Cowboy boots ‘n mountain buttes
Pick-up trucks ‘n luckless ducks
Hungry hawks ‘n too-thin socks
Saw eagle with coyote, like I was on peyote
So comes to a close, my trip to the Klamath Basin
Ha!! Ah jeez. Not my best work there.
Regardless, some of the best action on my trip was saved for last. As I left the area, I stopped off in an spot that was reported to have large numbers of ferruginous hawks, a species that I had seen scant sign of in the Klamath Basin just to the north.
Initially I wasn’t seeing any raptors at all as I drove along some of the roads in the snowy flat lands that consisted primarily of ag fields or open, high desert ecosystems. Thee wild areas featured primarily rabbit brush and desert sage, with the occasional juniper tree. There were jack rabbit and coyote tracks all over the place.
I was shocked that there didn’t seem to be ANY raptors around an area that seemed like it would be full of prey. The reason? They were all in one spot. Literally. When I finally found the raptor swarm, there must have been over 100 birds of prey in the 360 degree view around me – and two coyotes! They were in a number of adjacent ag fields that hadn’t been plowed. The mice/vole/ground squirrels populations there must be outrageous. Everyone was there for lunch!
There was a line of telephone poles along the country road, and on almost every other pole there was at least one raptor – but sometimes as many as five on one pole! And sometimes multiple species! I had never seen anything like this.
There was an irrigation wheel line with eight segments on it, and I counted 19 raptors on it (including bald eagles, ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, and red-tails)! In the immediate area were a lot of red-tailed hawks mostly perched on something, and all over the ground in the fields there were ferruginous hawks everywhere (probably 50+ of that species alone)!! There were also a good number of Northern harriers, bald eagles, rough-legged hawks, and at least one golden eagle. Plus the two coyotes. It was unbelievable.
What an incredible finale to my trip. It often happens that way – as if the Spirits of the Land are trying to get me to stay. I will certainly be back there soon.
Thank you Klamath Basin!
Links to more information on Klamath Basin:
Winter Wings Festival – being held this Feb 11-14th 2016!
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.
Once again, sometimes you’re just in the right place at the right time. Two days in a row seems pretty good, eh? Though for all I know while I took pictures of this coyote and golden eagle together, there was a mountain lion dancing with a wolf just down the road.
I had been watching a golden eagle that was perched on a low sign along the snow-covered road in Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge for some time. There is something special about a close encounter with a golden eagle, and my breath leaves me every time I have an experience such as this. They are HUGE animals. Golden eagles can take down small deer! In other parts of the world where the eagles are slightly bigger and the wolves are slightly smaller, they kill wolves. This is an animal that is at the top of the food chain. An apex predator.
A beautiful one as well.
After observing the eagle for some time, it sliced (pooped) and took off to start hunting in the treeless wetlands around the wildlife refuge. Those wings!!!! Incredible to see an animal this size take flight.
After it took off, a quick movement caught my eye on the other side of the reeds along the snowy dirt road on which I was positioned. The roads are raised on levies to allow navigation through the wetlands. Most of the water is frozen though, and what I saw was a coyote moving away from me parallel to the road. Once my eyes locked onto it, it sensed it and increased its speed, changing from a trot to a full-on bounding gait as if I were in pursuit! I am willing to bet there are hunters out there that take shots at them.
Eventually it stopped running, being sure to look back at me as if to say “I see you and don’t think for a second I am not watching you, two-legged.” It started to move at a fast trot along and through the reeds on both sides of the road, often crossing it. It appeared to be hunting, possibly trying to flush prey or looking to scavenge a meal. Or, it was following another coyote trail and marking its territory. There are coyote trails all over the place out there. The prolific amount of prey there in the Klamath Basin attracts more than flying predators.
Eventually the coyote disappeared, so I started driving down the snow-covered road again. In just a hundred yards or so, I stopped because I saw the golden eagle again, hunting about 20 feet off the ground over the wetlands, almost like a Northern harrier. I slowed to a stop to watch the hunt, and not long after, the eagle landed on another short road sign just ahead of me.
