LIFE AT MINIDOKA

[This is Chapter Nine out of my 2017 book, "Government Biologist; With the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the Second Half of the Twentieth Century" (Gresham, Oregon: Symbios Books), that details my 35-year career as a wildlife biologist and administrator. If you'd like to read more, contact me and I'll send you a free PDF of the entire book.]

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   As I intimated in the previous chapter, there isn't a lot to say about the specifics of Minidoka Refuge management. We patrolled the area. We censused the birds from the ground, from the water, and from the air. We maintained buildings and yards, vehicles, signs, and fences. We wrote memos and reports and management plans. We occasionally went to meetings, and met with people from other agencies to discuss items of mutual interest. We kept busy. It doesn't sound very exciting but, actually, there are a lot of memories that go along with the routine business.

   There were the people, of course. South-central Idaho has changed a lot since we lived at Minidoka, but in our day it was sparsely populated, mostly with people who had always lived there, as had many of their parents and grandparents. Things were pretty laid back. The new Interstate east from the Rupert area to Pocatello was often so lightly-traveled that people would sometimes wave to one another - perhaps an acknowledgment that the other traveler might be a friend or neighbor. When our regular checker at the local supermarket found out that Sally was from Massachusetts and I was from California, she was astounded. As she said, "I'm from here, and my husband is from Boise (165 miles apart), and people wonder how we got together!" Then, there was Sally's first driver's license.  (She hadn't driven before Idaho.) When we went in to apply for her "learner's permit," they issued her a driver's license on the spot. She thought it was a misunderstanding, but the motor vehicles employee just said, "I'm sure you won't drive until you're ready." It was nice of  him to save us another trip to town, but it did make us wonder about the qualifications of the others we met out on the highways.

   Minidoka weather provided us with a lot to remember, too, much of it having to do with its unpredictability. It wasn't that we didn't have a pretty good idea when it might snow, or when there might be thunderstorms; we did. But each event was so localized that the question was, would it actually get to us and, if so, how much? The snow might be drifting so deep on the North Side that school would be cancelled, while 20 miles away in Rupert the roads would be bare. When a lightning bolt shattered the big cottonwood at the north boat dock - less than a quarter of a mile from our house - it wasn't surprising. We were having torrential rain, strong winds, and lots of thunder at the time. But when lightning struck the telephone transformer about 30 feet from our bedroom - so close and sudden that we didn't really hear a sound, but the sensation sat us both upright in bed - there was no prelude. It was a rogue cell not tied to any storm in the area. It was also the middle of the night, when thunderstorms were uncommon.

   My California upbringing (and our adventures driving over Donner Pass) had me concerned about how I would handle winter driving in Idaho. As it turned out, snow storms came and went so quickly in the area that travel was seldom an issue for more than a day or two at a time. I could usually avoid traveling when the roads were bad. One exception was the road from the refuge to Rupert. After each snow, the County would plow the road once, removing the loose snow but leaving the ice build-up underneath. The surface was slippery throughout the winter; in spring, as the ice gradually melted, potholes would develop in the remaining layers, providing a ride both slick and bumpy.

  One daily winter chore, no matter what the weather, was feeding the horses. There were four of them, the property of the Predator and Rodent Control people, but our charge for the winter because PRC had no place to keep them. They lived in the Horse Pasture, a small unit up on the North Side just beyond the boat docks. It was fenced except on the reservoir side. Each day, I hauled them a bale of hay, and also used an axe to cut through a foot or so of ice on the lake so they could get drinking water. Sally liked horses much more than I did, so she (and Shawn) usually went along on the daily adventure: a real family home morning.

 

Sally and Shawn at the Horse Chores

 

  It was a common belief that the horses would never venture out onto the surface of the frozen reservoir. This belief had to be discarded one day when I found the Horse Pasture empty, and could see four horses making their way south across the lake. Apparently, just enough snow had fallen on the surface ice to counteract some of the slipperiness. As long as the horses didn't fall and injure themselves on the mile-long crossing, it shouldn't have been a big problem. Most of the south side of the refuge was fenced, so chances are they would just end up in another "horse pasture." "Most" and "chances" are the key words here: most of the south side was fenced, but there were several gaps - "water lanes" - left unfenced so that cattle from off the refuge could get to the reservoir for water. There were only a couple of these "water lanes," and they weren't very wide, so the chances were good that the horses would not come onto the south shore in one of those openings. Yes, they did come ashore in a water lane and, yes, they did keep walking right on through the refuge. They were finally captured almost a mile beyond the refuge boundary, still headed south.

