Sign for Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of USFWS
Remarkable Nature Places: Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex (California-Oregon)
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex from “Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges” by Laura and William Riley
The Klamath Basin refuges of California and Oregon are among the most exciting in the world, with stunning gatherings of millions of ducks and geese, hundreds of eagles, as well as intimate glimpses of natural life of all kinds against a background of spectacular scenic beauty in the six refuges in this complex covering 151,000 acres.
Lower Klamath flock of waterfowl Photo courtesy of USFWS
The concentrations of waterfowl, largest on the North American continent, seem almost to darken the skies as in old stories when they arrive in fall migration.
Up to 500 bald eagles fly to and from winter roosts (sometimes up to 1,000) in the largest numbers outside Alaska, sometimes moving visitors to tears at this sight of so many of our majestic national bird which once seemed headed for extinction. Sometimes more than 100 can be counted from a single vantage point.
Both bald and golden eagles nest, along with ten species of hawks and ten kinds of owls. Winter may bring thousands of northern harriers, red-tailed and rough-legged hawks.
Marsh Burn at Tule Lake NWR 2005: Burning marshes opens new nesting grounds for migratory birds at Tule Lake NWR. The Tule Marsh is burned intermittently every few years. Tule reeds become thick and choke nesting habitat. Burning removes old growth, inviting new nesting. Photo courtesy of USFWS
Downy western grebe hatchlings are everywhere in early summer, riding on the backs of handsome ruby-eyed parents, hanging on even during their parents’ dives for food. They share the marshes with offspring of dozens of other water birds including more than 60,000 ducklings and goslings that hatch here in a good year. Altogether more than 275 bird species have been counted here, some in huge numbers, of which at least 180 species nest on refuge lands.
But it is the tremendous fall waterfowl concentrations on the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake units that have attracted world renown, filling the entire sky when they come through in October and November, funneling southward from breeding grounds as far away as Siberia.
Swans in Flight Photo courtesy of USFWS
Sometimes 150,000 snow geese can be seen in a single glance. There can be 80 per cent of the world population of their smaller cousins, Ross’s geese; plus Canadas, white-fronted, even an occasional emperor goose, and more than 20 duck species. It is an awesome and unforgettable sight and a delight to photographers when they fly up en masse in the late-day sun against a backdrop of snowy Mount Shasta.
Spring concentrations, usually in early March, are only a little less overwhelming–but tundra swans, up to 10,000, may be even more impressive then.
Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of USFWS
Significant nesting groups are here too: white pelicans, their northernmost colonies producing up to 1,500 young; double-crested cormorants, great blue herons, white-faced ibis, California and ring-billed gulls, Caspian and Forster’s terns and sometimes hundreds of floating nests of golden-tufted eared grebes.
Pintails in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of USFWS
Breeding avocets, coots and black-necked stilts can be seen by the hundreds–as, in fact, can almost all the wildlife except some which congregate in breeding colonies where they are protected from disturbance. Even these can be viewed readily feeding on the marsh and water areas in early morning and late afternoon.
Interesting small birds come too–bright hermit warblers, common summer nesters; Townsend’s solitaires, nesting and common in fall; tricolored blackbirds, fox sparrows, coveys of mountain quail and a myriad of others.
Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of USFWS
Mule deer graze beside the marsh in Lower Klamath and in uplands on the west of Tule Lake where pronghorns are occasionally seen. Yellow-bellied marmots sun themselves on boulders and rock piles.
Coyotes go mousing in the fields, bounding up and down to pounce on small victims, pausing barely long enough to eat them “the way you and I eat peanuts,” a staffer observed.
Scenic view of Klamath Marsh with Mount Thielsen in the background. Photo Courtesy of USFWS
Best places to see the greatest numbers and variety are tour roads on the Tule Lake and Lower Klamath units. Upper Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges also offer canoe trails. The Clear Lake unit, providing habitat for pronghorn antelope and nest sites for pelicans, is unstaffed with only limited areas open to visitors. Upper Klamath is almost entirely marsh and water with a fine canoe trail where water birds, including red-necked grebes, can be seen. Boats are available for rental, and camping also, at a nearby Forest Service concession. (All canoe trails can be restricted during nesting season.)
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of
The Bear Valley unit protects a major winter eagle roost. They can be seen easily flying in and out from Highway 97 near Worden, Oregon, especially at dawn in January and February. Klamath Marsh is 38,277 acres of habitat for water birds and sandhill cranes with visitor facilities largely in the planning stage.
A headquarters visitor center has information on what is available on the various units and how best to see everything, with displays on history and wildlife of the area and a short audiovisual program on the significance of the Klamath Basin Refuges.
Expansive view of the Tule Lake basin at the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Photo courtesy of USFWS
Impressive as are the bird concentrations here, they were even greater a generation ago–up to 6,000,000 or more in the 1950s. Why the decline? Other than the reduced availability of wetlands due to drainage and drought, no one is quite sure. But the change points up the critical significance of refuges such as these, without which such populations would have no place to go for their continued existence.
Map of Klamath Basin
HOW TO GET THERE: From Tulelake take Highway 139, then west 5 miles on East-West Road, then 1/8 mile south via Hill Road to Klamath Basin Refuge headquarters. There get maps, data and directions for all refuge units.
OPEN: Daylight hours. Visitor center 8-4:30 weekdays, 8-4 weekends (closed Christmas, New Year’s).
BEST TIMES TO VISIT: March-May and mid-September to mid-December, but much to see all year–eagles mid-December to February.
WHAT TO SEE: Huge concentrations of migrating and nesting waterfowl as well as grebes, pelicans, waders, shorebirds, raptors, coyotes, mule deer, bald eagles in winter, many others.
Canoeing at Upper Klamath Nation Wildlife Refuge Photo Courtesy of USFWS
WHAT TO DO: Auto tour routes on Lower Klamath and Tule Lake, other roads of varying quality for driving, hiking (some closed in wet weather). Public roads also afford viewing. Photography (blinds available by reservation). Canoe trails. Fishing in Upper Klamath and Klamath Marsh. Group tours and presentations can be arranged. Various limited hunting seasons from September to mid-January on parts of refuge (waterfowl mornings to 1 pm).
WHERE TO STAY: Motels–in Tulelake, California; also Merrill, Oregon, and Klamath Falls, Oregon, 25 miles north. Campgrounds–in Tulelake; also Lava Beds National Monument, adjacent to Tule Lake unit on south.
WEATHER: Winter travel can be difficult, extremely changeable, frost possible most months.
POINTS OF INTEREST NEARBY: Lava Beds National Monument (see Campgrounds); Miller Island State Wildlife Management Area, 25 miles northwest; Medicine Lake Highlands of Modoc National Forest, 25 miles south (one of the world’s largest shield volcanoes); Crater Lake National Park, 75 miles northwest; Klamath Tour Loop, 120-mile auto tour of interesting natural and historic places in area; Winema National Forest has sections of Pacific Crest Hiking Trail from Canada to the Sierras. Annual Eagle Conference with raptor-related presentations and activities, mid-February in Klamath Falls.
Camping out at Tule Lake, Klamath Marsh, 1905. Finley bird watching on the right with glasses and Bohlman on the left with the Axe. Photo courtesy of USFWS
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges, Route 1, Box 74, Tulelake, California 96134. Phone: 530-667-2231. Fax: 530-667-3299; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex Facebook Page
Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges by Laura and William Riley is available from:
Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge Photo courtesy of USFWS