Suddenly, I caught sight of the coyote again, briefly, and then it disappeared into the reeds on the other side of the eagle – then re-appeared right next to the eagle!! I couldn’t believe it. The eagle did not seem the least bit surprised to see the coyote, even as it passed directly by it not five feet away. Nor did the coyote seemed surprised or concerned – despite them being well within striking distance of each other!!!!! The coyote paused near the eagle, and the eagle sliced (almost on top of the coyote), then the canine came out into the roadway, shot me a glance, smelled a fresh coyote scat (confirmed once I drove up there after the encounter), then disappeared back into the tule reeds by the eagle.
As I approached in my vehicle, I passed the eagle and we had a moment of looking directly at each other. It is an experience that is intense and humbling. After I passed, the eagle took off, and I was able to
take a look at the scat and tracks. The coyote continued to hunt along
both sides of the road for a few hundred yards until finally it
continued south over a large berm.
As mentioned in my last blog post, while I watched an otter consume a duck, a northern harrier came gliding down the canal and dropped down on a small bird in the vegetation on the side of the canal just 10 feet from the otter!
The whole time I’m shooting this scene the otter is just eating (and occasionally napping) away just 10 feet to the right. It was just ridiculous the amount of activity happening at this particular location.
One thing I noted while driving was that small birds were flying very close in front of my vehicle. I actually struck one of them, sadly. I’m wondering if their reaction time is slowed by the cold weather and if that gives an advantage to predators (who are primarily using gravity to drop down on their prey). Interesting to hear if anyone else has experience with this.
There is a lot of wildlife in the Klamath Basin, and not all of it has feathers.
Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time, and this was certainly one of those instances. With the incredibly low temperatures that were present for the last few days, there was almost no open water around – it was all frozen. One canal had some exposed water around an outlet pipe, with ice starting to encroach but enough open water to attract a small flock of water fowl.
I was out of my jeep watching a small group of pintails, green-winged teals, mallards and grebes in the small bit of open water, suddenly they “gently” flushed – they didn’t fly, but they walked out of the water. I didn’t flush them, but I couldn’t figure out what did. I turned for a moment to grab something in my jeep, when I looked back I saw what appeared to be a mallard duck struggling to get out of the water and onto the ice. Then I realized that it was actually the duck’s rear end that was out of the water! As my mind struggled to put the vision before me together, the duck slipped under the surface of the water. A few seconds later, a huge river otter popped up out of the water onto the ice with the (now dead) duck in its mouth!
I watched it consume the duck for almost an hour, occasionally it would retreat under water (sometimes with its meal!) when other people drove by or came too close (which unfortunately some did come too close).
There were times that the otter appeared to nod off after so much eating, but he wasn’t about to stop – he just needed some dinner naps. I’ve been there.
Otters are such a joy to watch, their behavior is always fascinating. Such beautiful, fun creatures. I’m sure the ducks felt differently.
During the time I was watching the otter, a northern harrier floated down the canal in the air and made a successful strike on a small bird – just 10 feet from the otter! I’ll put the series of pictures from that in the next blog …
The show wasn’t over though. After that a prairie falcon came in and made an unsuccessful strike on a small duck in the canal behind me! This place was a hot spot!
The other water fowl seemed to realize the otter was satiated, as they came back into close proximity of the otter as it was eating and even afterwards while he was still in the area. After the otter finished, another harrier moved in to scavenge the duck as the sun set.
I imagine it wasn’t long after I left that the coyotes I heard howling nearby moved in for the rest of the scraps. Their tracks were all over the Basin area, and I saw four of them during my two days there, moving at a rapid pace through the preserves as they hunted.
A ranger that I told about the encounter had been at the same location earlier and saw a bobcat. It was likely no coincidence that this spot was so active – the open water attracted the water fowl, which in turn attracted the predators.
Such a fun day. I stayed out past sunset watching everything unfold, and the temperature dropped quickly. I was happy to get back to town that night for a warm bed. Unfortunately I had some camera malfunction issues, so my shots aren’t as good as I’d hoped (auto-focus issues) – I learned the hard way to test new equipment more thoroughly before being out in the field! That is minor though – WHAT A DAY!!! It’s not often that you see this kind of show!! Very grateful to have the opportunity to be up there and that there are people protecting it. Check out KS Wild, one of the many groups helping the cause.
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):