*   *   *

  From almost any vantage point, Lake Walcott appeared frozen solid from some time in December until March. However, there were several areas along the north side of the reservoir where holes in the ice lasted all winter, probably the result of continuous water inflow from several large springs. These holes often hosted large numbers of waterfowl, as well as congregations of eagles. The only way to see what was there was from the air. Don Heath, local Predator and Rodent Control pilot, had a Super Cub that he made available for surveys. I flew with Ray Glahn, our Refuges pilot stationed in Portland, most of the year, and preferred flying with him in his Cessna (although the slower Super Cub was better for wildlife inventory). But Don was a good pilot, and available, so we did several flights together.

   On one trip with Don, we spotted a coyote far out on the ice-covered lake. Don proceeded to show me how the Predator and Rodent Control gunners flew when they were shooting coyotes from the plane. He took the Super Cub down to where it looked like the wheels would almost touch the animal's back. We could see the coyote's mouth open as it looked back over its shoulder while sprinting across the ice, trying to escape us. I feel confident (after the fact) that Don was in complete control, but with white ice below and white sky above, it didn't feel like it at the time. The trip remains vivid for me both because it was pretty scary, but also because it didn't make me feel any better about aerial gunning of predators.

 

Looking East from the Coldwater Bluffs

 

   One of our flights I used as the first part of the annual Christmas Bird Count in December 1963. Don and I over flew the lake, and counted 1,200 ducks, 50 Canada geese, 3 bald eagles, and 1 golden eagle. While I was flying, Sally tramped through the snow at Walcott Park for a couple hours, and recorded exactly one song sparrow. (She felt she saw it only because it took pity on her, and hopped out into the open momentarily.)  When I returned from the airport, she and I took one of the Government 4-wheel drive pickups, and plowed through the deep snow north out of the refuge to the little community of Minidoka. We saw five sage grouse, and little else. Things picked up as we drove south to the Snake River and followed it back to the Dam. We saw 30 species along the River, including some large flocks of Brewer's blackbirds, red-winged blackbirds, and magpies, but most of the species were represented by 10 or fewer individuals. It was a fun day, but considerably different than the Christmas Bird Counts in Humboldt County the previous several years, when species seen numbered over 100 and individual birds counted numbered in the thousands.

   I didn't think I would like the winter at Minidoka. I didn't particularly like the cold, or the fact that we couldn't let Shawn crawl around the chilly concrete floors because of the electric space heaters. But I did like the deer and the Canada geese up on our lawn in the snow; I liked the ever-present magpies congregating on the picnic table outside our door; and I liked the coyotes howling from the frozen lake just beyond the headquarters compound. I liked the several mornings when the Pogonip - freezing fog - condensed on everything, turning all the trees sparkling white as the fog cleared to show a brilliant blue sky.

The Pogonip

 

  One late winter morning in 1964, as Spring attempted her first assault on the season, the first  thin crack in the ice of Boathouse Bay was immediately populated by courting common goldeneyes - four drakes and two hens, bobbing and flapping and chasing up and down the narrow strip of open water. Another day, a little greater break in the ice, and it was buffleheads going through their late winter rituals, with four males encircling one female. The males chittered softly while puffing out their chests and standing upright on the water, their wings flapping and heads bobbing. The lady sat quietly, seemingly oblivious to all the male hormonal action, until one drake leaped slightly into the air, then dove for the female, nipping her tail feathers. Just as quickly, she dove beneath the icy water, came up suddenly, and was off on a short flight down the bay. All four drakes pursued in close formation, clucking softly as they circled the narrow bay and then came to rest near where they had started. The head bobbing and wing flapping began anew. Pretty cool!

*   *   *

  When we arrived at Minidoka in March 1963, the ice was already off the lake, and waterfowl had begun to congregate. By mid-April, canvasbacks, mallards, and shovelers were everywhere, and were joined by horned, eared and western grebes, the latter doing their running-across-the-water mating dances. Franklin's gulls appeared, and were soon abundant. Because our house was nearly on the edge of the reservoir, all this activity was virtually at our doorstep.

   We soon discovered that Walcott Park was the best spot on the refuge for land birds. Today, the Park is a "park" in the full, cultivated sense of the word, with manicured lawns, camping spots, picnic facilities, and lots of people every day spring through fall. It is still nice, but in 1963 the Park had been pretty much left on its own for 50 years. Lawns were mowed from time to time, and there wasn't a lot of underbrush, but it felt like a real "forest." On most week days, there were few people around. It was a natural haven for birds, being surrounded on all sides by wide open country, and was an obvious stop for spring and fall migrants traveling through the area.

