09 Jun Rise and Shine: Early Mornings on a National Wildlife Refuge
In Oregon, just west of the Cascades lies the Willamette Valley, home to a set of national wildlife refuges. The Willamette Valley National Wildlife Refuge Complex is composed of Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge, William L. Finley National Wildlife Refuge, and Ankeny Wildlife Refuge. Within these refuges you’ll find a variety of habitats, such as oak savannas, upland prairies, wetlands, mixed forests, and much more. These protected areas support thousands of species ranging from Roosevelt elk, bobcats, and bald eagles to the rare Fender’s blue butterfly. However, for my internship I focus on monitoring streaked horned larks, a threatened song bird currently only found in Washington and Oregon. These little birds are ground nesters that are quite picky and won’t settle for anything less than wide open spaces with lots of bare ground and sparse, short vegetation. The vast agricultural fields scattered around the refuges make ideal habitat for larks leading to the decision to designate critical habitat on all three Willamette Valley refuges. As a result, you’ll find me at 5am standing in the middle of these vast fields with a scope and binoculars around my neck being serenaded by a symphony of bird songs as the sun rises.
Out of the three refuges Baskett Slough has the largest amount of ideal habitat, which therefore supports the largest population of larks in the refuge complex. My goal is to find and monitor their tiny nests, which is challenging as the grass grows throughout the season. As I scan the agricultural fields for signs of little birds with yellow faces and black “horns” of feathers I notice I share the fields with a variety of other birds. A pair of Northern harriers keep me company everyday on the field’s edge, which I’m sure lies their nest hidden. Canada geese also like to waddle around in the early morning and it’s almost routine to hear a bald eagle’s high-pitched whistling nearby. Because wide open spaces are mandatory for streaked horned larks it means I’m restricted to these agricultural fields, which is horrible for my allergies, but not so bad as a plethora of feathered friends keep me company.