The Klamath Basin area is home to multiple National Wildlife Refuges (six of them!), and is a major stop-off for migrating water fowl along the Pacific Flyway during the autumn and spring. This flat high desert area (around 4000 feet elevation) straddles the border of Oregon and California and is just east of the Cascade mountain range. It is also host to a lot of agriculture, using waters diverted from the Klamath River to irrigate fields. The Basin sits in view of several volcanoes that are part of the Cascade range, and the area is of volcanic origins. It is truly a magical landscape. Recently it has become even more exciting as there are now two small wolf packs that call the Cascades just west of the Basin home (one of which is the famous OR-7 wolf, who at one point traveled to California and became the first confirmed wolf in CA since the 1930’s)!
The wetlands themselves are estimated to be only 25% of what they once were, due to appropriation of land and water to agriculture. Many interests share this region, and it is often the subject of debate on how to best share the resources among all them, including Wildlife/Plants, Indigenous People, agriculture, hunters, birders, fishing folks, etc.
During the winter months, there is a very high population of raptors that migrate here to wait out the winter due to the availability of prey (and it should be noted that agriculture fields that are dormant often provide a home to many rodents, thereby attracting more raptors). Here during the winter can be found the highest density population of bald eagles in the continental U.S. outside of Alaska! I have been there previously and seen around 50 eagles in one 360 degree view! Not only that, there are a lot of northern migrants such as rough-legged hawks and ferruginous hawks, species not often seen this far west or south. Those in addition to golden eagles, red-tailed hawks, northern harriers, assorted falcons, many owls and more can be seen here.
I braved some cold temperatures, especially the first day – it was near 0 deg F. A ranger I spoke to said that in the morning he had seen a northern pintail (type of duck) that came out of some reeds and couldn’t get its wings to extend – they had frozen to its body during the night! That’s cold (it eventually did free its wings). Needless to say there weren’t many people out there besides me, but I was able to see some amazing sites and sights (which I’ll highlight over the next few blog posts).
A few of the birds during the trip:
My final picture of the first day is a great summary of the area. The sun had set over a half hour before I took this picture – I saw these birds sitting in a tree as I was driving out. My old jeep was not doing a great job of keeping the cold out, but despite my numb fingers and toes I got out to snap this shot. As you can see, the area does not have many trees, so they are coveted by many different birds. Because of the density of prey and lack of trees, often I see multiple species sharing a tree or telephone pole – a necessary truce. The large forms in the tree are a bald eagle on the left, and a red-tailed hawk on the right! They are buddies! At least for the night (usually I see red-tails chasing and harassing bald eagles). Sprinkled among mostly the tree on the left are many red-winged blackbirds as well.
Some great resources to learn more about the area:
Winter Wings Festival – http://winterwingsfest.org/
This February weekend (this year it is Feb 11-14 2016) focuses on raptors in the Klamath Basin area and attracts many people to the area. Tours and guides are available, as well as many other events. Definitely worthwhile!!!
Lava Beds National Monument is nearby, and Mount Shasta is not far to the south. The whole area is really magical, any time of year.
More to come …
On a recent trip to the East Coast, I was lucky enough to get to see a very rare visitor to the contiguous United States – snowy owls!! I was able to see at least two different snowy owls that have apparently decided to overwinter in Lancaster County, PA (see this article), along with many others that have settled in for the winter in many mid-Atlantic States. Definitely a first for me! And what a sight.
Evidently there is a large population of the owls right now, and many have made their way further south this year than usual as part of what is termed an “irruption.” Typically found in the Arctic regions, these birds tend to like large open expanses that are similar to what is found there – like farmers’ fields and airports (the latter being not an ideal arrangement for any of the parties involved).
These birds I saw were in some farmers’ fields in the heart of Amish Country. The one pictured above was resting in the field right on the ground, it’s head swiveling from side-to-side every few seconds as it scanned for danger in it’s resting state. Eventually it started to wake up, at which time it played with a stick that was next to it and eventually flew up onto a fence post. I wasn’t as close as I had hoped to be, but it was still magical to see them in this environment – 2 foot tall owls (!!) that are almost completely white. Surreal – especially so with Amish horse and buggies driving by as I stood on the roadside watching.
There was another individual a couple of miles south in similar terrain, this owl was really sleeping deeply, and based on its dark, heavy barring it looked to be a juvenile.
As if all that weren’t enough, literally almost across the street from the first owl that I spotted there was a rough-legged hawk – another rare sighting of a bird that typically makes its home in the Arctic during the summer months but is sometimes spotted this far south in the wintertime. One of my favorite birds to see, their plumage as a species is quite varied but often has beautiful browns, tans, and black feathers highlighted by crisp white patches. They are similar to red-tailed hawks but slightly smaller.
I was really thankful to have gotten to see these owls!
Check out this link to a movie that someone took of two peregrine falcons diving at owls at the beach in Stone Harbor, NJ (one of my favorite places to be) – again, surreal!! Now that’s some Jersey Shore drama that I can watch.
Special thanks to my parents for their support in my multi-day snowy owl search!
Rough-legged, that is.
Last Saturday I helped lead a raptor tour at Lynch Canyon for Solano County Land Trust with Larry Broderick of West County Hawk Watch … and I don’t think anyone was disappointed. Two rough-legged hawks made an appearance along with the many resident red-tailed hawks, white-tailed kites, kestrels, northern harriers, red-shouldered hawks, turkey vultures, and a pair of golden eagles. We also had two peregrine falcons soar over us. Good day. Rough-legged hawks breed in the Arctic and it is uncommon to see them this far south, though this year there seem to be more of them than usual during the winter here in the Bay Area.