   Often, Sally and I would wander in the Park for an hour or so before I officially went to work. On some spring mornings, the trees seemed almost alive, there were so many small birds flitting around in them. Because very little active "birding" had ever been done at Minidoka, it was almost a given that there would be something unexpected in the mix. One day in May 1964, after a particularly widespread and intense storm had passed through the area, the park trees were full to overflowing. Common visitors - lazuli buntings, yellow-rumped warblers, robins, and western tanagers - were present in even greater numbers than usual. Less typical birds - evening grosbeaks, warbling vireos, Swainson's thrushes, and red-breasted nuthatches - were everywhere. Rarities like black-and-white warblers, American redstarts, and black-headed grosbeaks were present, the black-headed grosbeaks almost as common as the  evening grosbeaks. One species never before recorded on the refuge, the red-eyed vireo, was represented by at least 25 individuals.

   During our year and a half at Minidoka, we added about 50 species to the refuge bird list, quite a few of them in Walcott Park. That sounds like quite a feat, but actually it was because we were among the first people to really look at what was around. Some of the species we recorded for the first time proved to be relatively common in the area, and had just been  overlooked to that point.

   One bird that was not only new on the refuge list, but had not been recorded in Idaho previously, was the brown thrasher. Bob Nelson saw it first, one day in September 1963 when he was patrolling in an isolated area on the south side of the refuge. He watched it for some time, but it stayed deep in the shrubbery and only occasionally moved about. Bob knew brown thrashers from growing up in the East, and was pretty sure of his identification. I went to the area the next day, but could only catch a fleeting glimpse of a reddish-brown bird. Two days later, Sally and I tried our luck, and this time we had clear views of the thrasher. It remained in the same willow grove for at least another week. On none of our trips did we get more than occasional quick looks at it, so it's possible it stayed even longer. Since our sightings, there have been at least 34 records of brown thrashers in Idaho, a good indication that ours was a "first seen," not a "first occurrence" in the State of this secretive species.

*   *   *

  I mentioned in the last chapter that the relatively constant lake levels allowed stands of bulrush to grow in the shallower bays. One such area was in a bay about eight miles down the lake from refuge headquarters. The Bulrush Islands were appropriately (if not very imaginatively) called "Bulrush," but they weren't really islands because there was no land - no solid footing - but only a large area of bulrush reaching above the water level. In the spring, the growth was so sparse that one could travel very near the "islands" without realizing they were there. But by June the vegetation had grown considerably, debris from the lake had caught in the tangles of bulrush, and the result was a good foundation for the nests of a variety of water birds.

  Bob and I didn't visit the area often, because we didn't want to interfere with nesting activity, but on one day in June 1963 we were on a particular mission. As we nosed the boat into the bay, we were greeted by hundreds of Franklin's gulls, flying from the vegetation and wheeling and calling overhead. They kept their distance, but Forster's terns tried the attack approach, calling shrilly while flying on an apparent collision course toward us, pulling up and away only at the last moment. The other residents of the "islands" were no doubt just as concerned about our presence as the gulls and terns, but they made less of a to-do about it. Hundreds of western grebes merely slipped off their floating nests and disappeared into the vegetation ahead of us. Black-crowned night herons were content to fly around and around, giving an occasional "squawk." The fifty or so white-faced ibis just crept out of sight.

   We shut down the boat's motor and drifted in among the floating masses of vegetation, and soon the birds began drifting back to their nests. As the grebes uncovered their well-hidden eggs, we found there were many more nests than we had originally thought. There were also some common terns in among the Forster's terns. But the highlight of the trip - and the particular "mission" we were on that day - was seeing and photographing both the eggs and young of the white-faced ibis.

   Although there was some thought that ibises nested in Idaho, no nesting had ever been positively documented. We wanted photos of the nests and young as proof that the species was resident. In fact, we confirmed about 25 ibis nests in the Bulrush Islands in 1963, and perhaps 20 in 1964. We shared the photos and information with Thomas D. Burleigh, ornithologist retired from the Fish and Wildlife Service, who had been gathering information on Idaho birds since 1947. His book, "Birds of Idaho," was not published until 1972; when it was, I was surprised to find that he described the ibis as not known to breed in Idaho.

