No, they weren’t misbehaving.
Bald eagles take five years before they grow their adult plumage, and in the early years many people can mistake them for golden eagles since they don’t acquire the characteristic white head and tail until adulthood.
One bird was perched on a branch very close to the road, and we spent a long period of time together at a very close distance. The bird preened and seemed relaxed (which let me know I wasn’t too close, something I’m always ultra-sensitive to – I try to always be far enough away that the wildlife feels comfortable and not threatened). This bird appears to be a young bird in its second year of life (now approaching its second birthday) – wearing what is referred to as a Basic I plumage (1st year, or hatch year is called a “juvenile,” second year is Basic I, then Basic II, Basic III and adult). The feather pattern for each year are variable but generally unique, combined with beak and eye coloring, and help to distinguish the age.
Nearby was another young bird, and this one had plumage that was different than the first – indicative of Basic II plumage (a bird in its third year of life).
Along this same part of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, there was a solitary treeline that had almost 15 bald eagles in it – along with many red-tailed hawks and one golden eagle. A ranger I spoke to said that two weeks prior, he counted over 60 bald eagles (and a golden eagle) in the immediate area of the treeline! The density of birds makes it such that species that usually don’t tolerate each other in close proximity end up roosting right next to each other, as did many bald eagles and red-tails that I witnessed over the two days (though occasionally a red-tail would go after an eagle, just to remind it who was in charge).
Being in an area like this really allows for a deep study into field identification of birds because there are so many species in the area.
A great time of year to visit is in February during the Winter Wings Festival – events are planned over a long weekend catering to raptor viewing, including guided trips in the Basin, education programs, vendor displays (optics mostly), and more. This year it takes place the weekend of February 11-14, 2016.
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 …
What an absolutely amazing place – the Oregon / Cali border, specifically the Klamath Basin area. I did my own version of a takeover of a National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon the past two days, but it was all peaceful, and I think much more exciting.
One of the especially amazing sites from my trip … just your typical scenario of a coyote and a golden eagle randomly next to each other (story to follow soon):
The quantity and diversity of raptors found in this one area during the winter is astounding!
Happy New Year – more pictures and details on this trip coming soon …
a few weeks ago, i had the pleasure to accompany some friends and dedicated raptor-enthusiasts to see a bald eagle nest in alameda county that had two newly fledged juveniles. bald eagles have been slow to return to the Bay Area, and there are only about 16 nests currently in the vicinity from Monterey up to Mendocino County. a good sign to see them coming back.
they were comical to watch – flying was fairly easy, but the landing part was still a challenge. they would put their feet down 100 meters before their intended perch, and often overshoot it and have to fly around for a second attempt or find another spot.
they were begging for food from their parents – pa was about a mile away (out of ear shot, likely, from the incessant begging), and ma seemed un-phased by their constant calls, looking regal on her perch as she preened ignored their calls.
she did make one or two half-hearted attempts at a fish in front of us in our boat, but it was a leisurely sunday morning for all involved overall.
an amazing day out on the water with these majestic birds. special thanks to Mary, Roy, Carol, Megan and Cagney for this adventure!
I had the good fortune to go for an adventure yesterday with a friend to practice trailing animals – the species of focus was the feral pig (feral hog).
The weather was outstanding, despite some strong winds early in the day. It doesn’t get much nicer here than these sunny days with clear blue skies and temps in the 70’s – and the light was great too. I knew it was going to be a good day when not long after sunrise I saw a juvenile bald eagle (hatch year / 1st year) perched in a tree overlooking a creek. It was eyeing up some water fowl and steelhead, the latter of which were spawning in the creek bed below.
[juvenile bald eagle]
Steelhead are a type of salmon, and once were found in great numbers up and down the west coast. As with many of the salmon, their populations have been suffering due to over-fishing, habitat loss, and pollution. This time of year, mature fish swim from the ocean back into small creeks and streams from where they were born, where they create nests in the creek beds to lay their eggs. Unlike other salmon who die after spawing, some steelhead return to the ocean for another go. Interestingly, according to current science taxonomy, they are the same species as rainbow trout – the difference being that steelhead are anadromous, meaning they spend part of their life in the ocean. Because of this, they look physically different than fresh water rainbow trout (larger). These fish shown below were probably close to three feet long!
I was on my way to a remote area of western Sonoma County where we were going to do our wander, on some land miles from any roads by the Gualala River. I feel like Sonoma County is my “second childhood home” – and it felt so good to be visiting on this beautiful spring day.
When driving along a ridge line with views going miles in all directions, the land looks like a piece of bunched up fabric – deep, drastic valleys at the bottom of steep descents that fall from high mountain tops and ridge lines. Huge stands of douglas fir and redwood are on many of the north-facing slopes, with oak woodland spanning other parts of the more sunny areas. Some of the land remains ranch land, and many folks have made their living with sheep and cattle out here. “As the crow flies,” the distance between two points seems not too far – but when traveling on land, it can take a long time to travel a short distance. And there’s seldom a direct route. Perhaps it is this ruggedness that has helped keep it somewhat intact – it isn’t conducive to the industries of man. May it remain as such!*
Feral pigs, also called feral hogs, are non-native animals whose relatives escaped from the domestic life and have secured a place for themselves and their progeny in the wild. Sonoma County has a large population of them, and many areas of the country consider them to be a pest. They certainly don’t tread lightly on a landscape – in areas of high density, the ground can be torn up all over the place from their rooting. They are an amazing animal – highly intelligent, very social, and incredibly adaptable. They can also get pretty big – some of the larger boars are around 300 pounds! And they can be pretty intimidating to see – large tusks, coarse hair covering parts of their body – they often don’t look like their barn-yard cousins.
I have mixed feelings about the native / non-native debate. The truth is that many of our ecosystems are so different than they were prior to European colonization – especially with the removal of so many of the apex predators – that it is unlikely they will ever be the same. Especially without reintroduction of the trees, plants and animals that were originally here and created a balanced web of life. You don’t grow old-growth redwood trees overnight. I imagine the pigs would not be as successful if there were wolves and grizzly bears around (as there once were in this area) – but I bet the main detractors of the hogs would be even less apt to welcome that strategy!
There is a difference for humans, psychologically, when labeling an animal as a pest and/or a non-native – somehow it’s life seems to be valued less. I have an issue with this. These are still living, breathing creatures, just doing what we all are doing here – trying to make a living. I’m not suggesting that all non-native animals should just run amok with no management plan in place, but I do believe there can be better, more compassionate management strategies that are also more supported by science. Ones that honor these animals as individual living beings, with a value the same as any other living being. Sadly, humans have used (and continue to use) this type of labeling to denigrate people too – whole cultures, races, and people of varying lifestyles have been subjected to horrible treatment because of this manipulative psychology of labeling.
It was fun to get to be in the world of the hogs for the morning! We started off by looking for some fresh tracks so that we could have a chance at being able to trail and find the animal that laid them. The pig sign was everywhere – the trick was finding something fresh. Despite some of the recent rains, the ground in some areas was already becoming quite dry again, so it wasn’t holding sign as well as it had been just a week ago.
[some fairly fresh hog tracks]
We ended up on several different hog trails, the first of which took us down a steep hill side, traversing downward through the trees. We saw quite a few pig beds – all empty – strategically situated at the base of large trees on a steep slope, with crunchy leaves all around that would belie the presence of an approaching predator (or tracker!) and allow for multiple escape routes. After being on it for quite a distance, eventually we lost the trail – which seemed impossible, given we were following a number of individuals travelling together. How do 150 to 300 pound animals seem to vanish and leave no discernible sign? Perhaps there is a “pig vortex,” similar to the “raptor vortex” – the place raptors seem to often disappear to, out of the air, when you take your eye off them for a second! Amazing! Humbling.
We continued on, looking for another trail to follow, and eventually we found some more fresh sign just off the dirt access road we were following. After poking around a bit, we took a hog trail down another steep slope descending 100’s of vertical feet. There were some fairly fresh tracks on it, but mostly we were just curious where they were going as it seemed to be a highly used trail. It took us all the way down to the bottom of the valley – and to the Gualala River.
