Tuesday, February 17, 2015

No One Knows the Marshes I've Known

By Bob Ferris

Some of the snow geese at Miller Island.
I am not sure when I visited my first marsh or how many I have seen, but each I experience seems so new and special.  That is why it was so wonderful that Carlene and I decided to pick up sticks this past weekend to travel down to Klamath Falls and be part of the Winter Wings Festival  put on by the Klamath Basin Audubon chapter.  It was sort of our Valentine’s Day gift to each other and well worth the effort.

This festival has been running for more than 30 years but it was our first time and so we did some things really right and honestly missed the boat on a few.  Hopefully, we and others can profit from our triumphs as well as our challenges.  But first let me say that overall it was a great experience and I say that even in light of lowered bird numbers due to warm weather and any shortcomings I might identify.  So here goes.

We drove down from Eugene on Friday rather than Thursday because we found out that the early bird does in fact get the worm and the workshops and field trips fill up fast so our first advice is to register early online.  Everyone we talked to felt the workshops and field trips enhanced the experience.  So remember the proverbial worm with this one.

Since we hit town in the afternoon we wanted to go somewhere close-in and decided to sample the Miller Island Wildlife Refuge managed by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW).  It was a good choice and we saw a great array of waterfowl dominated by the presence of snow geese.   It was also a great opportunity for us as novices to get confused by the color morphs and various species of mid-sized geese that appear in this corner of the world.  The above video by Carlene gives you a flavor of the energy of the place when the vocalizations come to a crescendo and the various groups take flight.  It was stunning.

From a conservation perspective our observations were bittersweet however as I had been in DC when the good news-bad news story about the snow goose began to break in the 1990s.  It is hard not to be impressed by what we saw here and elsewhere on the federal refuges, but the implications and complications were always in the back of my mind.  Life continues to be complex and interconnected.

Carlene demonstrating the need for a camp chair at a blind.
For those wanting to visit Miller Island  you should remember to get an ODFW parking pass ($22) as they are required for this area.  It is also a good idea with this site and others to have a good pair of binoculars, a spotting scope for capturing greater detail and some sort of camp chair as there are viewing blinds here and elsewhere that are set up expressly for the long wait required for the birds to return after being disturbed during the walk out to the blind.

We got up before sunrise on Valentine’s Day.  Here we were caught between the vagaries of a rotating earth and the limitations of an included breakfast that starts at 6:00 AM.  We could have been more hard core and kept "duck hunter" hours, but were little penalized because the pea soup fog likely dampened and extended some of the morning activity.  On this second day we headed south to the Oregon and California borderlands and the complex of federal refuges in this locale.

Properly characterized I would say this was a waterfowl and raptors trip.  Through the rolling mists and rising sun we saw assortments of ducks from buffleheads and ruddy ducks to pin-tails and canvas backs as well as an assortment of geese and swans.  We also saw red-tails, northern harriers and bald eagles and even viewed one field where every wooden fence post along one side seemed to provide a roost for some raptor.

Our earliest driving was in the Klamath National Wildlife Refuge and then we traversed to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge where we managed to pick up a tick, so be careful if you walk through brush to get that better angle.  From the two Klamath refuges we traveled to the Tule Lake Refuge and hit there a little before 9 AM.

As the fog was still holding strong we walked into Discovery Marsh across the street from the
Carlene on the path to observation structure in the background.
Visitor’s Center.  The above video was shot there and demonstrates some of the magic of these places, particularly in the early morning.

When the sun finally broke through and after we toured the displays at the Center we hiked the steep wall behind the building to a cliff-side observation platform--essentially a tiny rock house.  Here we got an aerial view of what we had felt like was an immense marsh.  It really showed the importance of these restored marshes carved out of farmland and it sort of reminded me of the park  that was described in “The Mouse That Roared” that was little more than trails that traversed back and forth in parallel to give the illusion of size.

The view of Discovery Marsh from the observation blind. 
For the rest of the day we traveled down the edge of Tule Lake eventually lunching at Captain Jack’s Stronghold (more on this later).

Most of this leg would have been one of the areas where stools and spotting scopes could have helped.

We closed the day at the Oregon Institute of Technology where we enjoyed a fine meal with other birders and heard excellent talks by Mike Sutton of Audubon (who is also doing excellent work as a California Fish and Game Commission member) and birder and author Richard Crossley. Both were excellent and entertained us as well as making us think.

A lone immature red-tail watching us at Captain Jack's. 
On Sunday morning we had originally thought
that we would sleep in and then drive back to Eugene via Crater Lake for a snowshoe or cross-country ski, but we had not seen the sandhill cranes yet so we looked on the maps to see where they had been spotted earlier during the week.

We headed down to the Lower Klamath refuge for this and right after we passed the big white crew bus full of birders on a tour we saw what looked to the naked eye to be Canada geese way off in the distance in a field.  When we brought our binoculars up we found they were the sandhills we sought.  Two of them danced for us and I wonder if they or the folks in the tour bus behind us saw that we danced back.  One the loop back we saw a tree full of bald eagles and got fairly close to an eagle near a nest and then we were off for other adventures.

Our last stop on the Lower Klamath driving loop.  

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