Birding the Lower Klamath and Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges
By Enjoy Magazine
Wings That Fill the Sky
By Michael O'Brien
“SUMMER BIRDING” is a concept that does not excite most birders. Spring migration is over. It’s hot outside. Birds stay hidden in the shade of leaves and are hard to spot. However, there is always beauty – and birds – if you know where to look.
Part of the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex resting in the northeastern corner of Siskiyou County features the Lower Klamath and the adjacent Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuges. Both areas offer excellent summer birding.
The National Wildlife Refuge system was established in the early 20th century to stave off the impact of bird hunting, primarily for their feathers. The Lower Klamath Refuge was established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, the Tule Lake Refuge in 1928. Both were designed to be preserves and breeding grounds for wild birds and animals. Whereas other national wildlife refuges drain their ponds and lakes after spring, both of these refuges are distinct as the land was set aside for farming and agricultural activities, which results in water being available year-round. Each refuge is surrounded by mountains, hills and high-desert scrub lands, a habitat that attracts a wonderful myriad of bird life.
To reach these refuges, drive north on Interstate 5 to Highway 97 north out of Weed, to State Highway 161 north of Dorris, which runs along the California-Oregon border. Follow this road east about 9 miles to the Lower Klamath Auto Tour Route. Turn south, follow the road to the parking lot and find a fully involved Cliff Swallow nursery. Apply bug repellant and walk to the observation platform about a quarter-mile from the lot. From this platform, look for the always spectacular Yellow-headed Blackbird whistling from the reeds. Scan the sky for Bald and Golden Eagles. Here you will also find Marsh Wren, Red-winged Blackbird, Killdeer, Black-necked Stilt, White-faced Ibis, California and Ring-billed Gull, and Great Blue Heron, among many others.
The Refuge Headquarters and Visitor Center next to the Tule Lake Refuge is a perfect next stop. Drive east on Highway 161 about 4½ miles to Hill Road. Turn south and drive about 2 miles to the Visitor Center parking lot. The center contains typical displays and recent sighting information, but a unique feature is the bird feeder display outside the center building. Microphones broadcast bird activity as they feed and frolic on the other side of a glass wall. Visitors may watch the birds up close without disturbing them.
From the Visitor Center, drive south on Hill Road to the Wildlife Overlook. Bring your binoculars and spotting scope and walk the constructed path to the wooden shelter on the shore of Tule Lake. Look for White Pelican rafting in groups on the water or soaring high overhead. Pie-billed, Clark’s, Western and Eared Grebe all occupy these waters, as do Double-crested Cormorant, Snow and Canada Goose, Gadwall, Mallard, Cinnamon Teal, Canvasback and Lesser Scaup. From the shelter door, scan the vertical ridge directly west for raptors and swallows.
Next, drive a short way south on Hill Road and follow the signs for the 12-mile Auto Tour. Plan a few hours for this gravel road adventure, making frequent stops along the way to spot water and shore birds, song birds and raptors. Common Nighthawk patrolling in the middle of the day is not an uncommon sight. The last section of the Auto Tour road crosses over high-desert sagebrush and juniper grassland habitats, punctuated by volcanic rock that borders Lava Beds National Monument. Scan for sparrows, towhees, warblers and other scrub-loving species. Raise your binoculars skyward to find raptors and acrobatic Common Raven. And enjoy the spectacular view from this spot. Continue on the Auto Tour road to find your way to paved road, that follow it north to Highway 139 and back to civilization. •