According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, more than 45 million people take part in birdwatching each year—and, along with other wildlife watchers, they contribute more than $75 billion to the U.S. economy. Those birders spend more than $40 billion annually on trips and equipment, and they spend nearly $15 billion in the local communities they visit.
Clearly, birding is big business in the United States.
There may be no better place to birdwatch in the U.S. than in Klamath County, Oregon. The Klamath Basin is unmistakably bird country. Located along the Pacific Flyway, the largest flyway in North America, it is one of the top birding locations in the nation and is one of the largest migratory stopovers for birds in the western United States. Birding in Klamath is a year-round activity with natural high-elevation valleys surrounded by mountains. The region contains diverse habitats from desert lakes, wetlands and rivers to rain forests along the edges of the Cascade Mountain range making this area a birder’s paradise.
More than 350 species of birds stop in the Klamath Basin while migrating along the Pacific Flyway every year, and—unsurprisingly—the region hosts the nation’s oldest birding festival. So what makes the Klamath Basin, sandwiched between the Cascades and the high desert in southern Oregon, such an attractive destination for birders? And how can you enjoy the region’s world-class birding scene? Here’s a quick guide to getting started.
Why Klamath County?
First and foremost, Klamath County sits along the Pacific Flyway, a major migratory bird route that stretches from Alaska to Argentina. As such, roughly a million migrating birds make a stop in the Klamath Basin every winter. The Klamath Basin is also home to a wide variety of ecosystems that accommodate and cater to different migrating species. Within the region, you’ll find desert lakes, open meadows, wetlands and marshes, rivers, forests, and other bird-friendly ecosystems.
Finally, the Klamath Basin offers numerous protected areas to guard against poaching and human intrusion. In all, the region hosts six national wildlife refuges that comprise nearly 200,000 acres of forests, lakes, grasslands, and other protected habitats. The Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, for instance, is popular with bald eagles. In recent years, upwards of 300 have been known to roost at the refuge in a single night.
When Should You Go Birding in Klamath County?
There’s no bad season for birding in Klamath County, but we’re partial to winter. Here’s why: For starters, that’s when the bulk of the million migrating birds will descend on the region. Whether you’re looking for bald eagles, hawks, falcons, or western meadowlarks (the official state bird of Oregon), you’ll never enjoy better odds for seeing some of these spectacular birds than in winter. In addition to the variety, you won’t fight a crippling climate while you’re out on the lookout. The Klamath Basin enjoys roughly 300 days of sunshine every year, and it sees just 14 inches of rain—roughly one-third of what Portland gets.
Every President’s Day weekend, Klamath Falls hosts the four-day Winter Wings Festival. The oldest birding festival in the country offers more than 40 activities for birders and photographers, including field trips, photography discussions, presentations, workshops, and more.
The Winter Wings Festival had an unusual beginning, prompted by the plight of Bald Eagles in the 1970’s. With help from the Portland and Eugene Audubon chapters and the Klamath Basin Wildlife Refuges, the first Bald Eagle Conference was held in Klamath Falls in 1980. Professionals and conservationists discussed how to maintain the Bald Eagle’s habitat consistent with the politics of the day and the economy of the area. The Klamath Basin Audubon Society (KBAS) began sponsoring the Bald Eagle Conference in 1984, which continued annually until in 2005 it was expanded and renamed the Winter Wings Festival.
Today the Festival draws hundreds of visitors from all over the country throughout Presidents’ Day weekend each year. Headquartered at the Oregon Tech campus, festival activities take place in the city of Klamath Falls and around the Klamath Basin. It takes over 100 volunteers to produce the Festival, which is known across the birding world for its excellent organization.
But if winter’s chill keeps you away, you’ll find something to love all year long. Hundreds of thousands of ducks and geese migrate through the region every fall, shorebirds and waterfowl travel through the region every spring, and birders can watch 200,000 ducks, geese, and herons between May and August.
Where Should You Go Birding?
In winter, you are likely to view the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states – which is highlighted by the annual Winter Wings Festival. The festival is a celebration of the thousands of eagles, hawks, swans, geese, and other waterfowl that flock to the area every winter. This incredible concentration of wildlife can be viewed from nearly anywhere in Klamath. Upper Klamath Lake, Link River, Lake Ewauna, Miller Island, and all six of the USFWS National Wildlife Refuges surrounding Klamath are some of the most renowned hotspots to view this winter spectacle.
Written by Dianna Samuels and Anne Wenner, the Coordinators for the Winter Wings Festival and local Audubon experts, in partnership with Discover Klamath Visitor and Convention Bureau.