The Klamath Basin Birding Trail: Where to Go and What You’ll See
From forest woodpeckers and keen-eyed goshawks in the high country of the Cascade Crest to the waterfowl- and wader-thronged marshes and lakes of the lowlands, the Upper Klamath Basin boasts incredible avian diversity. When you consider the range of habitat (and mighty scenic habitat, mind you) and the Basin’s location smack dab along the great migratory corridor of the Pacific Flyway, this little corner of the Northwest is among the most fruitful birdwatching hubs anywhere in the country.
The Klamath Basin Birding Trail showcases this spectacular year-round birdwatching. Whether you’re a hardcore birder with one heck of a “life-list” or a more casual all-around nature enthusiast, a safari along the Birding Trail is a fine way to sample this area’s feathered bounty. The trail includes 47 stops on both sides of the Oregon-California border and in addition to the birds spotlights the sheer splendor of the area’s ecosystems and landscapes.
The Klamath Basin’s Bird Diversity
From homebody residents to far-traveling migrants, from chockablock common to thrillingly rare, more than 350 bird species have been recorded in the Upper Klamath Basin.
That impressive tally isn’t surprising when you consider the area’s geographic position and ecological palette. A billion or more birds funnel along the north-south Pacific Flyway each year, no small proportion right through the rich stopover, nesting, and wintering habitats of the Upper Klamath. The ecosystem spectrum of the Basin—subalpine conifer forest, pine savannas, juniper woodlands, sagebrush steppe and grasslands, the wet meadows of Klamath Marsh, the open waters of Upper Klamath Lake—provide both resident and migratory birds with varied and productive habitat.
The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex, which includes six refuges hugging the Oregon-California line, is reckoned to host 80 percent or so of the waterfowl that migrate along the Pacific Flyway. Not only that, but the Upper Klamath Basin welcomes the largest population of wintering bald eagles in the Lower 48.
Each and every native Upper Klamath bird is special, of course, but here are some yearly highlights of the Birding Trail’s geography:
Eagle Bonanza: More than 500 bald eagles hailing from as far away as the Northwest Territories of Canada spend the winter in the Upper Klamath Basin, offering some of the best opportunities anywhere on the continent to see America’s national symbol. The Basin also supports the biggest nesting population of bald eagles in Oregon.
Dance of the Grebes: One of the most extraordinary sights in wild America, the synchronized courtship “dance” of western and Clark’s grebes is well on display on the shining lakes of the Upper Klamath Basin in April and May.
The White Giant: In spring and summer, Upper Klamath Lake, Tule Lake, Agency Lake, and other major water bodies in the Basin play host to one of the champion avian heavyweights of the Western Hemisphere: the American white pelican. This snow-white titan, which makes even a bald eagle look a bit undersized, boasts a wingspan up to 12 feet across, making it a champion soarer. It’s big and rigid-winged enough to be mistaken for a small plane. Just as dramatic as the sight of a pelican squadron on high is the species’ feeding routine, which sees a swimming flock dipping their pouched bills underwater—often in marvelous synchronicity.
The Elusive Yellow Rail: An interesting disjunct breeding population of this marsh bird, otherwise mainly found in central and eastern North America, calls the Upper Klamath Basin home in spring and summer and offers quite the prize for western birders. Tough to spot in their reedy haunts and nocturnal to boot, yellow rails are sometimes drawn into view by mimicking the male’s distinctive “song,” which sounds like a couple of stones being tapped together.
Neotropical Songbirds: The Pacific Flyway funnels a dazzling diversity of neotropical songbirds—species that nest in temperate North America and winter down in Central and South America—through the Upper Klamath Basin: many kinds of warblers as well as western tanagers, flycatchers, Swainson’s thrushes, and others. From brushy High Cascade understories to thickets and brakes in the valley wetlands, these little feathered dynamos summon spring in flits, flashes, and melodies.
Some Top Stops Along the Klamath Basin Birding Trail
You can’t go wrong anywhere along the Klamath Basin Birding Trail, from the timbered heights of western Klamath County to such great spots just across the border in California as the Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, and Clear Lake national wildlife refuges. The following Klamath County stops give you a representative taste of the world-class birdwatching to be found along the trail.
Stop #2- Crater Lake National Park
One of the world’s most stunning lakes would, of course, be worth seeing regardless of its birding potential, but needless to say that potential also happens to be a prime draw. The conifer forests enveloping the flooded crown of Mount Mazama conceal such mountain birds as blue grouse, northern goshawks, and multiple kinds of flashy woodpeckers, and neotropical warblers migrating along the Cascade Crest. Outcrops, talus, and snowfields in the park draw gray-crowned rosy-finches, which nest at some of the highest elevations of any North American bird. Even amid the mighty snowdrifts of winter, you can see birdlife at Crater Lake—those glossy, bearded, croaking ravens, for example, are year-round residents.
Stop #3- Klamath Marsh National Wildlife Refuge
Hemmed by grasslands and ponderosa forest, Klamath Marsh is one of the numerous wetland jewels of the Upper Klamath Basin, and a must-see spot along the Birding Trail. In spring and summer, test your waterfowl-I.D. skills amid all the dabblers and divers—cinnamon teal, buffleheads, ring-necked ducks, gadwalls, and more—and enjoy glimpses of nesting sandhill cranes, bald eagles, and black terns. This is also a good place to look for the shy yellow rail.
Stop #17- Rocky Point/Upper Klamath Canoe Trail
Some of the best birding at the spectacular bird hotspot of Upper Klamath Lake is done by boat. Among multiple places to launch for an on-the-water birding cruise, Rocky Point offers access to the 9.5-mile Upper Klamath Canoe Trail. You may see white pelicans, terns, herons, egrets, bald eagles, ospreys, and—in the shoreline vegetation—a wide variety of songbirds, especially during spring migration.
Stop #29- Putnam’s Point Park
Situated at the southern end of Upper Klamath Lake right in Klamath Falls, Putnam’s Point is accessible as can be—and just about the best spot in the Basin for nabbing a view of the springtime dancing displays of western and Clark’s grebes. This choreographed show tends to peak between late April and the middle of May.
Stop #33- Klamath Wildlife Area: Miller Island Unit
Set along the Klamath River just downstream from Klamath Falls, the Miller Island Unit provides reliable viewing of wintering bald eagles as they hunt and scavenge among the area’s great waterfowl flocks. This is just a stone’s throw from the major nighttime eagle roosts in Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge. In late winter and early spring, you’ll get to marvel at droves of Ross’s and snow geese readying for their northbound flight, while spring and summer serve up views of nesting sandhill cranes and, eventually, their youngsters (“colts”).
Regardless of whether you decide to explore the whole of the Klamath Basin Birding Trail or just enjoy one stop at a time, the bounty of avifauna is sure to impress. Grab your binoculars and cameras and set out to see if you too can take part in spotting the amazing birds, waterfowl and, rare species that call this beautiful region home.
Written by Ethan Shaw for Matcha in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.