Soaring with the eagles
March 17, 2006
It has become a running joke in our family whenever we take a vacation that at some point along the drive we gaze up at the treetops and wonder aloud, “Think there are any bald eagles up there?” The humor was long ago lost on Roni, who for much of her life has wanted to see one of these majestic creatures in the wild. In recent years we have traveled through some prime eagle habitat -- Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana -- and had never seen so much as a stray feather. During the winter months the news wires fill with photos of eagles frolicking in the snows of Alaska, congregating along the banks of the Mississippi River in Iowa, and cruising for salmon in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. But it never seemed that we were in those places when the birds were there, so the photos remained a tantalizing reminder of the thing we wanted to see but never could. Until now.
After our most recent cross-country excursion to New Mexico yielded yet another eagle-less trip, Glenn made a promise that come February, Roni would at last get to see her bald eagles. We researched the Internet and soon discovered that one of the best winter eagle-viewing locations in the lower 48 states was just a day’s drive away, on the Oregon-California border at the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. If all the posts on those discussion boards were to be believed, there we could see literally hundreds of bald eagles and other raptors soaring through the treetops, feasting on prey, and huddled together in groups amid vast meadows filled with waterfowl. THAT was where we wanted to be.
So we made plans for a whirlwind eagle-viewing expedition to Klamath Falls, Ore., over the President’s Day weekend. We booked a motel room, packed some essentials, and were on our way bright and early that Saturday morning, tolling up Interstate 5 with high hopes and in good spirits. Despite our ample research and weeks of getting him pumped for the trip, Ben, always the skeptic, wasn’t so sure of our plans. “We aren’t going to see any bald eagles,” he said flatly. “Well, we hope you’re wrong,” Glenn replied. And that was pretty much how we left things for our 400-mile drive that took us from Oakley to the Oregon border.
It seems to be our lot that no trip we take is without questionable weather. This time it came in the form of a big Alaskan storm front that decided to take a California vacation the same weekend we did. It blew in on Friday night, adding a rare dusting of snow to the top of Mount Diablo. Temperatures in the Bay Area were down in the low 30s. If things could get that cold in our mild home climate, we could only imagine what we might be in for farther north. We left Redding with some trepidation, unsure if our decision to travel without tire chains was foolhardy. But as luck would have it, the foul weather had mostly passed through overnight, and the skies although gray failed to deliver the winter wallop they might have.
As we drove on we counted down the degrees on the car thermometer the closer we got to our destination and the later in the afternoon it got. Thirty-two... 31... 30... We saw a few snowflakes on the windshield. Twenty-five... 24... 23... Down and down the numbers went -- numbers we had never seen before on our car’s gauge, a new record set with every degree.
We were all thankful to arrive at the Quality Inn in Klamath Falls sometime around 4 p.m. The sun was still out and the roads were clear. But the reminders of the previous night’s snowfall were all around us. The parking lot of the hotel was still blanketed in fresh snow. A few cars parked near our room had icicles hanging from their running boards. We got into the room and whoooo! Somebody turn on the heater! It wasn’t long before we decided to abandon the arctic freeze of our room for some dinner at the local Applebee’s. The town was mostly asleep by the time we headed back to the hotel. The downtown was all lit up with lampposts and strings of mini lights. It looked like it might have been an interesting place to explore under daytime and warmer conditions.
But we hadn’t come to see Klamath Falls. Apparently we hadn’t come for a good night’s sleep either, because we all tossed and turned until the clock radio alarm sounded at 5 a.m. We’d planned it that way, believe it or not. The secret to viewing bald eagles, we’d learned, is that you have to wake up before they do. The eagles rise before dawn and depart their night roosts at Bear Valley National Wildlife Preserve just as the sun makes its appearance in the east. Bear Valley was a 16-mile drive from our motel, which meant we had to head out in the Sunday morning darkness to get there in time.
It didn’t take us long to wake up and hit the road. By 5:30 we had packed our bags in the trunk and were sitting in Glenn’s car waiting for the heat to kick in. We checked the thermometer -- a mere 15 degrees. We just bundled our jackets a little tighter and tried to ignore the temperature. Heading south on Highway 97 we had the road virtually to ourselves. A dim orangey halo was just beginning to make its appearance over the mountains to the east when we reached the turnoff to Bear Valley, a simple dirt road that led to a public viewing spot. We knew we had found the right place by the headlights that already were lined up along the road’s shoulder. At least a couple dozen other hardy (foolhardy?) souls also had chosen to brave the morning chill and waited in groups with their binoculars and camera gear at the ready. One entrepreneurial couple had set up a folding table behind their minivan and were selling hot beverages and snack items. Probably came out every morning to hit up the tourists.
We’d been standing in the freeze for perhaps 15 minutes and were starting to question our sanity as the sun rose and the temperature fell and so far no sign of eagles. Actually, no sign of anything. We now could see the ranch houses up the road and wondered what the residents thought of this daily circus. The maps all said this was a wildlife viewing area; little had we imagined that we would be the wildlife being viewed!
It was about then Glenn looked up and said excitedly, “There’s one!” We all trained our eyes on the shadowy raptor that floated a few yards above us, too far away for good photos, but close enough to clearly make out the white feathers of its head and the broad wingspan. Roni ignored the odds and snapped off a few frames with her 35mm Minolta. The eagle circled lazily and then faded into the hazy dawn. It was just the start of the show.
Within minutes, more eagles were spotted overhead. They came in groups of three, five, nine, rising up from the pine trees on the western ridge and circling above the vast meadow where most of the bird watchers kept their equipment trained. Considering how many times we had tried unsuccessfully to spot even one eagle in the wild, this was like a scene out of some fantastic dream. We watched the departing birds for at least a half hour until the sun was firmly in the sky and parts of our extremities had started to go numb. Snuggling back into the car once more we started the engine and checked the temperature gauge: 8 degrees.
At a time when most sane people were barely stirring in bed on a cold Sunday morning, we were clipping along Highway 97 across the state line for phase two of our eagle-watching expedition. We hooked up with California Highway 161 and made our way east to the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge where we had read that one could see large congregations of ducks, geese, egrets, hawks and, oh yes, bald eagles. It didn’t take too long before we spotted one perched on an old fence post along a levee road. A few feet away sat another one. They were being stalked by a man and woman with photo gear. We pulled off the highway and tried to follow the photogs to get a closer shot, but by then the eagles were on to the humans’ little scheme. One bird took off, and the other moved a few yards farther from the highway. Eventually we attracted a convoy of eagle watchers, who all pulled off the roadway between our two cars. “There were two here a moment ago,” we told the new arrivals. “Last year here we saw eight of them all at once,” someone replied.
This was encouraging news. If someone had seen eight at once here, then maybe we stood a good chance of spying more than just the two we had seen. We drove a little more until we reached the entrance to the refuge. Normally there’s a $3 fee per carload, but seeing as how it was a holiday weekend the park service waived the entrance charge. We would have happily paid it for all the eagles we eventually saw. The refuge wasn’t at all like we expected, although we had seen some photos in advance on the Internet. The place is literally tens of thousands of acres of fields and wetland ponds divided from one another by a series of earthen levee roads. The roads were in decent shape despite being covered in snow. Signs direct visitors on a 10-mile driving tour around the refuge, and if you look carefully you are guaranteed at least one eagle per field, oftentimes more.
The longer we drove, the more birds we saw. The baldies tend to be loners. They stake out a spot in a field near a flock of geese or ducks and act like they’re minding their own business, but the whole time they’ve got their eagle eyes scanning the area for prey. Sick and injured birds are a staple of the eagle’s diet. We saw several of them feeding on what appeared to be fish, although they were too far away to make out their meals clearly. Of all the birds at the refuge the eagles seemed to be the most wary of humans, rarely closer to the road than about 100 yards. We brought binoculars, but at only 420mm the lenses were underpowered, and we wished for about double the focal length.