I could have spent days at that spot. The river was gently flowing past, its gray-green waters moving over small round river stones on its bed. Small waterfalls and seeps were cascading into the river from the steep hillsides, scouring the rocks and making a home for glowing moss and lichens. An abundance of life, and signs of animals passing through, was everywhere. I was overwhelmed by the calm and beauty.
I finally couldn’t resist and waded into the water (it was also the easier route around some poison oak that was guarding a narrow pass on the steep banks!), and saw a couple of newts hanging out under the surface of the chilly water …
[red-bellied newt (Taricha rivularis)]
[rough-skinned newt (Taricha granulosa granulosa)]
Once I made my way back to shore, we saw a little snake sunning itself on a rock ledge. All the animals seemed to be in the same blissful, relaxed state that I was in … under the spell of the Gualala River and the warm sun above.
[CA red-sided garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis infernalis)]
Finally, we hit upon some nice fresh hog tracks in the soft sediment on the banks of the river. Back on it!
These were likely from a pretty big boar. We followed him back up the hillside from where we came, but once again after a little while we lost the trail. Humbling! As we fanned out and attempted to pick it back up again, we found another little creature on the hillside under a log that we had disturbed.
[juvenile speckled black salamander? (Aneides flavipunctatus flavipunctatus)]
We put a new rock and some leaves back over this young lady to keep her out of the sun after we left.
[some type of lily? anyone?]
[UPDATE – Fritillaria affinis aka the chocolate lily or checkered lily
thank you Ann for the ID!]
As we got to the top of the hill, we found the boar tracks again … and it was one of the tracks that we had originally seen when we started on this trail! We had come full circle.
We reluctantly made our way out of the property, but as we were leaving we spotted one last treat – a golden eagle! it was a double eagle day. A good sign and a perfect ending to a great morning.
I am so thankful to have gotten to spend the day out there, many thanks to my friend Matt for taking time to share this special place with me.
* As a side-note, in recent times vineyard owners have been trying to push into some of these areas because they are ideal for certain grape varietals, such as the popular pinot noir. Thankfully there are many organizations, including Native groups, that are spearheading the effort to keep this land intact from groups who want to convert forest to vineyards (or other clear-cutting). The amount of life that is impacted by deforestation is astounding, and humans have already destroyed 96% – NINETY SIX PERCENT – of existing redwood ecosystems since the west was “settled” … and old growth constitutes just a small part of that which remains. Scientists have barely scratched the surface of understanding ecology and the web of life on this planet, and it has been shown that the canopies of redwood forests contain a huge amount of biodiversity. Seems like there is a lot of value in honoring these remaining places – and perhaps a duty to do so.
A few days ago I spent a late afternoon in Briones East Bay Regional Park, a large expanse of mixed-use wooded/grazing land just over the hills from the East Bay. I knew it was going to be a good couple of hours when I spotted a hatch year (juvenile) bald eagle right after getting out of my jeep.
The eagle lazily circled and started to track south, and a few of the local resident red-tailed hawks went up to “usher it” onward and away from their territory.
My wandering quickly took me off the trail, onto a trail only known to my feet beneath me and the heart in my chest. My feet walked, climbed and scrambled up higher and higher onto a ridge line. I suppose I’m always looking for pumas and puma sign, and it seemed to be a likely starting point to find it. Once I was up on one of the highest peaks in the immediate area, there was a bit of a flat wooded area that I started to explore.
As I was quietly coming up a saddle from the main flat area down towards another little flat area, I saw a few young steer that started to move away from me – unused to seeing a person up there, I imagine. Also unused to seeing a person up there was the coyote that I just caught a glimpse of as it left its resting spot at the top of the saddle and slipped over the hill top out of sight, just 25 feet from me. I decided to have a little bit of fun with it, so I dropped down off the saddle towards a ravine that was thick with bay laurel trees and some oaks. I could hear the coyote moving there just out of sight below me as it trotted and paused in the crunchy dead leaf hubris of the forest floor, and for some reason I decided to give a short little bark. It was an earnest attempt to connect with this other being, not much thought went into it other than a deep desire to say hello.
