Sage Grouse: Icon of the Sagebrush Sea

My fascination with sage grouse began 20 years ago with an invitation by a friend to hunt the majestic greater sage-grouse with our falcons. I arrived in late November at his camp on the banks of the Sandy River in Wyoming, along a stretch peppered with Oregon Trail gravesites. This treeless, exposed stretch of river felt more like a moonscape than a center of a vibrant ecosystem. The Sandy flowed during the brisk, but sunny mid-day weather, but locked with sheets of ice during the -20F nighttime temperature — no doubt a brutal experience for the thousands of pioneers racing to beat the descending winter.

We were on the cusp of the ‘winter grouse’– a term used by falconers with a kind of spiritual reverence to describe the sage grouse, in their transformation to a near-immortal condition. While most gamebirds, like pheasants and partridge, suffer their highest mortality during the harsh winter months, the sage grouse seems to turn nature’s rules upside-down. Instead of huddling inside shrubby cover for warmth and protection, mid-winter sage grouse are found across exposed plateaus, browsing short-statured sage in 20 mile per hour winds and subzero temperatures. They not only survive, but they gain weight.

I heard stories of their winter congregations, and like many tales of “the good ol’ days”, I was skeptical. But the second day, my friend took me to the spot he estimated was the largest annual winter congregation of sage grouse in the species’ range. As we got out of the truck, you could see the heads of grouse peering over the sagebrush as far as you could see. Off in another direction, I shouted to my friend, “Ducks!?” pointing to a distant milling flock of birds 800 feet up in the sky, that probably numbered nearly a thousand. “No. Grouse,” he said. In yet another direction grouse were taking off from the sage and were so thick their wing-tips were slapping each-other. Within seconds, they were pin-dots over a large, distant butte. As we left the scene, hundreds of antelope filed over a ridgeline and a herd of wintering elk from the Wind River Range, held fast in the center of a huge sage-dominated flat. I was left stunned.

That exact spot is now home to the largest natural gas field in the world, the Jonah Field. This was the species’ stronghold–so the Jonah Field, to us, represented the beginning of the end. Yet in the years following this development, the conservation community engaged in the issue in a way never-before seen. Agencies, non-profit conservation organizations and private ranchers have pursued a collaborative approach to sage grouse conservation and restoration that holds significant promise. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to make an announcement this September to decide whether or not the greater sage-grouse will be listed as threatened or endangered under the authority of the Endangered Species Act. Will a proactive, collaborative approach win the day or will regulation be the species’ safety net? Please visit Sage Grouse: Icon of the Sagebrush Sea and learn more about this pivotal species of the High Desert.

Photo courtesy Steve Chindgren

A New Delivery for the High Desert Museum!

In the midst of staff preparations for our 2015 summer season, our porcupine Honey had a baby!

A baby porcupine is called a porcupette (believe it or not). After a seven month gestation, they are born with their eyes open and all 30,000 or so quills in place, characteristics that set porcupines apart from many of their rodent relatives. The quills are soft at birth (which I’m sure mama appreciates), but they harden within a couple of hours after birth, providing the porcupette with some protection against predators.

Able to crawl soon after birth, the porcupette spends its first few days nursing, sleeping, moving about and hiding behind mom. Dads provide no care for their offspring. In this case, Thistle, the dad, was moved to another enclosure. For the first two weeks of life the porcupette nurses at night and will continue to nurse until four months old.

As an arboreal or tree dwelling rodent, a baby’s climbing instinct kicks in mere weeks after birth. They forage in trees and transition toward a strictly herbivorous diet that includes leaves, green plants, twigs and the cambium layer of trees.

Honey has taken to motherhood and is protective of her baby, often standing in between it and viewers who linger a little too long for her liking. As with wild porcupettes, our newest member usually hides out during the day and seeks shelter in a safe area on the ground while its mother retreats to the trees drawing attention away from her offspring. We’ve tried to minimize our handling of the porcupette and don’t yet know its gender.

A nocturnal animal, the porcupines are best viewed early morning or late afternoon in their exhibit outside of the Donald M. Kerr Birds of Prey Center.

Building the Past to Experience the Present

In Living History, we’re always looking for ways to bring our visitors back to the past. This gives them an authentic and memorable experience. One such experience is the sight, sound, and smell of a black powder musket being fired. For the fur trappers camp during Frontier Days (c. 1820) we had one small need: to build a brand new Northwest Trade Gun.

The Northwest Trade Gun itself is not an overly complicated or even hard to manufacture gun. On the contrary, it’s designed to be built quickly so that it can be traded for goods, thus it being named a “trade” gun. Make no mistake; building a gun is called gunsmithing for a reason. Even today when you buy a flintlock musket gun building kit, it isn’t as simple as opening the box, reading the instructions, putting part A into hole B and giving it a finished coat. It’s a gun kit, not a Lego set.

