Excursion at Tule Lake: Birding with a Message
The snow thankfully cleared just in time for students and staff to travel to Northern California this month for our field course “Raptors & Waterfowl of Lower Klamath Lake,” the culmination of a special partnership created between SFI and the Tule Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Thanks to the refuge’s generous collaboration and sponsorship, we were able to offer this class to students free of charge, and hear an in-depth presentation on the history and current condition of the refuge from Interpretive Park Ranger Stephen Rooker.
Under blue skies, students gathered to learn about many local raptor and waterfowl species, both regular residents and those on their spring migration northward, from instructor Bud Widdowson with the help of his wife Margaret. Both are avid birders who have chased birds around the world. Bud himself has seen half the world’s bird species!
The class appreciated Bud and Margaret’s keen eyes and ears as we searched out bird activity from our slow-moving caravan across the refuge. Despite dry conditions in the basin, it was a day filled with lots of wildlife – we caught a canyon wren’s sweet song echoing off the hillsides, saw harrier hawks flitting over the landscape in search of prey, spotted a coyote slinking past flocks of white-fronted geese at rest in a flooded field, dissected owl pellets found surrounding roadside roosting spots, and spotted a prairie falcon perched high on the undulating cliffs of Petroglyph Point. Other species spotted included mountain bluebirds, American kestrels, killdeer, ring-necked pheasants, and cinnamon teal, just to name a few!
Examining owl pellets and other remains from raptors’ meals
Challenges Facing These and Other Wetlands
Importantly, the class also learned much about the current challenges facing the Tule Lake NWR and the greater Klamath Basin. Historic drought and a complex water management history has led to water shortages for many stakeholders in the area. The intersection between the needs of waterbird populations, endangered fish species, farmers, tribes, government agencies, and residential water use makes for a difficult balancing act in allotting increasingly scarce resources.
The refuge has certainly felt the effects of this scarcity. Flooded tracts in the refuge that used to support 5-7 million birds migrating along the Pacific Flyway, now see only a few hundred thousand avian visitors. Wetlands worldwide are incredibly important habitats because of the dense diversity of species they support – roughly 5% of the earth’s land area is composed of wetlands, and up to 40% of its species will rely on that wetland habitat at some point in their life cycle. Wetlands are biological powerhouses, and even more so in the high desert habitat of the eastern Klamath Basin.