By Donna Barnett
Imagine thousands of waterfowl swirling in the sky, energizing the air with birdsong; the 14,180-foot Mount Shasta in the background. Bald eagles with outstretched wings flap over forest tops, wingbeats slow and steady. The hoot of a great horned owl. Sandhill cranes dance. Canadian geese fly in V formation.
That's what I imagined when I signed up for the annual Winter Wings Festival in Klamath Falls, Oregon, America's oldest bird-watching festival, which takes place during Presidents Day weekend in February. Located just north of California, the festival attracts more than 500 participants with informative lectures, photo seminars and bird tours.
Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges in southern Oregon serve as a major nesting and feeding stopover for 80 percent of the billions of the Pacific Flyway's birds traveling from Patagonia to Alaska. Klamath Basin also holds the largest concentration of wintering bald eagles in the lower 48 states.
Ever since I photographed bald eagles in a British Columbia rescue facility, I've wanted to photograph America's national birds free in their natural habitat. Native to North America, bald eagles are large predatory raptors with a wingspan up to 8 feet. They're strong, solitary and monogamous, and they possess extraordinary vision. I was mesmerized by the spirit that shone through their intense eyes.
On the morning of Feb. 11, 2015, Amtrak's Coast Starlight train left Los Angeles and leisurely transported me up California's exquisite coastline toward Oregon. An ever-changing landscape included the Pacific Ocean's turquoise and azure waters. Yellow wildflowers danced in lush greenery. Seagulls, surfers and vineyards were drenched in sunlight. Tracks, often far from accessible roads, ensured passengers enjoyed rarely seen parts of California. Assistant Conductor Crystal Clayton pointed out Point Conception, where the south-north coastline made a 90-degree turn east, the biggest curve on our West Coast.
I met new friends in the dining and observation cars. One woman spoke of train magic, for she'd met her soul mate aboard. Another was headed to Monterey for sea-glass hunting.
"Trains put you back to a more relaxed, gentler time," one traveler said. "The train is very friendly. You never get bored looking out the window. It gives you a fresh perspective on the world and beats cars and airports."
This was my first overnight journey on an Amtrak train. I chose a deluxe room with a couch that folded into a bed. Navy-blue pleated curtains provided a thin veil between my cocoon and the great out yonder. Sleep was inviting like a baby gently rocked. At 4:30 a.m., I felt the train chug up Mount Shasta. I woke and parted the curtains. Tall trees reached for twinkling stars and a crescent moon. All felt well in the world. Around 8:30 a.m., after a delicious breakfast, I arrived refreshed in Klamath Falls. A prearranged volunteer guide and birder, B.J. Matzen, kindly picked me up at the train station. We drove through the quaint town of Klamath Falls, passing museums, antique shops and parks. Matzen pointed to murals that depicted bald eagles, great egrets, great horned owls and Mallard ducks. The spirit of birds was everywhere.
We headed to the Oregon Institute of Technology; base camp for the Winter Wings Festival, where my prepaid schedule of events and tickets awaited: Laid Back Birding Tour for late risers, keynote speaker and buffet, and A Birder's Guide to the Klamath Basin. I was beginner-birder ready.
The Klamath Basin Birding Trail is about 300 miles long and features 47 birding sites in the greater area. Matzen showed me local Moore Park, offering trails and Upper Klamath Lake scenic views. My first bird sighting came with the harsh call of a western scrub jay. I looked up to see the beautiful blue gray bird. "Assertive and vocal," Matzen said, as a curious deer approached.
Next up, the nearby Link River Dam and Fish Ladder. The fish ladder allowed endangered short-nosed and lost-river sucker fish and redband trout to pass from the Klamath River to Upper Klamath Lake. Environmentalists' successful history of wildlife conservation included famous bird photographer William Finley. In 1905 he photographed Tule Lake and Lower Klamath Lake birds, which inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to create the first federal bird refuges.
Traveling Lakeshore Drive toward Running Y Ranch Resort, we passed hundreds of swans and ducks. I stayed at the peaceful Running Y, just outside of town. Located on 3,500 acres, it offers walking paths and modern amenities. Well-rested, I was eager for the Laid Back Birding Tour with wildlife biologist Marshal Moser.
At 9:30 AM our group started downtown, observing black-crowned night herons, common and Barrow's goldeneyes. Moser explained young and adult bird characteristics. Then we boarded a bus bound for the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. The nation's first waterfowl refuge was established in 1908 in rural northeastern California and southern Oregon "as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds." We slowed for bird sightings — black phoebe, song sparrow, great egrets.
Bus sounds don't mix well with birds. Therefore, alert with anticipation, tripods, binoculars and cameras, we walked stealthily along country roads.
"Look!" a man in a plaid shirt tilted his neck toward an object in the sky. "I'm setting up the scope here." Cameras swung in unison. You could feel excitement. "It just flew away."
And we walked, passing "fog" rising from a pond. Klamath Falls has more than 600 geothermal wells that heat the community.
"Look! A light immature red tail hawk landed at 2 o'clock. There he goes. I'd hoped he'd stay."
And we walked. Hills appeared dry due to unseasonable warm weather and four consecutive drought years.
"Look! A ferruginous hawk! The largest hawk below eagles in this area. It's on the pole. Now it's flying over the bush. I'm looking 10 o'clock, middle of field. Now it's over that tree. Gone."
"Six pheasants!" I pointed. Heads turned. "Gone behind the bushes."
And so it went until we approached a wide expanse of marshland located on the Auto Tour Route in the southern portion of the Lower Klamath Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Mount Shasta towered like a king in the background, and in the foreground — my imagined vision of thousands of vibrant birds. Perhaps, tens of thousands came to life.
Western grebes paired up, and sandhill cranes danced and mated. Snow geese and greater white-fronted geese took off. Canadian geese flew in formation. Waterfowl swirled in the sky. Birdsong filled the air. A photographer's paradise. I would have been more than satisfied had that been all there was.
En route to town, we spotted cars parked along a road lined with old willow trees, signaling bird activity. Great horned owls perched motionless on tree branches. And a pair of majestic bald eagles stood regally in the next tree. And the next. It's said that in the wild bald eagles hold the record for building the largest nests of any birds in the world free in their natural habitat. I took out my long lens and focused.
WHEN YOU GO
Winter Wings Festival will be held Presidents Day weekend, Feb. 11-14, 2016: www.winterwingsfest.org or 877-541-2473.
Klamath Birding Trails: www.klamathbirdingtrails.com
Discover Klamath offers helpful information to plan your trip, including side trips such as to the Volcanic Legacy Scenic Byway to Crater Lake: www.discoverklamath.com.
Amtrak: www.amtrak.com or 800-USA-RAIL
Running Y Ranch Resort: www.runningy.com or 541-850-5500
Bird education and tools: www.audubon.org and www.ebird.com
Donna Barnett is a freelance writer and photographer who writes the blog "Chasing Clean Air." To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.