Posted by: atowhee | June 8, 2022

MALHEUR THIS JUNE–SOME AFTERWORDS

The recent four days of birding at Malheur and Harney County brought ecstasy, thrills, surprises, warm admiration for some musical experts…and much grist for consideration.  This was the annual June field trip sponsored by the Malheur Field Station as a fund-raiser for their planned survival. Survival is a crucial theme when birding eastern Oregon now.  Climate and drought lurk behind every sighting, every miss. 

Many of the male birds we saw were in maximum testosterone mania.  Lust, lush music, lyrics, larruping display flights, longing, long song, let’s do it.  They don’t read the news, they work for survival of the species.  Job One.  Among the great displayers were Lark Sparrow, Sage Thrasher, Bullock’s Oriole, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, all the blackbirds (yellow-headed, red-winged, Brewer’s), Mountain Bluebird, Western Meadowlark, Bobolink from the blackbird clan, snipe.

Larger birds are nesting, nested, won’t nest.  Here is where the information goes well beyond checklist and “Isn’t he a fine-looking bird?”  Some anecdotal reflections non Harney reality right now.

Harriers have been one of the more abundant raptors in past years.  In four days we saw ONE!.  I spoke with another excellent birder there the same days, but on his own—he saw only one.  If the females are on nests now the polygamist male should be hunting,…constantly.

Last year, according to two resident biologists, the Sandhill cranes raised no young to migratory maturity.   In four days we saw exactly ONE colt.

What species did we miss entirely?  Franklin’s Gulls and Caspian Tern.  Both are birds hard to miss when present.  On the May trip we did see a few Franklin’s, no Caspian.

More single sightings: Forster’s Terns, a pair at Crystal Crane’s manmade impoundment full of water; an aerial whirlwind of circling White Pelicans.  With no island left in the much diminished Malheur Lake they may not nest for the second straight year.

We saw no Trumpeter Swans, who last nested successfully at Malheur in 2017.  We saw no young waterfowl, not even Canada Geese who were overflowing the Burns sewer ponds.

We saw both Short-eared and Burrowing Owls but have no info on breeding.  We found four adult pairs of Great Horned Owls.  The pair at refuge headquarters had a failed nest—first time since at least 2009.  The pair on cliff face along Hwy 205 had two.  The pair along Greenhouse Road had one.  The pair on Princeton Bluff—two fledglings.  That is an average of less than two per pair, well below what nature requires for replacement, stable population.

We also saw two fledged Osprey on the Princeton Cliff.  We found four raven nests—a personal record for me: they had 3,2,2,1 nestlings.

 Overall impression: there are fewer curlew, pronghorn, coyotes and jackrabbits.

There were many blooming shrubs thanks to the unseasonal rainfall and snow in May.  Desert plants know to bloom whenever they can.

There are many dried vernal pools, seasonal marshes, even sometimes lakes (Mud, Harney) and reservoirs like Chickahominy.  Mint farming apparently can no longer turn a profit—those fields are converted or fallow.

Silvies River has been drained to flood fields along north end of Hwy 205.  The Silvies riverbed is completely dry before it reached Malheur Lake—no water from one of the two major sources of inflow.  No wonder the lake is less than one-fifth capacity

Blitzen River is less dire as it serves little agriculture and its water is now flooding much of the south end of the refuge—where we saw the crane colt.  Also where many Bobolink are (along with Diamond).

Crystal Crane’s manmade pond, spring-fed, may become home to desperate birds.  There is plenty of action at Burn’s fishing ponds on Hwy 78 and the town’s sewer ponds.

As usual the irrigated fields around Crane attract mammals and raptors. Much of that is ground water, not being replenished, so…

There are many solar farms now in the area as pumping water is required if you are going to grow hay or anything else.


Responses

  1. We were on the refuge at the same time as your dates. I agree with your concern about climate change and its effect on the nesting behavior at Malheur but I wonder if the rain squalls had an impact on some of your sightings. We saw a Trumpeter Swan on a nest at Benson Pond, a moderate number of Franklin’s Gulls and Forester’s Terns, and found two owlets in a cottonwood near the Crane’s Nest nature center at HQ.

  2. We were on the refuge at the same time as your dates. I agree with your concern about climate change and its effect on the nesting behavior at Malheur but I wonder if the rain squalls had an impact on some of your sightings. We saw a Trumpeter Swan on a nest at Benson Pond, a moderate number of Franklin’s Gulls and Forster’s Terns, and found two owlets in a cottonwood near the Crane’s Nest nature center at HQ.


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