   Dr. Burleigh was from the school of ornithologists who didn't think we could ever believe our eyes - that a bird wasn't really a bird unless it was held (usually dead) in one's hand. Sight records were never accepted as proof of a species being in an area. Knowing this (although not subscribing to the philosophy), I didn't think it unusual that he had left some other Idaho species out of the book, ones that had never been "collected" there. However, not accepting photos of adults, eggs, and young seemed like carrying the taboo a little too far. For years, I thought that Burleigh had rejected our records for lack of study skins or egg sets, but then I happened to see an obituary done by John (Dr. John W.) Aldrich of the National Museum. In it, John said that Dr. Burleigh had lost interest in his Idaho studies after he retired in 1961, and would never have finished the book if his son-in-law had not found an Idaho printer that wanted to publish it. The final manuscript was apparently put together rather hastily, and some records (like ours) gathered after 1961 may have been overlooked. Our record of ibis nesting in Idaho did not make it beyond refuge reports until I published a paper on Idaho bird records in 1976.

*   *   *

  I returned to Minidoka a number of times in the late 1980s and early 1990s in my role as district supervisor of the Idaho, Oregon, and Washington national wildlife refuges. On one of those trips with Chuck Peck and Terry Gladwin (Southeast Idaho Complex manager and assistant manager), we took a boat tour on the reservoir. While we were cruising, I suggested we visit the Bulrush Islands. Neither knew what I was talking about; they were unaware of any water bird nesting near the north shore. We wandered in and out of the bays where I thought the islands were, but we found no sign of them, or of any water bird colonies. Some time in the previous 25 years, Bulrush Islands disappeared. The reason remains unknown, possibly some significant change in water level management, or perhaps a major storm or ice event that scoured the area. I found one sentence in a recent Bureau of Reclamation report that noted there used to be a location called Bulrush Island, but now it was just an area of mud flats. Strange.

*   *   *

   I had been on the job at Minidoka on a month or so when Bob, Irene and their kids deserted us for a couple weeks. As I recall, they hadn't taken a real vacation since they were married, and they took the opportunity to make a trip to Bob's home country in Pennsylvania. I'm sure I was a little hesitant about being "in charge" so soon after arrival, but Buck, Scott and I had a fencing project that would keep us occupied most of the time Bob was gone, and the refuge wasn't likely to provide any unusual excitement. Guess what? Bob was barely on the plane when a range fire started just north of the refuge. It spread quickly through the cheatgrass and sagebrush and, while it was still some distance from the refuge, it was headed our way. I kept in close touch with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) crew who were fighting it, and (by agreement with us and the Bureau of Reclamation) would have followed it onto refuge lands if necessary. To control the spread, BLM asked if they could arrest its progress by starting a back fire on the refuge, burning off a strip of vegetation so the fire would run out of fuel. I agreed, and they lit their fire. However, the original fire changed its course and never reached the refuge. I ended up with a burned area of refuge vegetation, and as much paperwork as if we had endured our own conflagration. I think I had all the reports done before Bob returned to a "normal" refuge.

*   *   *

   Minidoka had relatively few mosquitoes, and thankfully was un-blessed by the biting gnats of Sacramento (to be covered in a later chapter), but was the location of one monumental insect event. Each year, around early May, the "lake flies" would hatch. I never heard them called anything but "lake flies;" they are chironomids, related to Mayflies and stone flies. They don't bite or sting, and the hatch lasts only a week or so, at most. What makes them notable is that, in the short time they live, their numbers are phenomenal. It isn't correct to say they come in clouds, because clouds pass by; the lake flies seem to come in one continuous wave, with no breaks until all have hatched. The sky is full of them; the sides of buildings are black with them; you are constantly in danger of breathing them in; and if you have a small child in diapers, diapers inadvertently left on the clothesline acquire little green spots all over them. I don't remember any particular noise from the fly hordes, but they were plenty bad without sound  effects.

  In refuge narrative reports, there are photos of Minidoka buildings black with lake flies. I don't remember if there are pictures of the swarms in the air. If you want to really experience the lake fly event without actually being a part of it, go on the Internet and search for "lake fly" and "Winnebago Lake." There are some seemingly amazing movies of a Wisconsin version of the Lake Walcott lake fly hatch. I say "seemingly," because the numbers seem impossible. They aren't.

*   *   *

  After a year and a half, we were still pretty happy to be at Minidoka, and weren't looking for a different job. I received my promotion from GS-5 to GS-7 in June 1964, so higher pay wasn't an incentive to move. (As it was, our living expenses were so low that sometimes our pay check was still uncashed when the next one came, two weeks later.) However, when a memo came from the Regional Office acknowledging my promotion, there was a note appended: "Consideration is being given to establishing a GS-7 Trainee Wildlife Management Biologist position at the Sacramento Refuge... It is suggested that you indicate your interest..." I wasn't eager to return to Sacramento Refuge, especially since Baine Cater was still manager there. On the other hand, I really wanted a biologist position. When the job was advertised just a few weeks later, I put aside my concerns about working with Baine, and applied. I was selected, and in late July 1964 we were on our way back to California.


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