Twenty bird watchers, some from as far away as Missoula, Mont., waited in the subfreezing dawn on the road to Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge south of Klamath Falls for an expected flyover of hundreds of bald eagles.
We trained our binoculars and spotting scopes on a ridge where the eagles regularly fly from their protected roosting spots to the lakes, ponds and irrigation canals of the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge in search of breakfast.
All we saw at that location was a pair of magpies cruising the tops of pine trees a mile away. The much-anticipated migration of eagles is dependant on weather in more northerly climes, and most of them had simply not migrated south by the time we went looking for them three weeks ago.
A couple hundred eagles have since arrived, we hear, but a trip to Klamath Falls is well worth a winter birding visit even without a glimpse of our national bird.
"Everyone knows about the eagles and hawks," says Klamath Basin Audubon President Kathy McKeehan. "Right here in our town, we have this excellent place where you can see it all."
The Link River cuts through the city of Klamath Falls, joining Upper Klamath Lake at the northern end with Lake Euwana at the south. A mile-long trail parallels the river, open to the public 24/7.
"It's an easy walk, you don't have to go far," McKeehan says. "You can make it an all-day walk or a short jog. It's teeming with birds."
In the winter, most open water — from the flooded irrigation lands in the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge to Upper Klamath Lake — is frozen over. The waterfowl in those areas converge on the rare patches of open water, such as the paths through the ice cut by boats of duck hunters.
The Link River, however, flows freely this time of year, so it attracts many species that thrive in open water, be they waterfowl, shorebirds or songbirds.
"During this year's Christmas Bird Count, our team on the Link River Trail added six species seen nowhere else on the count," says David Hewitt, also a Klamath Basin Audubon member, and one who has a passion for the Link River corridor. "It seems to be one of those places that holds the unique species that you don't get anywhere else in town."
A great place to park for this one-mile hike is Veteran's Park, just off Highway 97. Walk over the bridge to reach the south end of the trail. On the north end, use the parking lot by Putnam's Point on Lakeshore Drive, just east of Moore Park.
You'll pass by an electrical powerhouse near the south end of the trail, but something more unusual will catch your eye.
"Every winter in the daytime you can find between 200 and 300 black-crowned night herons roosting in a few trees at the south end of the trail; that's pretty phenomenal," says Hewitt.
As you walk north, keep your eyes and binoculars trained on the smaller birds, as well.
"It's also a good place to pick up sparrows, like fox sparrows, song sparrows, even Lincoln sparrows," Hewitt explains. "If we have late warblers, like if orange-crowned warblers stick around, that tends to be the place where we get them."
In each of the past three years, Hewitt has spotted a pair of northern mockingbirds from the trail.
Near the north end of the trail, you'll reach a dam. The water impounded behind the dam is relatively ice-free, so waterfowl congregate here.
At the trail's northern end, continue walking a few more minutes to reach Putnam's Point at the south end of Upper Klamath Lake. You might even see the black phoebe — uncommon this far north — that's been spotted there recently.
From Putnam's Point, it's a walk of a few more minutes west on Lakeshore Drive to Moore Park. You'll find the forest-dwelling birds here among the many trails that wind and wend through this public preserve.
Nuthatches, wrens and kinglets are some of the more common types of birds you'll see in the park, though wait until noon for the sun to warm up the forest for winged ones to venture from their nests.
"Almost every winter I've been here we've found a northern pygmy owl (in Moore Park)," says Hewitt. "It's also a good place to find woodpecker species: northern flickers, red-breasted sapsuckers, downy and hairy woodpeckers. White-headed woodpeckers and acorn woodpeckers, too "… they are pretty unusual in Klamath Falls in the winter time."
The park also hosts many raptors, as well as swans and geese. On the rarer side, says Hewitt, the park may be the only place in Klamath Falls in the winter where you'll see a California towhee or a western bluebird.
If you're considering a migration to the Link River Trail or Moore Park, one of the best winter birding opportunities in Klamath Falls arrives the weekend of Feb. 17-19.
The Winter Wings Festival, the nation's longest-running annual bird festival, will offer lectures and workshops by nationally acclaimed ornithologists and photographers. For beginning and advanced birders alike, February is the perfect month to migrate to Klamath Falls.
For information on the Winter Wings Festival, see www.winterwingsfest.org.
The Klamath Basin Audubon website is www.eaglecon.org.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. You can reach him at email@example.com.