Basking in a Southern Oregon Winter- the Bald Eagle Thrives
By M. Kim Lewis for Oregon Lakes and Rivers
Each year, hundreds of Bald Eagles migrate southward to gather by the hundreds—to hunt, roost and basically bask like snowbirds in South Central Oregon's mild winter climate. For years, as the owner of a bird touring business and longtime resident of Oregon, I have valued this eagle migration as a telling nature saga of success for the species, to be observed and enjoyed both by the biologist and the everyday birder who loves to view, photograph, and marvel at the eagle’s grandeur. There is much to ponder and learn from the unique Bald Eagle behavior.
As you read this article, much of it is happening in the Klamath Basin near Klamath Falls, just outside the town of Tulelake at the Oregon-California border just off Hwy 97. This is the epicenter of Bald Eagledom in the continental United States—offering the largest concentration of wintering Bald Eagles anywhere in the Americas.
And the eagles have lots of company to join them. This region is also a main stopover for migrating ducks, geese and swans. It's not unusual to see tens and even hundreds of thousands of squawking, honking waterfowl, splashing in the marshes, on occasion en masse like snow falling from the sky in great swooshes of beating wings, all adding to a sensation that is at times visually overwhelming and audibly deafening.
The average viewer will see bald eagles by the scores and even hundreds in a single day from a car’s window or along marked hiking and birding trails. If birds represented the entire animal kingdom, the eagles would be the observant, reigning lions of prey. The eagles can at times appear like armed sentinels, side by side in the trees, on the abundant hay and wheat fields, by lakes, and on frozen ponds of some 200,000 acres of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges - www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges. We are the privileged ones indeed who take the time to come and see this marvelous Klamath Basin—right in the middle of North America’s renowned Pacific Flyway—through which some 80% of the Flyway’s migratory birds pass each year! And the eagles are a big, big, bonus! Do make the effort to come, it is well worth a weekend trip.
One avid birder and photographer, Dr. Gene Morita, of San Rafael, California, who recently took advantage of a guided two-day eagle tour, said, "This is my first birding adventure here in the Klamath Basin at this time of year. This refuge is a national treasure! ... The photos I got at Klamath were as good as any I took in Antarctica."
WHY ALL THE EAGLES?
The grand Bald Eagles return annually to this special region for a number of reasons, and I personally ask myself year after year, “Why do so many eagles choose to return here of all places?” One must admit, it’s location, location, location…” When you drive on Hwy 97 south of Klamath Falls and the diagonal connector Hwy 39 to Tulelake, you cannot miss vast open spaces. You’ll see mostly shades of blue skies, juniper, and miles of green valleys, contrasted by open tundra and tumbleweeds surrounded by cliffs and mesas. This region sports 300 plus days of sunshine annually. Without the agriculture, in my estimation, this would be a high desert--rather barren land--though certainly with a beauty of its own; but far fewer eagles would come.
In 1921, the Klamath Drainage District and the federal government signed a contract for the sale of Klamath Irrigation Project Water to the district. This agreement allowed irrigation of about 27,000 acres of land and became a huge drawing card for ranchers and farmers alike. Yet little did the farmers know it would result in abundant forage lands for eagles as well.
On a guided birding tour www.oregonbirdtours.com or self-guide auto tour, you’ll see miles and miles of very well managed waterways, dikes and canals looking like gigantic crossword puzzles. It is all the perfect setting for a geological funnel which invites mega-concentrations of waterfowl on their way to the Pacific Flyway, which by the way extends from Alaska to Patagonia near Argentina and Chile. There are ducks of every description and species--geese from the White Fronted to Ross to Canada geese, Tundra and Trumpeter Swans--in numbers that resemble snowstorms in the distant sky falling to the earth. Yes, hundreds of thousands of waterfowl, and well into the millions, choose this narrowly funneled, concentrated region to come live for a respite and eventually pass through.
And the eagles, somehow innately knowing this, come. To them, it’s a balmy weather break from the Arctic North of Canada and Alaska, and it is “restaurant row” in human terms--a time to hunt and eat like never before! The eagles take advantage of flocks of hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese, some of which have been injured or are left for dead in places coyotes will not even roam. The shallow waterlands of Tule Lake are a perfect dining place to discover new dishes daily.