There are no “legosmiths”.

Crafting an older style gun is as much a test of skill as it is a test of patience. A modern day expert gunsmith can make a flintlock rifle from a kit in about 40 hours of labor time. That isn’t including the days, weeks or even months it takes to apply finishing coats and allowing them to dry. If you didn’t care about appearances, but just wanted a functional firearm? You’re still looking at a good 30 hours for your gunsmithing time. For someone who’s never attempted gunsmithing? Maybe 80 hours.

To build a Northwest Trade Gun you must drill and shape the wood and metal to your whim, even with a kit. Of course, a very solid grasp of mathematics is required for precision drilling, but you also must have the hands and fingers of an artist as you shape the stock to its desired form. Even with today’s modern power tools and equipment, this is a tedious process.

I, of course, had no idea what I was doing, so a good gentleman by the name of Jim Malloy took me under his wing and showed me the basics. Jim Malloy himself is the President of the Beaver State Historical Gunmakers Guild located in Prineville, Oregon. I foolishly assumed that the kit would come to us quite nearly completed and all that we would have to do is make it look pretty. I have never been so wrong in my life.

Regardless, the Trade Gun was finally finished, and I’m rather proud of the end result. Of course, I did make sure I wasn’t the first one to shoot it, though.

Treasures of the vault

When I first began working for the High Desert Museum, I was elated to find something tucked away in the vault that I never expected here: this 42 Liberator. It immediately became my favorite object in the collection. I am a huge fan of vintage Harley-Davidsons for many reasons but have always been drawn to the sense of freedom they embody. It would be difficult to find a better ambassador of freedom than a Liberator. What makes this motorcycle so important to me is what it paved the way for. With the popularity and economic strength Harley-Davidson had after WWII, the company was able to launch a brand new big V-twin engine in 1948, affectionately known as the Panhead. I was born and raised on the back of my father’s Panhead which I now own and ride, over 30 years later.

Museum adds a barred owl to its raptor collection

We’re excited to have just added a fifth owl species to our collection: the barred owl. This beautiful and remarkable species joins our popular hawks, eagles and falcons currently on exhibit.

The barred owl is a large owl native to the mixed deciduous/coniferous forests of the eastern U.S. Throughout the 20th century, the species made a rapid westward expansion, possibly across the Northern Great Plains or Canadian boreal forest, into the Washington Cascades, and now south into Oregon and California. The owl has become controversial due to its status as an invasive species (a non-native species that causes economic or environmental harm) whose presence has severely impacted spotted owl populations in the Northwest.

A species is not considered native to a particular ecosystem in the US merely because it is native somewhere else within the U.S. Human alterations of forest ecosystems are responsible for the barred owl’s westward expansion and its capacity to thrive in the Pacific Northwest.

The barred owl is bigger, more aggressive, and nests in higher density. They disrupt the nesting of the spotted owl, compete with them for food, and literally chase them out of the area. In habitats where the barred owl competes with the northern spotted owl, the barred owl tends to win every time.

Wildlife managers entrusted to protect the spotted owl’s dwindling populations are now faced with a painful choice: Allow the invasive barred owl to continue displacing the spotted owls – likely resulting in the eventual extinction of the northern spotted owl — or, protect existing populations of spotted owls by removing barred owls found within spotted owl habitat. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has concluded that the strategic removal of barred owls may be key to the future of the spotted owl. They’ve started an experimental barred owl removal program in California, Oregon and Washington to evaluate whether removals will benefit spotted owl populations.

Although removal programs often elicit controversy, endangered species biologists only use such measures when the loss of a listed species (or population) is likely without intervention. The brown-headed cowbird and corvids (ravens, crows, jays etc.) are examples of wildlife native to North America that became invasive due to human-caused changes to various habitats that gave them an unnatural advantage. Their targeted removal in small areas was critical to maintaining viable populations of endangered species like the snowy plover and Kirtland’s warbler.

Having a barred owl on exhibit at our Bird of Prey Center allows the Museum to present important information about spotted owl conservation while also exhibiting a fascinating owl species.

The High Desert Museum’s barred owl came from a rehabilitation facility in Washington. The young bird did not develop some of its flight feathers correctly, so it cannot survive in the wild. There are four other owl species on exhibit: The barn owl, great horned owl, burrowing owl and screech owl. In all, there are more than 20 birds of prey in the Museum’s live collection.

