It's daybreak and we're stomping our feet in the bitter cold beside a dirt road in the Klamath Basin. Our eyes and binoculars are fixed on Hamaker Mountain, a 6,500-foot peak only a mile or two from where our group huddles, near Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge on the Oregon-California border. "There's another one," someone whispers. We let out a collective murmur as a bald eagle lifts off from its nest and descends toward the fields and marshes of Bear Valley's sister refuge, the Lower Klamath. Like planes taking off from a runway, the 500 or so eagles roosting in the area this winter have been flying out, one by one, for hours. It's February, and the carcasses of small animals and wildfowl too weak to make it through the winter offer easy pickings for the raptors, which otherwise hunt fish. The eagles will spend most of the day scavenging for food, return to their roosts by sunset, and be ready to take off for the ritual again tomorrow morning.
Hundreds of bird species—from tundra swans and northern pintails to American wigeons—flock to the 174,279-acre Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges during the winter months. So do avian enthusiasts, who brave 5 a.m. wake-up calls and frigid weather for the exceptional sightings this area offers. About 500 birders have gathered to attend the Winter Wings Festival, an annual three-day conference held in Klamath Falls, Ore., that promises lectures, workshops, and outings related to raptors, other birds, and more wildlife. Among the many birds featured, the bald eagle is clearly the main draw.
"It may be difficult to understand how a bird outnumbered a thousand to one can be the star until you sit beside someone and watch the reaction when they see their first bald eagle," says B.J. Matzen, an inveterate birder who is also a lawyer for Klamath Wingwatchers, a nonprofit that educates the public about migratory birds in the Klamath Basin. Bald eagles are among North America's largest avians, with an impressive wingspan of six to eight feet, and their distinctive features—bright yellow beaks and talons, snow-white heads and tail feathers—make them easy to identify. But it's their symbolic value that probably accounts for much of their popularity; adopted as the U.S. emblem in 1782, the bald eagle still peers from the back of every one-dollar bill.
Celebrity prestige, however, has not exempted the raptors from near destruction. Once numbering an estimated half million, the eagle population dwindled as North America's human population grew. People competed with the birds for food, hunted them indiscriminately, and polluted the environment with the pesticide DDT, which severely affected the eagles' ability to reproduce. By 1963, only 417 nesting pairs were reported in the contiguous United States. In 1973 Congress took action, declaring the bald eagle an endangered species in all states except Alaska.
The raptors have now rebounded and currently number some 10,000 pairs in the lower 48 states. Last year the Interior Department took the bald eagle off the endangered species list, but kept it protected. Here in the Klamath Basin we see hundreds perched en masse in skeletal cottonwoods, swooping down from solitary lookouts, or standing sentry over snow-covered fields. And for a few hours our group, itself exotically decked out in pom-pommed winter wear, admires the power and resilience of these majestic birds.
Pick up the Oregon & Washington and California maps as well as the Northern California & Nevada and Oregon & Washington TourBook guides. All listings are in Klamath Falls, Ore., unless otherwise stated. Area code is 541 except as noted.
Applebee's Neighborhood Grill & Bar 2750 Campus Dr., 850-1080. Ranch House Restaurant at the Running Y Ranch Resort. 5500 Running Y Rd., 850-5777.
Running Y Ranch Resort From $119. 5500 Running Y Rd., (888)
850-0275. Shilo Inn Suites Hotel From $169. 2500 Almond St., (800) 222-2244. Winema Lodge From $65. 5215 Hill Rd., Tulelake, Calif., (530) 667-5158.
The Winter Wings Festival takes place in February, when the bald eagle population peaks. Wear your woollies. For details, contact the festival office at 850-0084, winterwingsfest.org.