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Cranes and Raptors

I headed out early, with Great Gray and Grasshopper Sparrow.  Our destination was Woodbridge Road just north of the town of Lodi. This road is well known amongst birders as a great place to see wintering sandhill cranes (Antigone canadensis).

We made good time, traffic was light on a Saturday morning and after two hours of travel, we pulled off Highway 5 and headed along a frontage road until we came to Woodbridge Road. Our destination was the Woodbridge Ecological Reserve (Isenberg Crane Reserve), two units, north and south of Woodbridge Road, preserving 353 acres of sandhill crane habitat.

To the right was the North Unit and we pulled into the dirt parking lot and there were cranes in the fields as far as the eye could see and cranes in the air coming and going, their loud bugling calls filling our ears. This was a life bird for young Grasshopper (as many of the birds on this trip were).

IMG_7748I had been to Woodbridge Road a handful of times and there seemed to be more cranes around on this visit than in any other previous visit. The last time I was here, I was looking for the sulky, vagrant the brown thrasher, which I successfully added to my ABA lifelist on December 8, 2018.

After getting our fill of cranes (can you ever get your fill of cranes?) and doing a few field sketches,  we had an ever more amazing crane experience at the south unit. Across the road from the parking lot, in a green field, were perhaps a thousand sandhill cranes. A farm truck drove along the border of the field causing a mass of cranes to lift into the air. What an incredible sight! Hundreds of cranes in the air, their bugling calls, reaching us across the road.

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We were surrounded by birds in all directions, thousands of ducks and coots to our south (and two tundra swans, another lifer for Grasshopper), cracking geese flying overhead in stretched out “V”s, and sandhill cranes everywhere!

We left the Reserve and headed back to Highway 5 South and then headed west on Highway 12 toward Rio Vista. Our destination was the dirt roads and open fields known to birders, collectively, as “Robinson Road”. This area is also known as “Raptor Heaven”.

We headed north on McCloskey Road onward to where the pavement turns to dirt. As we approached the T junction with McCormack Road, I saw a raptor hovering above the field, north of the road. It’s white tailbase blazed bright, identifying itself!

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We rushed out of the truck and headed to the field edge. I told Grasshopper that I would help him find the birds but I wanted him to identify them. We were now looking at a raptor that is never guaranteed at Robinson. I have whiffed on this species many times but McCormick Road had always produced for me. When the hawk wheeled around showing it’s dark belly and carpal patches, Grasshopper said, “Rough-legged hawk!” And he was correct!

At the intersection of Robinson and Flannery Roads, Grasshopper spotted a large raptor on the ground. The bird flew up and we watched our largest hawk, the ferruginous hawk, ride the thermals with an adult red-tail.

Our best sighting of the trip was further down Robinson Road. I saw a large raptor perched near the top of the power tower to our right. We drove a little further down the road so we could get a better view of the raptor. I got the scope on the bird and asked if Grasshopper could identify it. He looked through the scope and after a short time proclaimed, “Golden eagle!”

We got great scope looks of the eagle before it to flew west across the road and caught  a thermal above the fields. It was soon joined by two other raptors that harassed the large eagle by dive bombing the golden from above. The eagle’s assailants where a ferruginous hawk and a prairie falcon! This was certainly a first and an amazing thing to witness. A golden eagle, ferruginous hawk, and prairie falcon, all in one scope view!

Grasshopper Sparrow’s spread of our fantastic day with sandhill cranes!

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The Klamath Basin

Why would anyone drive to the California-Oregon Border with daytime highs perching precariously in the low 30’s and drive on a muddy road in the middle of no where with visibility down to 50 yards? The answer is simple: Winter raptors!

I started my trip at Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. President Teddy Roosevelt established this refuge in 1908, becoming our Nation’s first waterfowl refuge. The Refuge was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965. The refuge contains 50,912.68 acres, which straddles the border of Oregon and California.

The winter raptorland that is the Lower Klamath Wildlife Refuge. Looking south east from the auto route.

One the first day I arrived the visibility was down to 50 yards, making raptor spotting very difficult. My scope would remain in the truck, I didn’t need a closeup view of wintry gray.  Luckily there were a few raptors perched by the roadside of the auto route. None was more wintery than the raptor with leg warmers: rough-legged hawk. This Arctic breeder winters in Northern California and I was lucky to encounter one perched on a road sign, which allowed a close approach in my moveable blind.

Buteo lagopus vacating a roadside sign showing two identifying field marks: feathered legs and a carpal patch. Note the “wonderful” visibility in the background.

The really star of this raptor wonderland is our National symbol, the bald eagle. The Klamath Basin holds the largest winter concentration of bald eagles in the Lower 48. Winter counts can be between 500 to 1,000 individuals. Their peak numbers were still a few months away in late February to early March, a time that coincides with the northern migration of waterfowl.

All of us in the United States are familiar with this bird, indeed it must be the most recognizable bird to all North Americans (yes I also mean youth, dear Canadians). It is on our stamps, posters, trucks, mudflaps, flags, paintings, sculptures, etc. But to see one, let alone a convocation of eagles, is a life experience that all Americans should have. That also includes you, Central and South!

On the first day, full of chilling ground fog, I saw five eagles. But what a difference a day would make.

After a nighttime roost in Oregon at Klamath Falls, I parted the curtains to find the dense ground fog had flown. I changed plans and headed back to the Klamath Basin.

On my second day, the roads and vistas were clear. Perfect for winter raptor spotting. And I had many.

This day can be summed up with one location: Tule Lake. A binocular search made it clear that I needed to set up my scope for a closer look across the frozen surface of Tule Lake. In one 180 degree scan, from the north to the south, I counted 30 bald eagles!

Not the best photo, but this digiscope photo confirms the most bald eagles seen in one view: four! 

Here is the total raptor count for both Lower Klamath NWR and Tule Lake on the morning of December 27:

50 Bald Eagle

33 Red-tail Hawk

14 Northern Harrier

7 American Kestrel

3 Rough-legged Hawk

1 Peregrine Falcon

1 Cooper’s Hawk (being harassed by a kestrel)

An adult bald keeping watch at Tule Lake, Klamath Basin.