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 …
These pictures are dedicated to LB and West County Hawk Watch – much love and respect for your passion, dedication, mentoring, generosity, trust and expertise. One of the first FEHA’s that I ever saw was with Larry, and to this day, every time I see one, I think of you my friend.
These birds have arrived to take up residence for the winter from their summer breeding grounds in the plains, and I am always excited to see them – largest of our native hawks.
I’ll admit that at the beginning of this year, I had high hopes of seeing more than one nest of great-horned owls with young. Yet despite monitoring three pairs of these owls at Wildcat Canyon with regularity, and another two pairs on occasion, I have not seen nor heard one fledgling owl. There was a period of time starting in March during which the adults altered their routines from how they acted during mating season, but whether or not they were on eggs is a mystery to me. I know at least one pair did “phase I” of the procreation process! But alas no sign of young. It now appears that they’ve started to alter their routine again, and I’m seeing them with more regularity in their “usual” areas and perches. But no begging young ones that I’ve heard or seen – and they are hard to miss.
During the nesting season, I have a theory that raptors “go through the motions” whether they actually have young or not. This includes different roosts, different patterns of behavior, and also a tendency to be very secretive – until this past week or so, they have not been as willing to be close to me like they had been.
The last few times I’ve been out I’ve noticed one pair of owls hunting in a fashion that I’ve never witnessed before – they are actually kiting like red-tailed hawks in the wind over grasslands! In the strong winds, the owl just extends its wings without flapping to become stationary in the air above the ground, and they are sometimes 50 to 80 feet up in the sky. One difference from the red-tails is that their legs hang down awkwardly, and it’s really funny to see such a majestic animal looking so ungraceful. Typically I see the great-horned owls hunting either from a perch or from the ground. It makes sense in this area where the winds are gusting every evening and the grass is high. Perhaps they’ve adapted their hunting style for the season and the terrain. Really cool to see – if I can witness it again before twilight I would love to get some photos of it.
Another interesting behavior I witnessed tonight was again with my most watched pair (the same that have been kiting) – as I came upon them tonight just after sunset, first one, then the other flew down to the ground onto a cow trail. At first I thought perhaps they were on the trail hunting, but then I realized they were both taking a dust bath within 10 feet of each other! It was difficult to see due to the lack of light and distance (I didn’t want to bother them while they bathed together …), but they were really getting into it. After about five minutes, they finished up and hurried over to see if I could find some tracks.
As I got to the spot and started scouring over the dust with my headlamp, I could see the wind just erasing things before my eyes. I was so bummed! I was able to find one partial track though, which was fun.
As I kept looking, suddenly I heard a high pitched squealing just south of me about 30 meters right in the area where one of the owls had flown to perch on top of a coyote bush, and I knew breakfast was served.
It’s been my observation that raptor numbers and activity is much diminished in the last two years here in the greater Bay Area, but especially this year. Likely it is related to the drought, and also probably related to the vole population crash that we first took note of about two years ago. That is pure conjecture and is based purely on observation, but some of my other naturalist friends and trackers have noticed similar patterns supported by lack of actual sightings and reduced numbers of owl pellets in one particular location that usually has at least a few owls. Hopefully the predictions of the El Nino bringing lots of rain this upcoming winter are true! Everyone could use more water – feathered, furred, scaled, crawling, rooted and two-legged.
There is nothing quite like seeing young animals play, and it has been such a treat on my sunset/twilight wanders lately to see a pair of fledgling red-tailed hawks in Wildcat Canyon cavorting in the strong winds up in the hills for the past week or two. They are still sometimes unsteady as they soar in the air, and during their landings – wheeling awkwardly in the winds, or alternating repeatedly landing and taking off from a hilltop trying to ride fast moving gusts, like a feathered, bouncing ball. Sometimes their parents were silhouetted in the background above them, unmoving in the strong winds as if hanging from an invisible thread in the sky as they hunted. For the first week or so, every time the two young ones were in the air, they were loudly vocalizing non-stop, as if shouting “holy shit I’m flying, holy shit I’m flying!!!” That’s how it felt, watching their exuberance in the sky.
Despite their awkwardness at times, there were other times that they seemed to be quickly mastering flight in the high winds – chasing each other over the hills and around tree tops, stooping and diving on one another, locking talons in the sky, and pushing each other off of perches – even “barrel rolling” in the sky like ravens often due (an acrobatic maneuver during which they flip over on their back for a few moments in the sky). Sometimes I forget that I’m without any wings as I watch them, feeling like at any moment I could jump up and join them. It looks like just about as much fun as any living thing can have.
Hopefully this pair will survive longer than last year’s young – there were three from what were likely this same pair of adults, and none of them survived more than two weeks after fledging. Once night comes, it is the domain of the great-horned owls … and there are a lot of them here. It’s encouraging that they’ve lasted this long, soar on young ones!
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!
The winds surged onto the coast
like a flood of oncoming water;
And seemed to convince even the water below
that on this evening,
they could together move the giant rocks around which they are usually forced to flow.
But as the wind and the water
danced with the rocks in their daily ritual,
debating who is mightier;
The falcons flew above and through it all.
I had nearly given up on seeing the falcon fledge(s) from this nest, located on the side of the sea cliffs – instead I was ready to yield to the winds that seemed determined to drive people and most living things to seek shelter elsewhere. I watched as cormorants and gulls flapped their wings so hard and fast, only to barely make headway in the gale. Instead of leaving though, I took refuge behind a lupine bush that afforded slight shelter from its relentless surge. The rock face that rose in front of me was glowing in a yellow light that made all the colors of the coastal plants seem to glow, with hints of orange starting to invade the palette before me, foreshadowing the oncoming setting of the sun. I was astounded how the small plants that made a home in the crags on the face of the rock barely moved in the 40 mph winds, and was a bit disappointed not to see the familiar form of a falcon hiding somewhere in the midst of it all.
