I came through Klamath Falls, Oregon this October on the tail end of my trip out to Eastern Oregon, and I fell in love with the place. I had the sense of finding something amazing that had been under my nose the entire time, and I couldn't wait to get back out there. There is an annual birding festival every February in and around Klamath Falls, it's called Winter Wings. Basically, local ornithologists and birding enthusiasts take out of towners on a series of field trips for different wintering species and have workshops for a variety of birding interests. Every class or trip has an individual cost, so you can imagine that four days of those trips plus your hotel and food can quickly add up to: out of my price range.
So, since I'd put myself through the paces in October seeing as much as I could in two days, I felt like I had enough of a grasp to just go back down without the benefit of the festival and see what Klamath looked like in winter. Of course I knew to expect large numbers of bald eagles, but was curious as to what else was wintering given the propensity for deep snow and frozen temperatures. I asked my friend Jill Ward if she would be interested in joining and to my delight, she was game. We decided on the end of the month as I was free for three days, and we found a really reasonable rate at the Shilo Inn just off Highway 97. Pool and hot tub and free breakfast, you know the drill. And we got a mini suite so it had a kind of kitchen counter for our fridge and microwave with it's very own sink. Because there's nothing like washing your dishes in the bathroom sink.
Jill kindly offered to drive and her wonderful Chevy is a tank with 4WD, equipped to get us through all but the worst of the snow. She had the snow tires put on, so I felt like we were invincible. I had actually called ahead to inquire about road conditions from the national wildlife refuge on Tule Lake, and it turns out that snow hasn't been the issue so far this winter, but warming temperatures and the resulting mud are. And another winter condition I had completely spaced on was that the majority of the lakes down there are frozen over, which of course severely limits the number of wintering waterfowl visible from the edges. We get the occasional week of freezing temps and maybe a half day of snow in Portland if you're lucky, but otherwise it's a balmy 45 most of the winter months, so frozen lakes are not on my radar. As we rolled into town, highway 140 drops south from the northwest corner of Upper Klamath Lake, and we got our first views of the frozen expanse of lake, completely bereft of birds. I swallowed and glanced over at Jill, feeling like the world's biggest idiot. She was very good natured about it and was of the mind that what we see is what we see, and was happy to just check out the new environs. She's native born and raised in Oregon,going back a few generations, and has done an extensive amount of travel in the state. But she wasn't sure her family had ever spent any time in the Klamath Basin, with the exception of visiting the Lava Beds National Monument in California, just past the Tule Lake refuge. So getting a chance to check out the area was kind of a new experience for her. Nonetheless, I kept apologizing about the frozen lakes, feeling that I had contributed to a misleading image of a non-stop bird paradise. Ahh well, live and learn. We stopped by Wocus Marsh on our way in to look at a huge collection of Tundra Swans and northern Pintails and some Canada geese. It was finally looking up.
Putnam's Point at dusk
We dropped our gear off at the hotel, and then raced out to a spot nearby, Putnam's point. It's the park that is opposite the Marina on the south tip of Upper Klamath lake. We saw a group of common Golden eyes, some common Mergansers, and a belted Kingfisher, but the light was fading fast, so we headed back to the hotel for some well deserved dinner, and a night to plan for the following day. I wanted to get up early and head over to try to catch the Bald eagle flyout from Bear Mountain, and the weather called for sun and pretty warm temps, in the 40's. We turned in early, and I slept horribly as I always do the first night away from the comforts of home. It doesn't matter whether I'm camping, or in a hotel in a feather bed, I will sleep like crap. It's a small price to pay for the freedom to roam and I'm used to it. I power through the next day on adrenaline and caffeine knowing that the second night I will sleep like a baby. It's a hilarious and maddening ritual, but what can you do? I guess take sleeping pills, but I'm not a fan of those.
So we opened the curtains to check out our pre-dawn conditions and were faced with a rather stiff fog. Crap. Well, maybe it would burn off while we were grabbing our breakfast and heading out. We drove out of town, south on 97 to Keno-Worden Rd on the right side of the highway. We drove down the red dirt road about a mile looking for a likely spot to pull over and wait for the eagles. We picked our position and turned off the engine, taking a chance to eat our breakfasts. The fog didn't lift and we eventually saw one immature bald eagle land in a pine tree up the hill from us and hang out for a while. We decided to call it as the fog wasn't going anywhere and there was little activity other than a nearby magpie giving some attitude and a rough legged hawk which flew into a sagebush in front of us as we drove out. No pictures of this part of the morning, as I was staunchly using the bins instead of the camera. But as the passenger for once, I had the luxury of having my hands free to get into all sorts of trouble. Granola everywhere, cups of tea from my thermos precariously balanced on my knee while I desperately scan the fields for any sign of movement. Jill is a seriously good sport.
