WARNING - extremely photo-heavy post ahead! Proceed at your own risk (or enjoyment!)
My neighbor and photography mentor Cheri (who's been teaching me all about photograping wildlife, especially birds) encouraged me to sign up for the Winter Wings Festival, a February birding workshop in Klamath Falls, Oregon. Sadly, work commitments forced me to cancel at the last minute. To say I was disappointed was an understatement. Located on the Pacific Flyway, the lakes and marshes around Klamath Falls are renowned for their seasonal wild bird populations, attracting birding enthusiasts from all over.
|Lower Klamath Lake|
Cheri to the rescue. With multiple visits over the years, she knew the area well and offered to take me to Klamath Falls another time. The last weekend in March opened up for both of us, so Cheri made motel reservations, and off we went!
Klamath Falls is located in southern Oregon, a 4 1/2 hour drive from Portland. We got an early start and pulled in to town just after noon. First stop was one of the city parks to check for Western Grebes. Cheri was happy to see they had returned. These birds have an interesting courtship dance (sadly it wasn't quite mating season yet so we didn't get to see it). I was intrigued by the bird's unique bright red eyes.
|Great Blue Heron on a nest|
Then we headed south of town to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. Straddling the stateline between Oregon and California, this 50,000 acre refuge is a haven for waterfowl of all types. According to the refuge's website, it's one of the most biologically productive refuges in the Pacific Flyway. About 80 percent of the flyway's migrating waterfowl pass through the Klamath Basin, with 50 percent using this refuge.
Enough with the statistics - time to see some birds! Cheri drove by a few drainage canals all hosting ducks of several varieties. Each time she stopped her truck to take photos, the ducks would immediately take to the air. We really had to be quick with our cameras to capture the fowl in flight. Cheri, much more experienced (and talented!) got some great shots, while mine pretty pretty much all ended up blurry.
|Great Blue Heron coming in for a landing|
Then Cheri drove by the shore of Lower Klamath Lake. A row of trees lined the road, and in those trees we spotted a Great Blue Heron rookery. Several nests were perched high in the treetops. No babies yet, but lots of herons coming and going.
|Bald Eagle stare|
Further down the treeline we spotted more nests, but these were nests of a different bird species - the bald eagle. It was amazing to watch these majestic birds perched high atop the trees. Cheri remarked that it was unfortunate the blue herons had their nests close by. With so many bald eagles in the neighborhood their babies wouldn't stand a chance.
|Snow geese taking off at Tule Lake|
Cheri then decided to drive to nearby Tule Lake. Located just over the stateline in California, this lake was also an important stop on the Pacific Flyway. A popular wintering place for snow geese, she was hoping the huge flocks of these birds hadn't left yet.
|Carnage on the shore of Tule Lake|
We were in luck! As Cheri pulled onto the gravel road circling Tule Lake, we spotted a large white mass of birds floating in it's waters. Not long after we stopped, Cheri and I witnessed this enormous flock take to the air. Thousands of geese rising from the water, splashing and honking in a huge white blur. What a sight!
|The perpetrator - a juvenile Bald Eagle|
Snow geese weren't the only birds calling Tule Lake home. Driving further on the lakeshore road, we began to notice mounds of white feathers scattered about. After scaring a pack of vultures from a snow goose carcass, we realized where the white feathers were coming from. High poles had been erected along a portion of the road, creating perches for resident bald eagles. Snow geese just happened to be their favorite snack. The circle of life is not pretty.
The best bird sighting of the day came when Cheri spotted a pelican sitting atop a wooden structure adjacent to the road. The pelican allowed us a couple of up-close photos, before promptly flying away.
|Pelican duo on Tule Lake|
But wait, there's more! A little bit later, Cheri spotted several pelicans drifting about Tule Lake. A few swam within range of our zoom lenses, and I managed to get several great images. I'd never seen pelicans so close before, and I was awed by both their body size and shape of their beaks.
|We found more pelicans in a drainage canal|
Just when we thought the day's bird sightings couldn't get any better - driving back towards Klamath Falls Cheri spotted yet another pelican duo swimming in a nearby drainage canal. We were out of her truck before the wheels stopped turning, cameras in hand. Luckily for us the pelicans posed for a few minutes before flying away.
|Foggy morning on day two|
Day one had been a rousing success! Back in our motel room that night, Cheri and I had fun picking out and editing our favorite images. (So many good ones to chose from!) We went to bed that night looking forward to another day of wildlife photography.
|Hard to see Bald Eagles in the trees|
But...the weather played a trick on us! Cheri and I awoke to a frosty morning. Driving out of town towards Lower Klamath Lake, we were enveloped by a huge fog bank. Visibility was nearly nil. Not good if you're trying to spot and photograph birds.