The highlight of the day came as we were nearing the end of the driving tour, where in one of the fields we counted at least seven and possibly as many as nine baldies. They were easy to see because all the other birds gave them a wide berth. It was a scene reminiscent of a “Wild Kingdom” episode where all the lions are lounging around on the African veld watching the caribou. When one of those giant raptors takes flight, every other bird takes notice. When an eagle soared in the direction of a gaggle of Canada geese, the geese bolted in all directions in a flurry of feathers and a cacaphony of honks. There were so many birds that even when they weren’t making a sound you could hear the collective roar of their beating wings.
By 10:30 the temperature had warmed to a balmy 17 degrees and we were ready to hit the road. We had heard that the nearby Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge was an even better spot to see eagles and thought we might take a quick drive in to check it out, but somehow we missed the turnoff and wound up following the road west until we reached Redding a couple of hours later. No one was disappointed, however, as in the space of five hours we managed to see a couple dozen eagles in flight at Bear Valley and maybe another three dozen kicking back at Lower Klamath. That’s 60 more wild eagles than we’d seen in 18 years of traveling and easily enough memories to last a lifetime.
The Great Fence Project of 2006 is proceeding nicely. Last month we told you about our unfolding plans to begin work on replacing the side fence that separates our property from that of our neighbors to the northwest. The good news was that our neighbors, Gustavo and his family, offered to chip in for the cost of materials and were amenable to letting us choose the style of fence we wanted to build. Having just spent the previous month rebuilding several sections of the back fence board by board, Glenn wasn’t eager to repeat the labor intensive performance so soon.
Fortunately we found a decent compromise. Home Depot sells prefabricated redwood panels in 3- and 8-foot sections where all one has to do is set 4x4 posts and attach the panels to them with deck screws. They were only slightly more expensive than building with individual planks, but the ease of installation made the expense worth it.
We placed an order for about three-grand worth of wood at the pro desk and then waited a few days until the big flatbed came and dropped it all on our driveway Friday, March 3. On Saturday morning we began bright and early moving all the stuff onto our back patio. Eager to help, Gustavo assisted with transporting the heavy 8-foot panels, then he and his son joined Glenn in a demolition fest as they took down the decrepit pile of firewood that was the old fence. That effort cleared the way for Glenn to begin work Sunday morning digging post holes and mapping out the property line.
Glenn took his time on the first five panels, which had to be built in stair-step fashion as they are located on a slope that runs from the back fence down toward the front of the property. Each morning before leaving for the newspaper he worked for three or four hours, making progress at the rate of one panel per day. The work has been hampered by poor weather. A series of cold storms moved into California beginning the last week of February, bringing steady rainfall that has continued through the middle of March. There were several days that Glenn battled wind and rain in order to set a single post so that he could stay on track to finish the project by March 17. Currently he is two panels and a gate shy of the finish line.
The panels themselves are attractive. They include a lattice top that should allow our honeysuckle to grow around the slats during the summer. Roni is already talking about plans for what types of plants we might want to grow along the fence line.
Our other big news this month was Ben taking his first overnight trip away from home and his parents. On Feb. 28, a couple hundred sixth-graders at Ben’s middle school packed into yellow school buses and headed west to Walker Creek Ranch in Marin County for four days of what was supposed to be fun in the sun. That was the day the first of the big storms moved in, so what Ben actually got (besides a cold) was four days of downpour. That didn’t dampen his fun, however, as the students took part in nature hikes, dance parties, campfire sing-alongs, and a day at the beach. It was a big step for Ben, who reluctantly decided to attend the camp after he learned his friend Joey would be there. Ben had plenty of misgivings about being away from Mom and Dad and his cat Eevee for so long, but after a day to adjust to the experience he did great. We celebrated his return home March 3 with a Saturday night barbecue. Ben admits he had a good time, but he doesn’t think he’s ready to attempt summer camp, as Mom suggested he might want to do.
Knight Ridder, the media company that owns Glenn’s newspaper and 31 other U.S. dailies, was sold March 12 To McClatchy Newspapers for several billions of dollars in cash and stock. But in a bizarre twist, McClatchy will immediately divest itself of a dozen of its purchases, including Glenn’s paper. The sale won’t close until sometime in early summer, which means we’ll have to wait until then to find out who the actual new owner will be.
That’s about it for this month. We’ll try to stay dry for the meantime, and root for spring to arrive soon.
Glenn, Roni and Ben