We headed down to route 161 which is also referred to as State Line Rd., running east-west between the Oregon and California borders, and dropped down into the Lower Klamath Lake NWR auto route. It was still very thick with fog, and the ice was prevalent on the water. We hit some spots with a few ducks quite a ways out, and saw some Eagles in their nest, and a few hawks, all Redtails. Here are a few pics from that area:
pair of Bald Eagles on the nest
Snow geese moving gingerly on the ice
I love birds on signs, it's all about context..
the fog was a bit frustrating, but beautiful too
Then we headed east on 161 a few miles and turned south to get to the Tule Lake NWR headquarters. We chatted with the volunteer behind the desk who gave us the skinny on local predators including a family of bobcats that lived on the hill right behind headquarters. The number of birds at the feeders behind HQ kind of had everything else beat, but that's what a good food source will do. Jill talked politics with the refuge manager, as the militia in Burns and out at Malheur NWR was still in full effect, and needless to say, it was weighing on our minds. We thanked them for their service and they were kind enough to draw us a map to find the local leucistic Bald Eagle, appropriately dubbed "Blondie", just a hop, skip away in the fields around Malin. Incidentally, the term leucistic is often confused with albinism, but they do differ. Leucistic birds have reduced pigment in their feathers but still have normal eye color and beak color. Whereas an albino bird has a total absence of melanin which tends to produce pink eyes and extremities as well as the white feathers. We did the Tule Lake auto tour first and had to turn around just before the home stretch because the mud grew too deep. I think we made the right choice; we might have made it out, but it would have been a long, lame day if we had gotten stuck.
The birding was pretty good on Tule Lake, not nearly as extensive as my trip in October, but I didn't expect that. The basic water fowl included Ruddys, northern Pintails, Widgeons, Mallards, Canvasbacks, lesser Scaups, Coots, Swans, Canada Geese and Cacklers, Snow Geese in the thousands, and Ring-billed Gulls. We also saw a Loggerhead Shrike, a handful of Bald Eagles, and a flock of House Finches. I didn't capture pictures of all but here are some of them:
Tule Lake NWR
Bald eagle. Birding the desert, you quickly learn to look for telephone poles, fences and signs.
Redtail hawk on irrigation pipe
Immature Bald Eagle sending a telegram
Loggerhead Shrike not letting me get any closer..
Afterwards we drove north to the fields of Malin to look for Blondie, and as we got close to the the area we'd been directed to, lo and behold! There was a white bird on the telephone pole just ahead of us. Jill saw it first and we pulled off the road. I saw a mature Bald Eagle with normal pigmentation on the very next telephone post, and after quickly comparing the size of the two, realized we were not staring at Blondie. While mildly bummed, the next question was what were we looking at? Jill pulled out the books and we compared images from all three, and voila! It was a Ferruginous hawk! Good stuff, and a lifer for me. I might have seen one on telephone posts in previous desert trips but never ID'd one for sure, so Yay. It was cool about letting us snap some shots and then we headed back to town.
Ferruginous Hawk! In a pantsuit!
Bald eagle receiving telegram..
We stopped by the motel for a quick snack then headed back out to try to walk the Wing Watcher's trail just above Ewauna lake. We had about an hour before sunset so were anxious to get started. After parking in the nearby marina parking lot, we headed up the sidewalk towards the start of the path, only to have a red pick-up truck pull in front of us and block the path. This seemed a bit odd, and then it got odder. The driver kept his engine running and then pulled out and drove back to the marina parking lot near our car. This continued back and forth and his behavior seemed almost impersonal. But at this point we were so weirded out, we decided to head across the street to a little alcove park along the river and abandon the Wing Watcher's trail to Mr. Meth head and his hot date with his dealer, sex partner or whoever the hell he was trying to meet. This is the downside of city parks and urban birding spots at times. They also tend to be fave meeting spots for perverts, drug dealers and general no good activities. So keep your eyes open fellow bird nerds. Vigilance is ever our watchword. Just joking, but seriously..
The good news is that if creepy red truck guy hadn't diverted our path, we might not have seen the two California Towhees hopping around in the trees above us, as well as the two Chestnut-backed Chickadees (no pictures, man those birds are fast), and we definitely wouldn't have seen the tree over the river stocked with about 60 Black-crowned night herons.. Jill saw that first and just pulled me into the line of sight and pointed. What the hell are they doing there in Klamath Falls? We had both just been to the Gulf coast of Florida in November and December respectively, and know to expect them there, but snowy Klamath Falls in winter? Hmmm, it's a puzzle. I assume it's known to local birders as it was only mentioned once on Ebird. And if it was an irruption, I'm sure it would have made the headlines. Well, we still thought it was pretty cool. After all that excitement we headed back to the motel and called it a night.
Black-Crowned Night Heron rookery in one tree over the river.. so unusual.
