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In a world with more than its share of quirky people, “bird nerds,” those guys and gals who blissfully drop everything to catch a glimpse (or a photo) of a rare, winged critter visiting Siskiyou County, are some of my favorites. They are no more fanatic than geocachers, people into extreme ironing (yeah, it’s a real thing) or competitive dog groomers (also a thing). At least birders can justify their enthusiasm based on a love for the outdoors, healthy ecosystems and the undeniable beauty that can be found in our feathered friends.
Siskiyou County is something of a bird Mecca. One reason so many different types of birds come to Siskiyou is the diversity of the landscape. Siskiyou offers rugged, remote mountain settings, abundant water, thick forests, high chaparral and numerous wetlands.
While there are plenty of well-known places to spot birds in Siskiyou County, rare birds can literally turn up just about anywhere. I’ll never forget the day I looked up in a tree and there, no more than 15 feet away, was a big pileated woodpecker (think Woody Woodpecker), a bird I had longed to see in person all my life.
Although you may be able to find a plethora of birds all around Siskiyou County, there are four distinct places that bring with them many kinds of feathered creatures. Here are the bets places to go bird watching in California’s far north:
Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge
Sandwiched in between Dorris and Tulelake is America’s very first designated National Wildlife Refuge. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908, it was also designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The refuge includes shallow marshes, plenty of open water, grassy uplands and cropland managed for providing foraging and breeding habitat for waterfowl. Wildlife refuges were established as a reaction to the wholesale slaughter of migratory birds popular in the 19th century.
Habitats within Lower Klamath range from wetland marshes, upland dry sage brush, wooded forests, farmland and open water habitat, which provides feeding, nesting and brood rearing habitat for large amounts of wildlife.
The Klamath has about 3,100 acres of wetland habitat, making it a great spot for finding waterfowl in the winter. The area’s 8,000 acres of upland habitat also makes it a great spot to find birds like the Western Tanager in the spring.
Just a few of the birds you might encounter in the Lower Klamath include bald eagles, golden eagles, American white pelicans, white-faced ibises, snow geese, Ross’s geese, greater white-fronted geese, Canadian geese, peregrine falcons, northern pintails, mallards, gadwalls, canvasbacks, western grebes, eared grebes, black terns, and (as mentioned) tricolored blackbirds.
We’d suggest picking up a copy of Field Guide to Birds, Western Region by the National Audubon Society. You can cross reference any bird by color, shape, bird type (if you know it) and size until you find what you’re looking at, and then learn more about it including a detailed description, what sounds like, what habitat it prefers and what parts of the country you’re most likely to find it in.
Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge
Just below the Oregon state line near Newell, Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge has a lot of open water and leased crop lands, attracting primarily water birds. Within the refuge is a 12-mile (paved and unpaved) all-season road kept open to wildlife viewing all year long. There are also two hiking trails for viewing wildlife eyeball to eyeball, the Sheepy Ridge Trail and the Discovery Marsh Trail. Visit the Visitors Center for trail access, as well as information on recent bird sightings.
Despite Tule Lake’s proximity to the Lower Klamath, you’re bound to find different species of birds at this refuge. The area provides great access to the birds’ habitats in order to get photography up close without spooking them.
A few of the varied birds you might run into include Clark’s and Western grebes, American white pelicans, white-faced ibises, tundra swans, northern pintails, snow geese, Ross’s geese and greater white-fronted geese, bald eagles, golden eagles, prairie falcons, Boneparte’s gulls, barn owls, Caspian terns, loggerhead shrikes, northern shrikes, rock wrens, Bewick’s wrens and canyon wrens, Townsend’s solitaires, mountain bluebirds, common bushtits, spotted and California towhees.
January and February is a terrific time to visit if you like viewing bald eagles. They begin migration to the Klamath Basin in November where they come from as far away as Canada’s Northwest Territories and Glacier National Park. The number you might encounter at peak times is over 500 bald eagles, a thrilling sight to be sure.
For more information visit https://www.fws.gov/refuge/tule_lake/ or call (530) 667-2231.
Butte Valley National Grassland
Located between Dorris and Macdoel along Hwy. 97, this is a very lonely, stark landscape. In a state with a population of almost 40 million people, Butte Valley stands in lonely contrast. I’ll never forget spotting the largest golden eagle I’ve ever seen there, a genuine four feet tall in a sitting position.
Near the Meiss Lake area is a great spot to see watefowl and shore birds alike. Other than the lake, Butte Valley is conspicuously dry compared to other areas, making it a great place to encounter raptors like golden eagles, prairie falcons, and red-tailed, Swainson’s and Ferruginous hawks. It’s pretty high in elevation (4,200 feet) and consists primarily of flatlands and an ancient dry lakebed.
Butte Valley was dedicated in 1991 and is America’s 20th designated grassland. What Butte is rich in (besides birds) are crested wheatgrass and rodents… hence all the raptors.
Birds that visit Butte Valley include Swainson’s hawks, golden eagles, bald eagles, merlins, and sandhill cranes. In the winter, you are more likely to see red-tailed hawks, ferruginous hawks, rough-legged hawks, northern harriers, American kestrels and prairie falcons. Great horned owls, short-eared owls, and long-eared owls are more active at night, so are best encountered at dawn and dusk.
For more information go to: https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/klamath/about-forest/?cid=FSEPRD494406.
Lava Beds National Monument
Birds obviously don’t know that Lava Beds National Monument was not created for them. This is a wonderland of landscape that’s been turned upside down and inside out. With over 800 caves, you might see a few winged mammals also flying around in the evening. Nevertheless, the Lava Beds is another terrific place to go birding. The monument is located just south of Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge off of (ahem) Lava Beds National Monument Road.
Although Lava Beds isn’t the most “birdy” place in Siskiyou County, it’s a great place to match some birdwatching with another outdoor activity. Besides lots of caves, birds and bats, Lava Beds is also a great place to learn about the Modoc War (1872-3), Captain Jack’s Stronghold, 4,500-year-old Native American petroglyphs and rattlesnakes (optional).
Bring a good pair of binoculars, and you are likely to see at least some of the following: Bald eagle, tundra swans, Redheads, Canadian geese, White-Crowned Sparrows, Red-tailed hawk, canvasbacks, Prairie Falcon, Great horned owl, barn owl, Townsend’s Solitaire, Western meadowlark, horned lark, rock wren, canyon wren, white-headed woodpecker, dark-eyed Junco, yellow-rumped warbler, sharp-shinned hawk, pygmy nuthatch, purple martin, Lazuli bunting, Western Bluebird, scrub jay, Northern Harrier, Brewer’s sparrow.
Keeping a bird list is a very satisfying experience, I kept one in the car for two years (along with my Audubon bird book) noticing birds and writing them down with each new sighting. Though it may sound a bit underwhelming, I found myself getting really excited every time I spotted some bird I hadn’t seen before, or birds that were genuinely rare in the North State. The unexpected benefit was that I really learned the birds. It’s pretty rare these days when I spot one that I haven’t seen before.
Get a bird book, grab a pencil and paper and get out there. Siskiyou County is a terrific place to be a “bird nerd.”
Chip O’Brien is a regular contributor to California Fly Fisher and Northwest Fly Fishing magazines, and author of River Journal, Sacramento River and California’s Best Fly Fishing: Premier Streams and Rivers from Northern California to the Eastern Sierra. He lived in Redding, California, for eighteen years, where he was a guide, teacher, and regional manager for CalTrout.