Stillness at daybreak accompanies the arctic blast that plummets early-morning air to sub-freezing.
It’s a lonely time when the only headlamps for miles pierce the darkness on a back road in Oregon’s Klamath Basin.
Despite the bone-chilling cold, wildlife expert Dave Hewitt said there is no better time to tally the dawn fly-out of the largest gathering of bald eagles in America.
“There’s one,” said Hewitt. “Right over your head, Grant! It’s coming right over the road.”
We have come to Bear Valley Wildlife Refuge (a part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges), a large forest stand of old-growth timber that provides the eagles with protection from the wind and cold.
Bear Valley is an eagle night roost and staging area where the birds take wing and search for food each morning.
Hewitt said there is no better time to watch and count the daylight flights of bald eagles: “Yeah, it’s fantastic!” said an enthusuastic Hewitt. “As the sun is coming up, just starting to get light, you can see 40, 50, even 60 eagles get up, swoop and soar and glide right over the top of you. It’s pretty impressive to watch when you have several hundred eagles. Sometimes you can’t count fast enough.”
I tried but could not keep up - one, two, four, then six...ten and then up to twenty eagles, but I was soon dazzled and dizzied by the birds that appeared - first in front of us and then quickly disappeared across a distant ridgeline.
I simply could not keep track of them all.
Finally I gave up my count and enjoyed the show alongside a small group of birders who were doing much the same.
We gazed toward the eastern horizon, where a soft shade of rose marked the morning's sunrise.
Klamath Falls resident, Darryl Samuels, noted, “It’s the thrill of the hunt without the gun – you have your binoculars and you might see 60 bald eagles and you might see 10 – it varies each day."
His wife, Diana Samuels, eagerly agreed and added, “It’s just great to come out here early and watch them as they go out to feed at the refuge.”
Over a thousand eagles arrive at the Klamath Basin from as far away as Canada and Alaska each winter.The birds follow their food supply of ducks, geese and other birds.
Despite frigid conditions during much of the winter, large bodies of water such as Upper Klamath Lake often remain open and unfrozen. Large flocks of ducks paddle about and help to prevent smaller ponds from freezing over too.
David Menke, staff member at the US Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath Refuge Headquarters, guided us across miles of the intersecting unpaved roadways that leand a checkerboard look to the Lower Klamath Refuge.
Menke suddenly stopped, brought his binoculars up and gazed across an otherwise flat, drab-brown grain field (wheat harvest had occurred months earlier) where scores of black and white dots bobbed about.
“Is this a buffet table for the eagles?” I asked with a chuckle.
“Absolutely! A real smorgasbord – or whatever – and this field – I guarantee you – will not be this way a week from now – the birds will be another field. You see, they are hunting field mice and other rodents. It’s really something to sit and watch the birds hunt here.”
Menke said there are many awesome sights to see across nearly 170,000 acres of both state and federal wildlife refuges in the Klamath Basin.
Multiple auto tour routes make the travel easy, so be sure to stop in at the Klamath Refuge Headquarters where free maps and brochures will set you on the right trail to enjoy the show.
In addition, you can explore more public access at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Klamath Wildlife Area.
While each season offers some new species to see, Dave added that winter is the best time to see the most raptors, including the largest concentrations of eagles.
“You can see eagles on telephone poles, eagles on irrigation equipment, eagles on farm fields – mostly they just stand around a lot, so there’s endless opportunities to observe wildlife.”
Visitors to Klamath Wildlife Refuge should plan to explore the Klamath Birding Trail. You should also take advantage of a wonderful educational opportunity at the annual “Winter Wings Festival” on February 14-17.
Diana Samuels said that community event draws hundreds of people from across the country who have a real passion for birding – and especially for bald eagles.
"Bird watching is a hobby and pastime that’s growing and our festival has really benefited from the increased interest. We are one of the premier destinations for bird watching on the west coast.”
Audubon member Dave Hewitt said that the Klamath Basin Audubon Society helps to manage the multi-day event each year and more than 100 volunteers from the local community help out. They will give over thousands of hours and help people learn and understand more about Oregon’s wildlife heritage.
"There are many activities designed for families and kids," noted Hewitt. "Plus, you don’t really have to know anything about birds, just have an interest in nature and we’ll show you some pretty exciting things.”