My eyes shut for a few moments after an already long day, and when they opened I immediately saw that familiar form on the very top of the rock – a peregrine!
It seemed to look at me for a few seconds, then it jumped off its perch and floated into the air, a few quick flaps of its wings propelling it with speed right into the strong winds.
Soon it broke its relatively even glide with some quick dives at a few small birds in the chaparral – exuberant, youthful frolicking – and a bit ungraceful! It was happy to be alive and happy to be a falcon. Flying! It was definitely a newly fledged bird, and I was happy to see it had survived this long. Moments later it had disappeared.
I soon gave up my plan to watch the sunset over the waters, as the wind now was my only companion now and it seemed intent on its solitude.
On a whim, or an intuition (or an invitation?), I decided to drive a little further into the park instead of starting my journey “home” (though wasn’t I already home?). As I crested a hill, and the Pacific Ocean once again dominated my view to the west, the sun seemed to renew its invitation to watch its daily finale. Suddenly out of the corner of my eye, two small darting forms caught my attention in the sky above the tallest hill over the cliffs of the sea …
There were two falcons playing in the updrafts of wind on the large hill side – chasing each other, diving at one another, flipping upside down to grasp talons – an aerial game of tag! I immediately pulled over, jumped out of my vehicle and ran to join them, shouting out loud into the wind and forgetting for a moment that I couldn’t leave the ground to join them.
In my previous trips to check out the nest, I had only confirmed one baby, but apparently there were at least two that survived. And now these recently fledged falcons were testing and honing their flight skills with each other in the sky above me. So amazing to witness, so fun!
I had no choice but to accept all the invitation before me, so I settled in on a deer path that cut across the slope of the hill facing towards the setting sun. The falcons continued to come back above me a number of times, and at one point when one of the two disappeared, the other left its hover in the wind and banked in my direction, and I could feel its eyes on me! I got a fly-by! They are inquisitive creatures, and especially at this time in their lives they are investigating everything. Or maybe it could tell I would have like to join them up there.
There are few things that are as fun to see (or be a part of) as young animals or kids playing, and I felt really grateful to have gotten to see this short moment of time, when these birds don’t have a care in the world and are just bursting with life and joy and excitement about being alive. Inspiring, and a reminder that we still have that in each of us if we can just take a bit of time to reconnect with it.
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.
i ran into another old friend on friday … a dark morph (or rufous/intermediate morph) red-tailed hawk that has spent the last few winters in berkeley. it’s fun when i get to know an individual animal, and this one has been around for a few years but i just saw her for the first time this season about a week ago. i was happy to see her again.
when i first saw her we gave each other a little wave (ha!)
right about the time that i saw her, a huge flock of crows was moving through the area and it didn’t take long for some of them to spot her too. crows love to harass red-tails, and today was no different. first one or two took up the chase, and soon there was a flock of close to 50 crows escorting her out of the area.
i’ve mentioned this before, but there are some corvid researchers (i can’t remember who) who say that this mobbing behavior could be a corvid “right of passage” – which makes some sense to me because there is very little reason that i can think of for the birds to do it other than fun or to establish social ranking.
On this beautiful Spring-like (?!) morning, I had the privilege to see my old Falcon friends on the Fruitvale Bridge in Oakland/Alameda. Just after I arrived, Hiko, the tiercel (male falcon), came in to land on the Oakland tower with breakfast – which this morning appeared to be a Eurasian collared dove. Doing his part to remove invasive species today, I guess. Unfortunately my vantage point had the sun back-lighting my photos and I was pretty far away, but it was fun to watch as he really went to work on this bird, de-feathering it as we watched. Feathers floated down like a snow storm beneath him, he was working furiously to get at that meat!
After a little while, his mate came flying in from the northwest over the waterway, and she didn’t seem to see him as she landed on the other tower. She started to e-chup (vocalize), and he let her know he was there with a few response calls. Usually this time of year, the fella would be offering meals to his mate as part of the courtship process, but he seemed intent on keeping this meal to himself at that moment. It is just the beginning of the courtship and mating process, so maybe he’s just not feeling the love quite yet.
As Hiko was finishing his meal, Tremaine took off from her perch to investigate a little more into what Hiko was doing.
Tremaine landed back on the Alameda tower, and finally Hiko seemed moved to share his breakfast with her after being discovered hoarding his food. He took off with a portion of what was left and flew to her on the other tower. Typically, the tiercel would drop-off the food for the falcon as part of the courtship process, but at the last minute he had second thoughts about sharing and he veered away! Or perhaps he was flirting, falcon style. She immediately took off after him, and within seconds had “commandeered” her portion from Hiko in mid-air over the bridge! Good stuff.
She took the small portion of the dove that he had and did a lap around the towers with it, then headed back to the Alameda tower to eat.
Hiko then did a little survey flight around the area and settled in near Tremaine on the Alameda tower to do some preening after his crop-busting breakfast.
After Tremaine finished her portion, she flew over to the Oakland tower (interestingly the OPPOSITE tower that Hiko was on – I don’t think he won any extra points with his sharing “efforts”). The two settled into a mid-day lull as they digested their food and preened, and I left them to enjoy the sunny day.
This is a shot of Tremaine when she was eating that I took with my camera phone through a friend’s scope (digiscoping, it is called). Not great quality but quite a zoom. You can see Tremaine has a full crop, she must have eaten something on her own before getting this “gift” from Hiko.
These birds are so beautiful, watching them fly, with such quickness and grace, never gets old.