– By John Goodell, Curator of Natural History

The story of Snowshoe the lynx

Snowshoe, a male hybrid lynx who lived at the High Desert Museum for nine years, died last night, November 10, 2014. He had been under a veterinarian’s care recently for kidney failure. Snowshoe’s exact age isn’t known but it’s believed he was in his 20s, having lived much longer than lynx do in the wild.

Snowshoe came to live at the Museum in 2005 after he was found, in poor condition, by a Pacific Crest Trail hiker near Castle Crags State Park in California. David Osborn was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail when he came around a corner on the east fork of Sulphur Creek and spotted the lynx on a sandbar. At first, he thought it was a big house cat. But as he neared, he realized it was much, much bigger than that.

“He was lying in sphinx position”. Osborn says he tried to make himself look big and made loud noises — but the lynx “wasn’t impressed”. The cat “looked at me curiously and yawned, then stretched like a dog and started walking straight toward me.”

Osborn retreated behind a tree but the cat followed him. When another animal, possibly a deer, snapped a twig nearby, the cat became distracted and Osborn fled. He ran several miles and encountered off-duty Park Ranger Christopher “Brett” Mizeur.

Mizeur says that when Osborn told him he had seen what he believed was a lynx, Mizeur thought “he doesn’t know his cats”. Mizeur went back to town to pick up a large dog trap and roast beef. The men then returned to where Osborn first spotted the lynx. They carefully formed a trail of roast beef mounds between the cat and the trap. The hungry lynx fell for the trick, wolfing down the piles of beef as it walked directly into the crate.

“Then he went crazy”, according to Osborn. “He bent the metal”. The men found large branches to weave through the crate and carried the lynx back to the Mizeur’s truck.]Ranger Mizeur contacted Marianne Dickison with Shasta Wildlife Rescue and delivered the lynx to her. She took the cat to a veterinarian, who discovered the lynx had been neutered, declawed and its canine teeth pulled. The vet also said he lacked muscle, an indication the lynx had been kept in small quarters such as a crate for a long time. It was clear he had been kept as a pet and then released in the wild to fend for himself.

Because the lynx was a protected wildlife species and illegal to possess without special permits, the options in California were to euthanize him or find a suitable home, which wouldn’t be easy. But Dickison was determined not to let the lynx be euthanized. She took the cat home for a week as she searched for an appropriate facility to take him.

She contacted the High Desert Museum and staff there was happy to take him. High Desert Museum Wildlife Curator John Goodell said, “Snowshoe has been an ambassador for North American cat species and has had an educational impact on hundreds of thousands of Museum visitors. The lynx is an example of an apex predator that has an enormous home range but exists in very low densities and are difficult for biologists to detect, like the wolverine. Throughout the intermountain west, wildlife managers initiating large carnivore survey projects and these studies have shown lynx present in areas where they were thought to be absent. There are still many unknowns about their presence in the Cascades. Snowshoe has brought this story to life in our Museum community.”

Soon after the lynx arrived at the Museum, a competition was held among Central Oregon schoolchildren to come up with a name. “Snowshoe” won and he had been called that ever since. He is recognized for his beautiful golden eyes and bent right ear. He is thought to be a cross between Canadian lynx and Eurasian lynx. Lynx are solitary cats that hunt at night, so are rarely seen. They are stealthy hunters, with excellent hearing and eyesight so keen they can spot a mouse 250 feet away. They eat birds, mice and squirrels but prefer the snowshoe hare. Owning exotic animals, including all wild cats, was banned in Oregon in 2009.

Snowshoe’s care was supported in part by the Museum’s Adopt an Animal program, which helps fund the care of nearly 200 animals.

Owls at Halloween

Around the world, people have associated owls with mystery, witchcraft and even death. After all, they are creatures of the night, and we humans are inherently fearful of the dark: what we cannot see could hurt us.

For example, many African tribal names for owls translate as “witchbird.” And the stark white barn owl is often called “ghost owl.” Many cultures have hunted owls to rid their villages of evil or death, but also to reap medicinal ingredients. Eating owl eyes was believed to offer night vision, raw owl eggs were thought to cure alcoholism, boiled owl fat was said to treat sores and owl soup was a folk remedy for whooping cough. Owl hearts were revered as offering strength for battles, curing epilepsy and as a truth serum.

Speaking of truth, humans benefit greatly from having owls around us alive, especially barn owls, who like to live in, yes, barns. That’s where they help farmers by hunting pests. One barn owl can eat 1,200 mice annually in just one field. What a great pesticide – it’s free and doesn’t put chemicals on the food that we eat!

Behind the scenes with raptors and bird nerds

The slow-flying pigeon didn’t have a prayer. From high above, the peregrine falcon zeroed in on its prey, tucked his wings, and dove. With speed topping 200 miles an hour, it struck, talons first, and dispatched the bird from the air. It was mercifully instantaneous.