What happened next was a 15 minute exchange of the two of us “talking” back and forth and checking each other out from a distance. At first I think the coyote wasn’t quite sure what I was (manimal?!!!). Below is a short recording of one of our exchanges. The coyote was probably within 25 yards of me the entire time, until some other hikers started to come up into the area after hearing the noise and the coyote departed. My voice is the short yip initiating the “conversation,” followed by the coyote and then us alternating.
It seemed as if it was alone, and I was very grateful to get to spend some time with it that evening. After scouting around I found an old deer kill, but otherwise I found no reason for the coyote to be so curious or possibly defensive. It’s probably too early for a den to be active with pups in January.
After watching the sunset perched underneath an oak that was sitting on high hill by itself, I followed a ridge line down into the valleys towards my vehicle. After hearing a pair of great-horned owls hooting right as the sun set, I was on the lookout – and they didn’t disappoint. As I approached the parking lot, one of them flew nearby and landed on an old fence post, surveying the encroaching dark for its breakfast.
Yes, Christmas will always be bald and white for me with regard to one definition of those terms at this point in my life, but this particular Christmas we were treated to other, more fun benefactors of those descriptors – a snowy Christmas eve yielded a white Christmas morning, and we got quite a show by some local nesting bald eagles.
These are presumably the same birds that have been nesting at this site for the past few years not far from my parent’s house in PA (see my post from last year here). It’s great to see them still successfully using this nest as it is more exposed and closer to human activity than most nests. This is actually a GOOD thing, as it indicates that most of the other more ideal nesting spots and territories around the Susquehanna River are already taken by breeding pairs.
The snow also allowed us to see who was using the landscape … snow tracks! It’s far from wilderness here, but this beautiful agricultural area still has quite a bit of wildlife that manages to survive in an area that continues to have more and more human development replace farms and forests. We were still able to find the tracks in the nearly melted snow of white-tailed deer, cottontail rabbit, and two red fox – and ultimately I was able to find what I think is the red fox den! A couple of red-tailed hawks were hunting in the cold air above us, and we spooked a coopers hawk with a meal from its perch in a grove of fir trees.
Last week before I left Wyoming, I was fortunate enough to get out in the field with Brian Bedrosian, who is the Avian Program Director at Craighead-Beringia South. The task at hand was to catch a bald eagle, the last push to get the final of six transmitters attached to local bald eagles in the Upper Green River / New Fork River drainages, for a research project that is studying the effects of local energy extraction development on wildlife (aka gas wells aka fracking sights). For more on the details, see here.
We spent 10 hours on the New Fork River on Wednesday, rowing down the low and slow water with Chief, Brian’s dog, directing us.
To the East are the jagged peaks of the Windy Mountain Range, poking above the horizon eerily in the forest fire haze, and they look similar to the drastic edges and slopes found in the Teton Range. Meandering back and forth through the dry high-desert landscape is the New Fork River, a lush riparian zone that is home to many plants and animals, and a literal oasis.Everywhere else around us, as far as the eye can see, are sage-covered hills, slopes and small mesas – a sight which resembles a snapshot from the ocean, just beyond the breakers where the surface of the water is starting to peak and trough into rolling, moving hills of water.
And, also as far as the eye can see, are natural gas extraction pads. So it is that this area is the center of much debate and ecological concern.
We went through three separate bald eagle nesting areas during the float, using a trapping technique called a “float fish.” As we approached a nesting site, and there were eagles perched, we placed in the water upstream of us one or two of the float fish traps, then paddled quickly downstream ahead of them. These traps are essentially fresh-caught trout that have been modified with nooses of fishing wire and attached to a floating log with a few feet between the two. The concept is that when the eagle grabs the fish, the nooses secure around the eagle’s talons. The log is light enough that the bird can fly or swim safely to shore while we make our way back to grab it. Unfortunately the day yielded no results for our primary purpose (bald eagles trapped = 0), but it was a beautiful day to spend on a river. When your “work” entails floating and paddling down a river in August in Wyoming, life is good.