We stopped at Putnam's Point again the morning of the 26th, hoping to see some Barrow's Goldeneyes, since everyone was reporting them locally. And they didn't disappoint, there were quite a few bobbing along with the common Golden-eyes, and a single female Bufflehead. The antics of the Goldeneye's were hilarious, I wish I had caught them on video. The males open their bills to call and then practically tip their entire head backwards to touch their backs and do this vigorous head dipping routine. It just made me giggle to watch, pretty cool stuff. We watched the whole gang swim back and forth a couple times in the protected marina, and then crossed the road to walk the length of the Link River trail in the snow. We saw some Pied Billed Grebes, Ruddy Ducks, common and Hooded Mergansers, but not much else stirring in the melting snow along the hillside. We walked back and headed back out of town the same way we had come, to the northwest of Upper Klamath Lake, on Highway 140. We stopped for another look at Wocus Marsh, just across from the extensive Running Y resort, to check out the big flock of Tundra Swans and about a dozen Bald Eagles dotting the vast shallow waters. Surreal.
Barrow's and common Goldeneye
Barrow's and common Goldeneye
Barrow's and common Goldeneye amd a Bufflehead
Jill walking the Link River trail
Dam on the Klamath
Tundra Swans on Locus Marsh
Tundra Swans on Locus Marsh
We headed west and almost all the snow that we had driven over two days prior had melted, just a few spots left. We stopped just past Lake in the Woods so I could run back and take a few shots of the snow covered lake. It was too bright and I was hurrying, so not much came out, but it was nice to be in the snow, albeit briefly. I really look forward to the day I have my very own 4WD truck so I can get to the snow whenever I want. Or anywhere for that matter. Not that I don't love my very dependable sweet Toyota pickup, Chloe. To horribly misquote 'Animal Farm', "2WD bad, 4WD good". We had seen a posting on Ebird for Agate Lake, which was just off the highway, about ten miles east of Medford. It looked promising, so we decided to stop there for lunch. The sun was out and we had a beautiful view of Mt. McLoughlin over the lake, and a picnic bench all to ourselves. Oh and a visit from the sweet neighborhood elderly dog who apparently spent most of it's day around the parking lot befriending visiting humans and dogs alike. Much to the chagrin of his owner who would travel down every so often to take the poor guy back home. The neighbor told of us a small flock of American White Pelicans which had been visiting the lake daily, usually in the afternoon. Well, it was 3:00 pm and they hadn't arrived yet. This is a familiar scenario for the touring bird enthusiast. Stories from locals about things that were there yesterday and will no doubt be there again tomorrow, but not when you happen to be travelling through. Sigh. So we walked the very soggy paths through the open oak orchards, looking for any of the 23 species posted just days ago, and saw one Acorn Woodpecker after another. And another..and then one Scrub Jay. Harrumph. But still super cool because the Acorn was a lifer for me. Jill has seen most or all of the Oregon woodpeckers, so less thrilling for her. We packed up and headed over to I-5 for the long, boring haul north to home.
Mt. McLoughlin over Agate Lake
And to add a feather in the cap of a pretty cool trip, as the night fell, Jill got a text from a friend, which I read out to her as she drove, because of course we are two very safety conscious citizens.
The text briefly explained that the FBI had finally taken the first of the Bundy militia on the road from Burns and arrested them. We rolled down the windows and let out some rebel yells, and I felt a great sense of weight lift. I truly love Malheur and Steens Mountain, and the Alvord desert and would be devastated if I couldn't go out there every year to walk the roads and the rivers, to stare at nature and have it stare back. That place nurtures me and I am grateful for it every time I visit. I am saddened by the death of Lavoy Finicum, regardless that our beliefs might be at odds. I do not revere violence or loss of life, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I will think of him the next time I walk down the Blitzen River and listen to the owls and the coyotes as they lull me to sleep by the fire. I want to live in a country where we can fight for our beliefs too, but I also want to be able to utilize my public lands. Being in nature is what keeps me sane, what brings me great, profound and inexpressible joy. The last of the militia is finally gone now, almost six weeks after the standoff began, and I look forward to the future of Malheur, towards the future of all of our wildlife refuges. I hope that some people's eyes have been opened to the reality of what's going on behind the scenes with the growing popularity behind the push for public lands transfer. Nothing is safe for ever, you have to keep fighting for what you care about and value. As for Malheur, I think they might need to do a monumental smudging of the entire refuge before they begin any repairs. You know, maybe cut down about a quarter acre of sage, bind it into giant sticks, and then light them on fire and fly low over the land in bush planes with a Paiute shaman invoking a cleansing ritual by air. That might do the trick.
We made it home by eight and I hauled all my crap up to the apt, and was glad to be home. I am so grateful to Jill for driving the entire trip and for being such a great birding companion! Thank you Jill. Forty-six species seen and five life birds for me, so I'm pretty stoked. I'm already looking forward to my next trip down to Klamath Falls, possibly in early June. I want to try to combine it with Silver Lake and another trip over to Hart Mountain Antelope Refuge so I can check out the Warner Wetlands while they are actually still wet. We shall see.
Until then my dear friends and readers, don't stop until you're muddy and exhausted, full of new questions and overflowing with joy at all you've seen. And share this joy with others, we all need a little more in our lives. That is my valentine to you.
I've got a few more pix from this trip on my flickr site as well as a few from recent local sojourns, so click on that link if you want to check that out. Take care and get outside when you can, Happy Trails!