The Klamath Basin of Oregon and California has one of the highest concentrations of wintering North American bald eagles in the Lower 48 states. Since 1978 — through the eagle’s endangered species listing period and its 2007 delisting — three national wildlife refuges have collaborated to keep the concentration high. And since 1978, basin residents have celebrated the United States’ national bird with a February gathering.

The refuges are Bear Valley, Lower Klamath and Tule Lake. The gathering is the Winter Wings Festival, based at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. Bear Valley Refuge is 4,200 acres of old–growth forest high above the basin. It was established in 1978 to protect a vital night roost site for wintering eagles. Research and monitoring there has been (and remains) important to eagle recovery.

Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges, together almost 90,000 acres in the basin below, are where those roosting eagles often perch and feed on winter days.

The three refuges are not the only local winter roosting and feeding areas for eagles. There are scores of others. But the relationship among the refuges’ habitats helps ensure that, from November to March, the basin is a great place for eagles.

Bear Valley Refuge is closed to the public in deference to the eagles and adjacent private landowners. However, on auto tour routes at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges visitors in winter can almost always see eagles. That’s because, in winter, the eagles’ food is there.

Eagles typically roost at night in wooded areas. Bear Valley is ideal because its large coniferous trees shield resting eagles from wind. Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex manages that habitat to keep it ideal.

With the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fire program and the Bureau of Land Management, the refuge complex has overseen commercial timber harvest of small trees and removal of overgrown brush to protect the roost from wildfire.

“We just finished the last sale, and it’s amazing,” says complex manager Ron Cole. The habitat is “just much more open, much more diverse now. We’re seeing a lot of different native plants coming back. And the most important thing is that we protected the roost.”

On a typical winter day, the eagles descend at dawn in search of waterfowl. Eagles fish in summer. But in winter, when wetlands are frozen, they scavenge. They will sit for hours on branches, utility poles or other perches at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake Refuges.

“They will watch a bird go through the throes of avian cholera until the bird is completely helpless and not able to move hardly at all, but if it is not dead that eagle will not go over and touch it,” says Cole. “It will wait until death takes over and then go over and start having breakfast.” Eagles feed a couple times a day before returning to the roost around dusk.

Photo of pine trees
Bear Valley National Wildlife Refuge, 4,200 acres of old–growth forest high above the Klamath Basin in southern Oregon, provides ideal nighttime roost habitat for wintering bald eagles. (Bill O’Brian/USFWS)

Cole estimates the winter eagle population in the Klamath Basin at 500, but it can reach 1,000. One winter (2008–2009) the number included “Stephen Colbert Jr.,” a banded eagle adopted by the Comedy Central television show host.

Each February, eagles are featured at the Winter Wings Festival. The festival, which traces its 35–year lineage to a more technical bald eagle conference, is set for Feb. 13–16, 2014. Last year, it drew 1,500 participants and included 60 field trips, workshops, talks and receptions.

“We’ve evolved to be one of the most popular festivals on the West Coast,” says Diana Samuels, a coordinator of the event. Last year, attendees “identified more [avian] species than ever before — more than 130 species. Much of the draw is related to the diversity and numbers of raptors.”

Eagles are the main attraction, though. Last year, roughly 140 people awoke before dawn to see eagle flyouts from usually–closed Bear Valley Refuge.

And beyond the festival, the eagles’ effect on visitation at Lower Klamath and Tule Lake is “huge,” says Cole. “You can’t not stop and look at them. This is a really big, big bird, and since you were a kid it was probably one of the first birds that you ever knew the name of … People come every year, and they just look at them. I haven’t gotten tired of seeing them. I get a little bit immune to their presence when they’re at a distance, but when one comes by I don’t care what I’m doing I stop and kind of go, ‘Wow, that’s cool’.”

Video Online

A video related to this article, “Winter at Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges,“ is on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service YouTube page: