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American white pelicans are now making an annual long-distance flight from the Klamath Lake Basin to the Rogue Valley. - Photos by Tammy Asnicar

Agate Lake is a birding hotspot

Bird watchers gather on this first Wednesday in September as the pastel-washed dawn fades into dingy gray.{br class="hardreturn" /}
A laser beam of amber pierces the incoming cloud cover, illuminating a Lewis’ woodpecker perched high in a snag on the eastern shore of Agate Lake. Striking with feathers of pink, silver and oily, dark green, the bird named after Meriwether Lewis is cracking acorns and storing them in the crevices of the snag.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Like the sky and many of the birds tallied this morning by members of the Rogue Valley Audubon Society, the woodpecker is a harbinger of autumn.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Triple-digit temperatures and smoky skies kept the birders away this summer, but today 15 come with binoculars, scopes, cameras and notebooks eager to spot as many species as they can. A raven swoops and dives into the oak woodland. In the distance, the killdeer’s melodic call beckons.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“No end to killdeer this morning,” says one of the men waiting for leader Murray Orr to give the go-ahead for the group to hit the rutted deer track circling the lake.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Composed mainly of retirees rediscovering their childhood fascination with birds, the group pauses frequently to identify the fleeting color in the buck brush or the chirps coming from the upper reaches of the conifers, oaks, madrone and cottonwoods.{br class="hardreturn" /}
A flicker of yellow ignites a bit of excitement.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“How thrilling,” exclaims Susan Stone of Ashland, when she spies a yellow warbler playing hide-n-seek in the brush. She’s excited that she’s “finally caught a glimpse this year.”{br class="hardreturn" /}
The consensus is that it’s a rare treat. The fall-migrating bird typically wings its way south in late August.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Another warbler — this one a black-throated gray warbler — is heard and not seen. Unlike its yellow cousin whose song is sweet and bright, the gray is a one-note wonder with a dull chit. It, too, is just passing through.{br class="hardreturn" /}
A black-capped chickadee and a white-breasted nuthatch are also spotted. A visiting willow flycatcher shimmies up a tree trunk.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“They’re usually gone by this time of year,” says Jeff Tufts of Medford, the go-to guy when it comes to identification. “I guess it decided to hang around.”{br class="hardreturn" /}
On the first Wednesday of every month, the Rogue Valley Audubon Society conducts a bird count here. The walk is open to the public, and the birders who show up each month carry out a year-round citizen-science project. Orr records the sightings and enters the data in the Cornell Ornithological Laboratory's eBird database — all part of an effort to get a bird’s-eye view of bird demographics and migrations.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Agate Lake is considered a “birding hotspot,” and one of the best places in the Rogue Valley to view shorebirds, particularly in the autumn.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“This is a neat place,” Tufts says of the 216-acre body of water created when the Bureau of Reclamation dammed nearby Dry Creek in 1966. Sandpipers scurry along the mudflats, egrets and herons guard the marsh, a Western grebe paddles across the lake and osprey swirl above the open water. The diverse habitat — grassland, savannah, marsh and riparian — hosts a wide variety of resident species and is the rest stop for several migrants.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“There’s a little bit of everything here,” says Orr, a Medford birder who has led the First Wednesday walks for several years. Over the last three months, the group’s spotted an average of 40 species each time out.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“In the winter, it’ll drop off to 25 to 30 species,” he adds.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Tufts notes that new species are calling the Agate Lake neighborhood home.{br class="hardreturn" /}
The new kid on the block is the American White Pelican.{br class="hardreturn" /}
One of the largest birds in North America with a nine-foot wingspan, the white pelicans are now making an annual long-distance flight from the Klamath Lake Basin, where water has all but disappeared. In August 2014, there were as many as 60 fishing the shallows here. Today, a half-dozen are perched on the western shoreline.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“Birds are very complex creatures and, in many cases, very mysterious,” Tufts says of the phenomenon. “It seems that every time you learn something about a certain species, the new-found knowledge leads to more questions.”{br class="hardreturn" /}
The group concludes the 1.5-mile walk mesmerized by raptors: an American kestrel a red-tailed hawk reign over the woods on the western shore.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Final Agate Lake tally this day: 39 species.{br class="hardreturn" /}
Linda Zercher sums up the sentiment of her fellow birders.{br class="hardreturn" /}
“I love the phenomenon that birds are,” she says. “Being outside, seeing the beauty. All this gives me a sharper desire to look more closely.”{br class="hardreturn" /}
The next first Wednesday bird count at Agate Lake is set for 8 a.m. Oct. 7. For directions and additional information, call Murray Orr at 541-857-9050 or email mworr2@charter.net.{br class="hardreturn" /}

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