I attended OSU where I began working towards my Master’s Degree in Dr. Dunham’s Lab with a thesis focused on constructing a population model for the invasive common carp (Cyprinus carpio; hereafter “carp”) in Malheur Lake and investigating the efficacy of different active and passive carp removal methods (i.e. commercial harvest, juvenile trapping, embryo electroshocking, and avian predation).

After the completion of my Master’s course work, I was offered an opportunity to pursue a PhD at OSU and continue my modeling work focused on Malheur Lake. My PhD dissertation is focused on constructing a systems model that incorporates carp, hydrology, and wind resuspension in Malheur Lake. The systems model when complete will enable us to better understand the efficacy of multiple alternative restoration scenarios and our ability to potentially promote ecosystem recovery in Malheur Lake.

The systems modeling described above is informed by multiple on the ground research projects which help decrease major model uncertainties, thus delivering more informed model predictions. One such project is the carp biomass experiment, which is currently being initiated by Dr. Doug Peterson (USFWS Abernathy Fish Technology Center; Vancouver, WA) and his USFWS crew in windmill pond on the MNWR. The carp biomass study is an important study because it aims to quantify the contribution of carp to the current degraded water quality conditions in Malheur Lake. For instance, Doug Peterson’s crew will be investigating how different levels of carp biomass will affect the water quality (nutrients, turbidity, and chlorophyll) in 22 enclosures, utilizing three treatment groups (carp biomass levels; 50, 100, 300 kg/ha) over a four month period (June- September; submerged aquatic vegetation growing season).

After the initial construction and implementation of the carp biomass project, employees of the MNWR and High Desert Partnership (HDP) will take over data collection for the extent of the experiment. HDP’s Aquatic Coordinator (Mark Chowning) will monitor the carp enclosures, utilizing PIT tag arrays to ensure that the carp are still present at the desired densities as well as conduct periodic carp sampling events to collect key biometric data. In addition, Norman Clippinger (USFWS) will be collecting monthly water quality data analysis in which he will be monitoring for nutrients, turbidity, and chlorophyll. At the end of this project, we hope to utilize the information obtained in the carp biomass experiment to aid modeling efforts and ultimately inform future restoration actions in Malheur Lake.