The next morning, we took a different tactic and instead of floating down the river, we selected two known bald eagle perch sites that were accessible by foot. We readied traps early in the morning – with Trapper Haynam joining us, also from Craighead-Beringia South – and before sunrise set them floating in the river below two separate eagle perch sites. After setting the traps we monitored them from not far away, above the river banks.
We then prepared for a long wait.
Suddenly, at 6:20 am, not 20 minutes after we had climbed back up the steep banks of the river to wait in the truck, an adult bald eagle soared over the fish and landed right by it! It seemed to toy with the fish and our emotions for a few moments, then after some careful scrutiny it took off. We hadn’t fooled it. Shortly thereafter a juvenile bald eagle came and circled above the fish a few times, then it was chased off by the resident adults who then perched upstream. It did not look promising.
Now the real waiting began. We had no eagle action after the initial excitement, but we did have several bull moose move through the area, including one who seemed to walk directly over the fish trap. I was worried that maybe we suddenly discovered a mutant carnivorous zombie moose and that we would have to free it from the fishing cord after it tried to eat our fish, but luckily it was the regular non-zombie, plant eating variety.
We decided that our setup was probably not going to attract any further attention from the eagle family, so we retrieved the trap and went to meet up with the rest of our crew at the other trap site that seemed to still hold some promise. The eagles hadn’t seen the fish yet but were in the area, and they had two of their young in the trees around them begging for food. My time there was limited as I had a long drive to do before the day was over, and just as I was about to leave for my drive back to California, we got one!
A hatch year bald eagle went for the fish, and although an adult was the preferred target, it could still be tagged for the study. Things happened VERY fast. We were posted up on a bluff above the river to monitor the trap, so when the bird hit it, we immediately drove down to the river bank, jumped out and ran to get close to it, before approaching the last bit of distance slowly and carefully. First priority was safety of the bird and us, and we didn’t want to create more stress than it was already experiencing. Brian handled it with amazing skill and professionalism. It had grabbed the fish, then when it realized it was caught, it flew/walked/swam over to a gravel bar in the shallow river where it was sitting when we got there.
To minimize stress (for the bird and us!), a falconers hood is placed over the head of the bird. This is also a common technique used in bird rescue and rehabilitation, and during exams of captive birds, because most birds tend to go into a hypnotized state of calm once the hood is over its eyes. The exam and attachment of the transmitter went quickly and smoothly.
After feeding the eagle some trout and giving it some water to be sure it was hydrated after its ordeal, we released the eagle back onto the river. After the hood was removed and it was placed on the ground, it took a few seconds for it to get its bearings, then it flapped its gigantic wings and turned east, getting over a fence and landing in a stand of trees upriver. Mission accomplished.
I must say that I had a lot of mixed feelings about capturing the bird, and about putting a transmitter on it, as the device is attached by strapping it around its body, and it sits on its back like a very small backpack. I find some solace in knowing that professionals like Brian are executing trapping like this in a professional manner and minimizing stress for the birds, and that these birds are participating in studies that could help the lives of many of their kind in the future. Your sacrifice does not go unnoticed.
The visual and auditory impact alone of the gas pads is tremendous on the landscape. The night that we slept there amid them all on BLM land near the river, the remote area looked like it was covered with lots of small towns due to the number of lights. It wasn’t until morning that I realized most of these “towns” were drilling pads, with a few ranches interspersed. During the night, loud explosions occurred with regularity. Many people in the area believe that these extraction processes could be poisoning their air and water. The ethics and methods surrounding energy extraction are hot topics right now, and the long-term impacts on humans and the greater ecosystem have yet to be determined – but I know that I am certainly concerned. Nothing comes without a cost. I urge everyone to educate themselves about this issue and the next time you fill up your gas tank or turn on your stove, take a second to think about where your energy is coming from. And be thankful for it.
Good luck my eagle friend, I look forward to thinking of you and your kind flying free over clean waters for many generations to come.