Professional guide and wildlife biologist and a member of the National Bald Eagle Working Team, Robert Mesta of Tucson, Arizona, was our professional guide on a recent excursion. He explained that when the migratory signal in the eagle says "go" from their northern lands, a tremendous effort ensues to travel to these primary Southern Oregon winter feeding grounds. Mesta says, "The American Bald Eagle takes flight for some 100 even 200 to 300 miles per day, roosting and resting at night to continue its dedicated trip south. The migratory eagles arrive to these abundant feeding grounds for injured or dead waterfowl from the past season, and to hunt live mice, rodents and fish seen near the surface of both frozen and open waters. They stay between December and until mid-March yearly in this unique behavior pattern."
The Bald Eagle is designed to live a long productive life, keeping one paired mate for a lifetime.
Eagles further prefer fish, but will gladly accept an easy meal of carrion, much like a turkey vulture. It should be noted that back in the late 18th century at the founding of America, the Bald Eagle’s scavenging behavior caused Ben Franklin to highly object to making the Bald Eagle our national symbol—he recommended the wild turkey instead. We know today, however, of the eagle’s vast skills in hunting and self-preservation, for which it deserves its distinction.
A HISTORY OF THE BALD EAGLE’S RECOVERY
The Bald Eagle was declared nearly extinct in the 1970s by the federal government. In 1963, there were only 417 nesting pairs in the United States. The depletion in numbers was determined to be due to harsh pesticides such as DDT, which disrupted their reproductive cycle, and other activities of the careless public. In the expanding U. S. population centers, as a result of gradual and continuing clearing of forests, eagle nesting and feeding sites decreased. Earlier in America's history, unfounded prejudices against the eagle existed. Some ranchers thought they were stalkers of their smaller livestock and even could be a danger to their small children. Thus they hunted, trapped, and shot them as predators. Nothing could have been further from the truth as today we know the Bald Eagle as a cagey opportunist--a bird of prey that spots carcasses of deceased or wounded animals, fish and waterfowl, thus cleaning our environment of the sickly or already dead.
Thanks to decades of urgent public education and prolonged conservation efforts, the Bald Eagle has slowly but surely rebounded to population levels not seen in a century. Now, there are more than 10,000--enough to warrant the removal from the federal endangered species list in 2007.
A PLACE TO ROOST FOR BIRD AND MAN ALIKE
On a private birding group in late February, we found the Klamath Basin region in late February to be a perfect sub 30s temperature at night and a comfortable 45 to 50 degrees in the daytime. We came prepared for anything and got the best of blue, sunny skies.
It can be colder, yet typically isn’t. It is perfectly well survivable weather for scopes, binoculars, and photography of all sorts. Just be bundled up in layers with gloves. You are mostly near waterways.
And no visit to the Klamath Basin would be complete without a drive to and stop to observe the Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, just south on HWY 97 from Klamath Falls, about 20 miles and very near the California border. The Refuge was established in 1978 and is a vital night roost for migrating eagles each year. It consists of some 4,200 acres--primarily old growth ponderosa pine, incense cedar, white and Douglas Fir--mature stands of trees having limbs with open branch patterns that are large enough to accommodate and support eagles for their night's stay.
The tree roosts are also a northeast slope and therefore provide shelter for these raptors from harsh and prevailing winter winds. In recent years, as many as 300 Bald Eagles have used the roost in a single night. The Bear Valley Refuge also serves as nesting habitat for several Bald Eagle pairs. As you approach the Refuge, remember that the Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge is protected from all public entry, to reduce disturbance to the birds. You will need to approach by adjacent roads ( just off Hwy 97) or by private property permission for the most effective sightings.
Gene O Navy, who travels to view the migrating eagles often in January and February, claims, "This is an amazing place to view Bald Eagles. They spend the day in the flooded valley below, and then in the evening they fly into the reserve. The further that you go up the valley, the more likely they will fly directly overhead as the topography funnels them into a natural channel as they return to their roosts. I have seen as many as 250 birds in a single evening. Often times they fly less than 150 feet overhead; you can hear their powerful wings cut through the air... If you love America’s Bird, this is the place to come. Best times are at daybreak and at dusk."