The hunting prowess of falcons, eagles, hawks and owls has enthralled people for more than 4,000 years. In parts of Asia and the Mid East falconry has been in continuous practice almost as long. Some cultures, such as the Mongols and the Bedouin, relied on their friendly falcons to put food on the table.

Today, people stop and gawk when they see a hawk perched on a fence. A golden eagle nest in Central Oregon has its own web cam and an owl in the park is front page news.

So it’s no surprise that our free-flying show, Raptors of the Desert Sky, is a big success in the summer.Worthy of three pages in The Bulletin.

“People are naturally fascinated by these birds,” said John Goodell, Curator of Natural History at the High Desert Museum. “They’re just so majestic and impressive to watch, especially when they fly so close overhead. You’ll never have an experience like this in the wild.”

Goodell has worked with almost every species of raptor in the High Desert. He and staff of bird nerds at the Museum currently care for more than 20 birds of prey, five of which regularly participate in the flight program.

This is just the third summer of the Raptors of the Desert Sky program. Putting on a live show featuring various species of raptors can be a challenge. As Dana Whitelaw, VP of programs put it, “Sometimes things can get a bit interesting.”

Recently, the turkey vulture added suspense to the show when he decided to wander off for a bit of sunshine and free time. The show is outdoors, so the birds are equipped with radio transmitters just in case. But in the end, the vulture returned on his own time.

Our two Harris’ Hawks act like an old married couple… He tries to steal her food. She squawks at him, and bullies him around. Of course, she’s bigger than he is — that’s just the way it is in the natural world of raptors.

One of the most frequently asked questions by spectators is where the birds come from… how they end up at the High Desert Museum.

Every bird has a unique story, but they all have one thing in common: They could not survive in the wild. They’re either injured or “imprinted” by human contact. The turkey vulture, for instance, was raised in captivity after being found out of the nest at a very young age. Once they’re taken in by a human, there’s no going back.

The Peregrine falcon is 17 years old, much older than any in the wild. She’s fed a healthy diet of meat, much like she’d have in her natural habitat. Goodell’s staff monitors her food intake to the gram and works with her daily to keep her in flying shape.

One bird that’s being nursed back to health, and is likely to be released into the wild, is a small Merlin with a broken beak. “We are a licensed rehab facility, although that’s not what we focus on doing. Most of the birds we get have already been through that, and need a permanent home.”

Surprisingly, Goodell said many hawks and owls are injured after having run-ins with cars. For instance, we have a Swainson’s hawk that was hit by a car and is blind in one eye.

Goodell hopes to add three more birds to the show by next summer, the first being a young Prairie Falcon later this fall.

Wildlife was always at the heart of Donald Kerr’s vision for the High Desert Museum. His hope was that witnessing the flight demonstration of an American kestrel, touching the belly of a gopher snake, or seeing a bobcat curled up with his favorite old boot would be enough to inspire others to become stewards of High Desert wildlife.

In his program Goodell makes a point to describe the threats that each bird of prey species face. He also loves to tell the story of the Peregrine falcon because it has such a happy ending. “In the late 60’s DDT and other pesticides had wiped out the Peregrine Falcon completely from the Eastern United States,” he said. “But captive breeding and relocation efforts called hacking successfully reintroduced the birds over a 30 year period. In 1999, the peregrine falcon was removed from the endangered species list and today there are healthy populations throughout the United States.

Animal Enrichment at the High Desert Museum

Caring for animals at the High Desert Museum involves more than just cleaning, feeding and watering; like the rest of us, bobcats thrive if given numerous opportunities to express their species-specific play behavior. Termed “enrichment,” this regular stimulation is a vital part of keeping them well and happy.

We offer them activities that they’d be drawn to in the wild. We know our beautiful bobcat Vivi would stalk prey so we toss scented balls and other toys for her to chase and catch. She plays like a kitten but at age 14, Vivi is one of our senior citizens. She can get stiff with arthritis, so exercise helps improve her circulation and keeps her joints moving. We hide food inside toys and boxes to get those paws working.

Besides physical activity, the animals need mental stimulation. We strive to stimulate all of the animals’ senses. Vivi, it turns out, is a music lover, and (based on purr volume!) seems to prefer Mozart and other classical pieces over other genres we’ve tried. We sometimes also place different scents around her enclosure, such as cinnamon, cloves, and catnip to stimulate her sense of smell. Enrichment improves the lives of the animals in our care, and it’s also one of the most enjoyable parts of our job here at the High Desert Museum.

Louise Shirley, Assistant Curator of Wildlife