Posted by: atowhee | May 13, 2022

MALHEUR DROUGHT–KEEPING SCORE

May 16: Update on non-avian animals, some plants, added bird notes.
I have now spoken with biologists with ODFW and birders.
In Jackson County Howard Prairie Lake used to be home to 4-5 Bald Eagle couples per season. Last year an observer tells me only one pair managed to fledge a youngster. The lake level was so low there were few fish so eagles had to complete for less accustomed fare.
Drought will be hard on cranes who traditionally nested in that area.
A biologist working in eastern Oregon says stress is evident across the environment. Some junipers are losing limbs, berry crops reduced. In healthy, ideal habitats, young bighorn sheep rams can add 6-8 inches to horn length in a year. Visible like tree rings. Now he sees 1/8 to 1/4 inch per year in Hart Mountain and nearby areas. The young bighorn are simply stgruggling to survive.

He described how pelicans that formerly nested in Nevada’s Pelican Lake, found it dry last year. They moved to Crump Lake in Oregon. Now it may be too low for them to use. Last fall the state closed all public access to Crump Lake because of the low water level.

Another biologist, based in Bend, told me amphibians were most endangered of animals. They revert back to the water where they were born to lay eggs. If the marsh, stream or lake is low or dried up the next generation is doomed. Twelve years is a long frog life, so the math is clear that losing two or three years of reproduction means far fewer frogs. If some lakes are permanently gone so is that population.
Overall the drought areas have more stress on all living creatures. Agriculture interests will push for ever more water (see Summer Lake) and the political, environmental and social disputes will worsen.

Teresa Wickes, PhD, is Portland Audubon Society’s Eastern Oregon Field Coordinator, and an expert field ornithologist. I spoke with her about what can be determined about the drought’s effect on nesting birds. As I blogged earlier, Mudd and Harney Lakes and Wright’s Pond are among former bodies of water that are now arid steppe. There is no way with only our near-sighted view to see if this is changed climate or simply part of a 22-year long drought in the American West.

Right now Burns has received 3.07 inches of precip this year. Average would be 4.63 inches. Source: National Weather Service. There is some happier news: Harney Basin snowpack is at 114% of median (with some help from some recent snows that plagued our birding, but we couldn’t complain–it was falling water!). Click here to check snowpack data.

As long as there is sufficient water and waterborne food many “waterfowl” can thrive or survive. Grebes, coots, ibis, gulls & terns, phalarope and other shorebirds, ducks, geese will nest on upland or floating vegetation. They do not necessarily need islands. Herons and egrets are tree nesters. Harriers and Short-eared Owls may hunt wetlands but nest on dry ground. Yet there are some large birds affected as far as we can tell.
Trumpeter Swans last nested successfully at Malheur in 2015-17. White Pelicans did not raise young last year and may not this year. They hang out on the reduced Malheur Lake and feed, not reproducing. Their last good year was 2020. Sandhill Cranes nested and hatched young last year–but there’s no evidence that any of those young cranes matured to migrate out. These three large species are long-lived, comparatively. Swans and cranes can live twenty years, pelicans over sixteen. One or two lost years may not be long-term detrimental to a breeding population. If the drought effects continue or worsen…?

There is a co-operative agreement among various local groups to try to rehabilitate Malheur Lake, especially restore islands and such that were natural before the man-made carp catastophe. The fish was introduced into the Silvies River in the 1920s–click here.

One key goal of the rehab plan: “Begin altering the structure of the lakebed to recreate islands and peninsulas to act as natural wind/wave barriers to model the natural topography of the lake, which no longer exists.” Click here for summary of overall rehabilitaton plans.

Not just widlife is suffering. Local paper reports: “Last year [2021], most hay producers in the area said they got about half as much production as usual, and Svejcar [local expert] notes that the trend isn’t looking good for this year’s production cycle.”
Click for look at the drought in much of the West with emphasis on Harney County.

Click here for story of swans at Malheur–written last year.

Groundwater used for profit not wildlife–click here for 3 year old report. It seems that groundwater use in Harney has nearly tripled since 1991. To see the report, click here. Check page 46 of the PDF. The pumping of ground water now exceeds natural recharge, wells going deeper. Want to wade through another report on water pumping, click here.

Top two pics: Chickahominy. Third pic: pond at headquarters.

Eight year old pic of Trumpeters’ family at Benson Pond.

My next Field Station sponsored birding trip: June 2-7. There are some seats on the van still open. Best trip for Bobolink and Eastern Kingbird (not here in early May) and Common Nighthawk. Call 541-493-2629 for details.
September trip is 7-12, includes trip to summit of Steens Mountain and a visit to the snow-tortured aspens with horizontal trunks.


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