Claudia turned off Stateline Road to head up a back way toward Klamath Falls. “There’s a nest!” she exclaimed.
As she stopped the car, I could tell there was something in the nest. Training my binoculars into the tree, I saw two baby great horned owls.
“Owls!” I said excitedly. I don’t think there is anything more arresting than the picture of baby owls peering out of a nest. We looked for mom, who probably was nearby, but couldn’t find her.
We were into our third day in the Klamath Basin, where Claudia and I have been coming every year in the spring for a decade. We usually headed up to Klamath Falls on the third day after two days of feasting on shorebirds, ducks and other water birds, as well as the occasional bald eagle or other raptor in the Lower Klamath and Tulelake refuges. We also see terns, pelicans and even a couple gulls we’ve learned to identify.
One of our highlights from yesterday had been a blue-winged teal that I had seen only once before. We also managed to spot a black-crowned night heron after it sprang suddenly from some brush. Tomorrow, before we leave, we’ll be blessed with a Virginia rail sighting — one of our grail birds for this trip.
But today, we would be gifted with one special sighting after another. It is the spontaneity and unpredictability of what we will see that gives birding some of its lure. And here, in one of the premier birding spots in the country, these qualities, in our experience, abound.
After the baby owls, we came across a red-tail hawk flying into a nest with a mammal in its grasp that it bestowed on squawking babies. Though seeing one live being in the claws of another can be upsetting, to see how birds care so diligently for their progeny is also wondrous to behold.
As we headed on from there, we came upon what looked like a sea of white-faced ibis feeding in the shallow water by the road. One of these birds is astoundingly gorgeous. To see what must have been 1,000 at once feeds the soul.
When we get to Klamath Falls, the first spot we go to is Putnam’s Point, where we usually have some lunch at a picnic table. As we walked up toward the pond there, two western grebes rose up as they do in their mating ritual and scurried across the water in a dance you have to see to believe. It is what we came here for, and we got it before we really had arrived.
We were also hoping for a green heron and a horned grebe. We’d already seen numerous eared grebes with their feathery ear display at Tulelake Refuge. It wasn’t until we were about to leave and had given up on both that I finally spotted our heron fly in. After enjoying him, Claudia said, “I guess we’ll have the grebe now.” And a couple minutes later, she calmly said, “Here he is!”
I trained my binoculars where she pointed, bringing our punkish horned grebe into focus, bright yellow feathers brushed back and strutting his stuff. Before we leave we hear the raucous calls of one of my favorites and find a flock of yellow-headed blackbirds in a nearby tree. Though they’re only blackbirds, their yellow heads lift them way above the ordinary for me.
Historically, the Klamath Basin was an extensive wetlands, attracting peak migrations of more than six million waterfowl. Conversion to agricultural lands, starting in 1905, has shrunk the area so that less than 25 percent remain today. National refuges like Lower Klamath and Tulelake help conserve the remaining habitat. Today, peak fall migrations can still amount to over one million birds.
Birders flock to this area year round. In addition to the peak waterfowl migration in the fall, during winter the basin hosts the largest concentration of bald eagles in the country. Waterfowl stopovers peak in the spring, while many water birds and song birds stay here to nest. Their young can be found in large numbers during the summer.
Both the Lower Klamath and Tulelake refuges have auto tours. To benefit from the large numbers of different species possibilities here you really need a scope or at least a very good pair of binoculars. Fortunately for me, Claudia has great equipment and is also a decent photographer, so we get to enjoy some of our best sightings throughout the following year.
After our gifts at Putnam’s Point, we head on up to Moore Park to add some passerines to our bird count. After parking, we almost immediately see a favorite here, a red-breasted sapsucker. We have seen the trees full of these handsome creatures in the past, but see only one today. Then we spied mountain chickadees, which take over for their black-capped cousins here. Though their song is similar, their white eyebrow gives them away.
At one point I get ahead of Claudia and have a male and female white-headed woodpecker fly into view. We have only seen these special birds once before here. I keep hoping Claudia will catch up to see these cool birds as they search a tree’s trunk for bugs. Then I notice two little birds on a tree to my right that turn out to be pygmy nuthatches — one of Claudia’s favorites. I keep willing her to get here and she finally arrives in time to see the woodpeckers, but alas, the nuthatches have gone. Birding is so much about happenstance and serendipity.
We carry on and see a whole flock of evening grosbeaks before we’re done. I always think these birds, especially the males, look like they’re dressed for a formal dinner out.
As we’re heading to our car, we see two little birds land in a nearby tree. Sure enough, two more pygmy nuthatches have come to bring a smile of satisfaction to my friend’s face.
I think that is why we love it here so much and have come back for a decade now. You never know what you’re going to see or when. And I can never remember leaving here disappointed. To see these amazing creatures just doing their thing and showing off their glorious attire, what is better than that?
Rachel O’Neal lives in Talent.