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Posted by: atowhee | October 6, 2017

MALHEUR 101: A DAY WITH DUNCAN

HARNEY COUNTY: A DAY WITH DUNCAN

Duncan Evered has been co-director of the Malheur Field Station and accumulated twenty years of informed biological and environmental observation in Harney County. His wealth of knowledge of the Malheur Basin and its natural history is deep and maybe unparalleled at the present time. I was part of his vanload of birders attending the Oregon Birding Association’s annual gathering.  This year we met at Malheur.

  • Eurasian Collared-doves first came into the area in 2001 but the population exploded around 2012 and the species is now abundant around farms and towns. This species originated in southern Asia.  It arrived in the U.S. from the Bahamas where it had been deliberately transplanted.  It reached Florida with no further direct human help. From there it spread across the continent in less than four decades and is now common around towns and farms across Oregon.
  • There are upwards of 200 California Quail on the Malheur Field Station campus each winter. In spring the family unit includes male, female and young.  There are often “uncle” birds lured into the family by the females.  Among the quail the males are most numerous gender and most do not live long enough to get through more than one whole breeding cycle. The uncles help keep the youngsters in line as the young quail are prone to want to go join some other family. After breeding season as young mature the families begin to meld into coveys because the young insist on socializing outside the family.  Among the quail’s predators are bobcat, coyote, magpie…and a badger would take the eggs.
  • In the high and dry climate of Harney County fresh water is the most precious resource in the wild. Thus Duncan’s front garden with its water drip is popular among many wild creatures from sparrows to badgers.  He has a camera that records night visitors which often include badger.
  • Irrigation of alfalfa, hay and mint fields in the Princeton/Crane area east of the lake has lowered the underground water table by as much as forty feet. Farmers are now profiting from water first stored during the Pleistocene when the climate was much wetter. There is no natural way to replace that water now.  Another finite resource being expended for profit [my conclusion].
  • Water from the eastern section of the Crane Valley actually drains eastward into Malheur River which flows into the Snake and that water eventually reaches the Pacific via the Columbia River.
  • Meanwhile Silvies River and Donner und Blitzen drain directly into Malheur Lake and its neighbors (mud and Harney). These lakes are on a five-year cycle of expansion and contraction and no single year completely determines how high or deep the lakes become in spring or remain through the summer drought.
  • Flooding in the 1980s inundated Sodhouse Road and nearby fields as well as lowlands all around the Malheur lake system. The high water mark of those floods can still be seen where the sagebrush rives way to greasewood.  The latter can thrive in the alkaline soil left behind on the old lake bottom.  Sagebrush does best above the line of alkalinity.  It must take years for that alkaline soil to leach out those minerals, back into the shrunken lakes.
  • Despite the plethora of alfalfa eating rodents the local ranchers insisted on coyote killing until environmental groups sued to get it curtailed on federal lands. That could be reversed under the current administration.  There is little protection for coyote on private land still. We saw four wary coyote today.
  • In late August the Burrowing Owls disperse into sagebrush and become difficult to locate. The Common Nighthawk, Eastern Kingbird and Bobolink begin migration.
  • White Pelicans may fly long distances from nesting area to find fish. The colony at Pyramid Lake in Nevada has been proven to have members that fly all the way across the Sierra and downhill to the San Francisco Bay Area, catch fish and return to feed nestlings and mates.   Biologists have found San Francisco Bay fish tags in remains around pelican nests in Pyramid Lake.  The fish did not fly there without pelican-lift.
  • Malheur NWR Headquarters as migrant trap. The tall trees there are an attraction for many woodland species, inc. woodpeckers, vireos, finches and warbler.  Much of the flora there is exotic and does not provide good shelter or food.  Many night-time migrants in spring will stop flying well before dawn, land at the HQ.  It the morning they awaken hungry and surrounded by a fairly sterile environment.  Most days the height of migrant activity is 9 to 10 AM.  Extra-limital species, the rarities, are often birds in poor condition, in desperate need of replenishing body fat and the HQ does not provide the right cover or food for that.
  • Lead shot is still widely used in the county, including to shoot Belding’s ground squirrels which are simply killed and left for scavengers, so hawks, eagles, vultures and ravens then may get the carcasses and haul them home to feed lead-tainted meat to their young.

This blog is based on my notes, my aged memory and some of my own interpretation and interpolation of a portion of what Duncan talked about during our fine field day together.  Any mistakes or misunderstandings belong to me.

SOME IMAGES ROM THE MALHEUR TRIP LAST MONTH,  ONLY THIS FIRST SHOT OF CRANES IS FROM SUMMER LAKE AREA.  ALL THE RESAT ARE FROM HARNEY COUNTY:

FullSizeRenderPIRATEd-wwd-qwalst converg2ge flyYHB PAIRwfiHOME FLUTTRmalhr sunsetlodgeQWAL

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