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Paddling Upper Klamath Lake brings bursts of birds

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Gary Vequist, left, and Liane Venzke chat will paddling at Howard Bay. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Howard Bay on Upper Klamath Lake is about 77 miles from Medford. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Wocus plants grow abundantly in Sesti Tgawaalds Bay. [Photo by Lee Juillerat]
Howard Bay a gateway to isolated unit of national wildlife refuge

As we unloaded our kayaks at the Howard Bay boat ramp, the midges and other bugs were ferocious, thousands of them weaving their way onto our clothes, hats, sunglasses, ears, neck — everywhere.

Just offshore, Upper Klamath Lake’s water were blanketed with green slime. In some places, the thickets of blue-green algae were so pervasive that it was like paddling on a well-watered lawn.

But believe it or not, it was a great day to be outside. And as we learned, rewards sometimes come from unexpected sources.

From the dock, three of us paddled north in Howard Bay, enjoying a sunny but, because we had an early start, pleasantly warm morning. No smoke from forest fires to obscure our views. No speedboats creating challenging waves. And as we worked our way to open waters, the hordes of buzzing critters decreased and the lake, while never see-through-clear, was less cloudy.

Even better were the sights.

We watched pelicans fly overhead, sometimes gliding just above us, other times back-flapping their wings as they slowed for lake landings, their feet skidding as they hit the water. Gulls in large mobs disconcertingly paddled away, then leaped skyward.

Far more elegant and graceful were flights of Canada geese — not the massive southbound flocks that will fill the skies in coming months, but squadrons of five to 10, honking like entries in a Main Street holiday parade. Also taking flight were mallards, cinnamon teal and other ducks.

The bay’s open waters had scatterings of grebes. But instead of flying, grebes disappeared underwater, later surfacing a distance away. Why, I wondered, do ducks fly and grebes duck?

But the best surprise was the sound as massive flocks of birds suddenly rose skyward in synchronicity from the lake, often a thousand or more at a time. We heard them before we saw them. The sounds they created were for a time confusing, like gusts of wind suddenly blowing through curtains. Only after watching closely did we realize we were seeing and hearing distant masses of birds taking flight.

Nearing the little-visited Sesti Tgawaals Unit of the Klamath Wildlife Area were more visual delights.

But first, some background. Sesti Tgawaals, a name of Klamath origin reportedly translating to “Shasta standing on the end” or “mountain standing on the end,” is an isolated 180-acre expanse of open water, marshes and forest that is part of the Upper Klamath National Wildlife Refuge.

Older maps show the area as Squaw Point and as Squaw Point Marsh. According to Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the managing agency, the marshes are used by migrating and resident waterfowl for breeding, brood rearing and molting,

Our surprise? A fireworks-like explosion of birds as we approached Sesti Tgawaals. From a distance, thousands of birds burst skyward, not in long columns flying relatively low above the lake that we’d seen earlier, but filling the sky like confetti blown from rows of side-by-side cannons.

A short time later, suddenly gusting headwinds discouraged us from paddling to Sesti Tgawaals Point. Staying closer to shore, the return paddle provided closer views of the marsh, some areas choked with bullrush, cattails, wocus and various rushes and sedges.

The columns of birds continued taking flight, flying a short distance then settling, then taking flight again and again if we paddled toward them.

One of our trio, Gary Vequist, believes they were massive flocks of dabbling ducks — possibly gadwalls, wigeons and teals — that forage near shores for water plants, seeds and insects. When the swift flying dabblers leap skyward, their wings flap noisily before they reach level flight. They fly in large flocks for safety during their seasonal southward migrations, using the Klamath Basin’s many wetlands, including Howard Bay, as a stopover.

The intensifying heat shortened our Howard Bay stopover. But as the weather cools and flocks of migrating dabbling ducks and other southbound waterfowl increase, there’ll be more good reasons to see what surprises and rewards Howard Bay and Sesti Tgawaals offer.

Getting There

The Howard Bay boat launch is about 77 miles from Medford. From Medford, take Highway 140 east past Lake of the Woods and Rocky Point to the boat launch, located where the highway reaches Upper Klamath Lake. The signed boat launch parking area is on the east (lake) side of the highway.

Reach freelance writer Lee Juillerat at 337lee337@charter.net or 541-880-4139.