But we'd driven all this way, and were weren't giving up easily. Cheri slowly steered her truck around the refuge, keeping an eye out for any sign of birds. Despite the weather, we spotted lots of hawks, ducks, eagles, and pheasants. Tons of pheasants! They popped out of the roadside bushes everywhere. The pheasants were really fast and a challenge to capture on camera. I only got one halfway decent image but had fun trying.
|Foggy drainage canal|
Enjoy the next few images from our foggy morning....
|Hawk on the hunt|
|I finally got one decent pheasant image|
|Hawk posing for me|
|Cinnamon teal couple|
|Snow geese in the fog|
Cheri and I kept hoping the fog would finally lift. But after driving around half the morning it still clung stubbornly to the ground. So we decided to drive back to Tule Lake to see if conditions were any better.
|Cheri waiting for the fog to lift on Tule Lake|
Tule Lake was just as socked in as the Lower Klamath Refuge. I managed to get one good image of a snow geese flock flying in the fog.
|Our view (or lack of!)|
We noticed the fog beginning to clear towards the south. Slowly the surrounding plains and hillsides became visible. But the lake itself was still cloaked in white. It was weird to sit in sunshine on the road, but see thick fog not ten feet away.
|To pass the time, I took landscape photos|
So Cheri and I waited on the shore for the fog to clear. Cheri really wanted to get another chance to photograph the huge snow geese flock in flight. We could hear the geese honking but could just barely make out their outline through the white curtain.
|Bald Eagle having lunch|
Luckily while we waited, I found plenty of other things to photograph. Like a bald eagle having lunch atop one of the utility poles.
Or magnificent Mt.Shasta rising from the plains, cloaked in winter white.
There were lots of bald eagles out and about - no shortage of great photo opportunities.
I also had fun capturing several red-winged blackbirds, singing their lovely melodies.
|Caught one snow goose in flight|
Finally after an hour of waiting, the fog finally began to lift. Cheri and I could see the enormous flock of snow geese out on the lake. Thousands of geese made a long white line in the water - quite a sight. Now all they had to do was take off in flight and we could get our photos. But.... the geese stayed firmly put in the water.
|Snow geese mass take-off|
Cheri said she hoped that an eagle would do a fly-by of the snow geese flock. That would get the birds in the air. But the eagles seemed content to perch on their poles.
|Thousands of snow geese at Tule Lake|
After another half hour of patiently waiting, Cheri and I were ready to call it a day and head back to Lower Klamath Lake. But suddenly, the honking began to get louder. Then, as if a signal had been given, every goose in that huge flock rose out of the water. The noise was incredible! The sight even more so. Patience paid off - Cheri and I finally got our images.
|Nice views from Upper Klamath Lake|
Cheri decided to do one more driving loop of Upper Klamath Lake before heading back to town. We passed by more incredible views of the nearby mountains - Mt McLoughlin rising prominently over the horizon. The landscape photographer in me couldn't resist.
Lower Klamath Lake was full of white-fronted geese. Although not as attractive as snow geese, perfect late afternoon light on the flock made for a few good photo ops.
I tried my hand at capturing a few Northern shoveler ducks in flight.
But, boy were they quick! Instead of running along the water before taking flight, these ducks rise straight from the water's surface. Very hard to capture for the newbie wildlife photographer (me).
|Pre-take off running on water|
But it was a good challenge. These ruddy ducks running across the water were fun to capture too.
Cheri spotted a tundra swan far out on the lake, so she stopped her truck to get out and photograph the elegant bird. As we were focusing on the swan, a bald eagle flew right over our heads, and landed on a tree above the truck. It was nearly too close to capture with our long zoom lenses. The eagle sat on the tree for a long time, posing for us. At one point, it began scratching his head and I captured my favorite image of the entire trip.
|Fantastic cloud reflections|
What began as a foggy day ended in blue skies. Returning to town, puffy clouds perfectly reflected in the lake caught our eyes, and we just couldn't resist one final photo stop. A great way to end two incredible days of photography in a wild and beautiful area.
Thanks Cheri for introducing me to such an amazing place. I'm already looking forward to coming back!