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The Eagles Have Landed

If you've ever wanted to see a whole lot of Bald Eagles, February is the time and the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Complex is the place. The eagle show going on there right now is spectacular.

The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Complex encompasses six national wildlife refuges along the California-Oregon border. These include Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, the nation's first waterfowl refuge, and Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, roosting site of the majority of the Bald Eagles that overwinter here. The refuges cover a vast area of marshes, ponds, woodlands, and farmland and offer winter protection and feeding grounds to a million or more ducks and geese. These waterfowl are the reason all the eagles come to Klamath.

Bald Eagles nest from Alaska to Florida. In Canada and most of the United States, winter temperatures bring ice and snow, and conditions can get pretty tough for birds, even huge raptors such as Bald Eagles. Every year, in late fall and early winter as weather conditions begin to deteriorate and food-finding becomes a serious issue, great numbers of northern-ranging Bald Eagles move southward.

Bald Eagles are adept hunters, especially of fish, but they are also scavengers. To them, food is food, and the kind that doesn't move is a lot easier to deal with than the kind that does. Bald Eagles gather at wintering sites all across the United States where food is plentiful and easy to find. In many places they congregate at open-water stretches below river dams and locks, feeding on fish. At Klamath the eagles feed on the thousands of waterfowl that die during the winter from a variety of causes. Several thousand geese and ducks, including Canada Geese, Snow Geese, White-fronted Geese, Mallards, and Northern Pintails, succumb every winter. This is but a fraction of the waterfowl that winter at the refuge, but it is enough to support 500 or more Bald Eagles every year.

Winter eagle-watching at Klamath Basin is always successful. For the most spectacular show, get up early to see the eagles fly from their overnight roosting trees. Most of the eagles spend the night at Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, which is closed to the public. However, if you position yourself along the road in Worden, Oregon, at sunrise and face west, the eagles will soar by right over your head. This is something you just cannot experience anywhere else. If you are not an early riser, visit Lower Klamath or Tule Lake refuges from mid-morning to early afternoon. There are auto-tour routes at each site, and you should be able to find dozens of Bald Eagles perched and in flight. Remember that Bald Eagles are not born with their adult plumage (it takes several years to develop), so a great many of the birds you see will not have a pristine white head and tail. But they will still be majestic.