Monday, April 21, 2014

British Birding at the Malheur Field Station

On Saturday, I joined six others for a day of “Birding British Style.” I’m not exactly sure what this really means other than that Duncan Evered, our guide, was born and raised in Britain but has spent the last 17 years at the Malheur Field Station where he has honed his birding skills and knowledge. Then we stopped for lunch at his home at the Field Station where he served us tea and Marmite on toast. Marmite, a salty by-product of beer brewing, is a yeast extract spread used on toast and sandwiches. We agreed that while Marmite is edible, it is not going to be a part of our daily food intake.
View from the Malheur Field Station
The Field Station was built during the Kennedy-Johnson era for the Job Corps. Today, it is a non-profit that provides workshops on all aspects of the region’s geography and biology. In addition, Duncan offers a special workshop exploring the relationship between the landscape and the music it inspires. His wife Lyla offers an outdoor painting workshop. The walls of the building where we ate lunch are covered with many of her paintings. Several of these are triptychs where each panel is painting during a different part of the day creating a fascinating look at the changing light patterns in the high desert.

Harney Lake - part of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge
View from the Malheur Refuge Headquarters

One of the more interesting things Duncan shared with us is that the biologists now at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge are fish experts, not bird experts. Most people who visit the Refuge come to see the birds and not to catch the fish, but there are some endangered fish in the system and the introduction of carp years ago threatens most of the native fish. Carp are so voracious and breed so rapidly that eliminating them may be impossible. Yet they do need to do what they can to keep them under control. A couple of the vendors at the festival were all about ways to reduce carp. One sells ground up carp as a fertilizer. There are efforts to create an industry around this. Duncan’s concern is that if they are successful at developing this industry, and then figure out a way to eliminate the carp, we will have a situation where the original goal of reducing the carp is at odds with a local industry that provides jobs.

Another interesting story is that when the Refuge was created in 1908 as a bird refuge for migrating water fowl, it only included the basin, but not any of the water sources. The farmers who opposed the refuge decided that their best response was to use up all the water before it reached the refuge. Fortunately for the birds, during the Great Depression, the land to the south, owned by Swift, was offered for sale and the government was able to purchase the land that controls the Donner und Blitzen River as it flows out of Steens Mountain thus providing the Refuge with a secure water source. It was only at this time that the Refuge began to flourish and have need for real biologists.

Ross's Geese Feeding in a field near Burns
Ross's Geese Taking Flight
The birding tour itself was rather low-key with long stops where Duncan would tell us all about the birds we were viewing. We did have one interesting moment while Duncan drove past a tree with a Great Horned Owl nest. While we sped past, Duncan explained that he does not like these owls because they feed on everything else in the neighborhood, even other smaller owls and hawks.

The Owl Tree
We did get some great views of the thousands of Ross’s Gulls on several fields and a few sandhill cranes that have moved into the area. At the Field Station, we watched large flocks of redwing and yellow-headed blackbirds. Duncan told us that they will find him in other parts of the station when they are out of food. They will also interrupt any conversations and body slam the windows to get his attention. Just like cats and dogs, wild birds can do a good job of training us if we let them. 

Sandhill Cranes

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