Our tour group – www.oreognbirdtours.com chooses to stay in nearby Tulelake (notice the town is spelled “Tulelake” and the lake itself, “Tule Lake,” the former actually re-named by the townspeople of the small northern California town of some 1,000 residents). We choose to stay at Fe’s Bed & Breakfast on Main Street in Tulelake where a five spacious rooms and a huge hot breakfast of omelettes, sausage, fruits and breads await an early morning birder and make him braver and warmer on the inside. We catch a hot home-cooked lunch whenever we can at Mike and Wanda’s Family Dining..
We also stop by the Tule Lake Refuge Headquarters and Visitor Center as a centerpiece of doing any auto tours of any of the refuges. Refuge wildlife is colorfully described by real-life exhibits- www.fws.gov/klamathbasinrefuges. We find a lot of information regarding viewing opportunities, recent sightings, road conditions, and refuge regulations. There is even a nice bookstore with wildife-oriented books and a small gift shop. We spoke with Dave Menke who is the communications and outreach education director, who took the time to give us personal advice for the day. These are the people who weekly monitor the wildlife and birding populations.
HOW TO GET THERE:
From California: Head north on Interstate 5 to Weed, CA, then northeast 45 miles on Highway 97 to the Oregon Border. Take Stateline Road (Hwy. 161) east towards Tulelake, CA to Hill Road. Turn south on Hill Road 4 miles.
From Oregon: Headquarters is located 20 miles south of Klamath Falls, Oregon via Hwy. 97 or Hwy. 39.
WINTER WINGS FESTIVAL
A Huge Celebration for the Eagles and Others!
On President’s Day weekend, February 18 through 20, the 32nd Annual Winter Wings Festival will return to the Klamath Falls Oregon Institute of Technology, sponsored by Klamath Falls Audubon Society. The Winter Wings Festival is the granddaddy of all Bald Eagle festivals. Originally, it was organized for biologists and bird-watchers to study the eagles' decline and plan ways to help them recover. But now, the conference, 32 years later, has become an annual festival, a time for scientists and the bird-watching public to celebrate the eagles' recovery. This year, organizers expect about 1,500 people for a weekend of field trips, workshops, lectures, slide shows and children's activities. Interested persons can learn more online at www.winterwingsfest.org.
"There's a lot of pride. People have worked so hard to protect these birds," said Diana Samuels, one of the festival organizers. "And we want to let people know what a jewel we have in the Klamath Basin.” Even with the numerous buses and vans out on the auto-routes of the refuge for three days straight, it is pretty amazing that the birds of the Klamath Basin are really not much bothered by the scores of sideline birders scrambling to learn and get a better view from their binoculars and cameras.
Unless too closely approached, eagles may sit in cottonwood trees for hours ...alone or with their mates and often in the company of juvenile Bald Eagles [which do not have white head feathers]," says Dave Potter, retired refuge manager and current birding guide.
Eagles, among the most powerful and voracious birds, will eat almost anything. Bald Eagles will dine on fish, carrion, small mammals and anything else that doesn't put up too much of a fight.
Bald Eagles have long held a sacred spot in American mythology, earning national emblem status in 1782 because of their enormity, strength and loyalty. Bald Eagles have a six to seven foot wingspan and do actually spend much of their 30-year lifespan with one mate. So, how can one stay at home when these majestic Bald Eagles made the effort to come so far and they are right now so very close. Rides-share of expenses or winter tours Redding, Ca up I-5 meeting in Ashland, Grants Pass, Eugene, Salem and Portland can be arranged by contacting www.oreognbirdtours.com or call 541 482-9852.
Article is by M. Kim Lewis, has lived in Southern Oregon for 34 years. He is an independent, nationally published writer / photographer. He owns Main Street Adventure Tours and Oregon Bird Tours of Ashland, OR, and can be reached at his website www.OregonBirdTours.com or by email firstname.lastname@example.org