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Silent Confrontations in Klamath Basin

The two Prairie Falcons are playing in the wind currents along the face of the cliff, shrieking and crying. One carries the hindquarters of a long-tailed rodent, pausing at times to land and rend its prey and eat, or sometimes simply eating on the wing. Another perches on an old hawk nest and screams. Watching them, something opens in me: a moment of grace.

This is why I go birding.

The Prairie Falcons weren't unexpected; we came here to Petroglyph Point hoping to see them during our weekend in Klamath Basin, a high-desert section of the Klamath River watershed that straddles the California-Oregon border. The wetlands in this area host millions of waterfowl wintering or migrating along the Pacific Flyway each year, and the largest congregation of Bald Eagles in the lower 48 states. The eagles are opportunists who come to scavenge on dead and weakened geese and ducks. Their numbers peak in February, just before the waterfowl begin winging their way back to northern breeding grounds.

It would be interesting to know if the eagle diet (and distribution in the region) varies now from what it was two hundred years ago, when salmon were bountiful in the Klamath River watershed.

A field of dozens of Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, a few coyotes, and ravens cavorting overhead. Lower Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge. More photos from the trip:

The eagles attract humans who are fond of wildlife in general and raptors in particular. We’re a good economic complement to the hunters who visit in the fall; we fill motel rooms for another weekend or two. It’s my opinion that birders/environmentalists and hunters have more in common than most people realize, and would be good allies in conservation. But our culture seems to demand polarization, splintering us all into ineffective handwringers, harpies, and blowhards

Birders come for the seasonal eagle peak, but also for the other raptor species that reside or winter in the basin and surrounding valleys. A bountiful ground squirrel population competes with local alfalfa and potato growers but also provides food for raptors. We come here to see species which are comparative rarities in the San Francisco Bay area: Ferruginous Hawks, Rough-legged Hawks, Golden Eagles, and Prairie Falcons.

Bald Eagles and magpies on an irrigation rig.

I’m drawn to Klamath Basin, time after time, by the birds — but also by the open vistas; by the reflections of water in all its forms; by the blues, reds and golds only seen here. Overlaid on this are the great flocks of birds, cacophonies of ducks and geese. It is one of the great landscapes of the American West.

Sometimes, for a moment, you might feel as though you have stepped back into time, into an untouched land still blessed with an abundance of wildlife; the way things used to be.

Even a cursory look at the facts will quickly disabuse you of this notion.

Petroglyph Point, where the falcons are shrieking above us, is best known for its collection of images carved into the rock. The point was an island in Tule Lake; signs tell us that canoes were paddled to the cliff face so that images could be carved into the rocks, perhaps six thousand years ago.

Much more recently, in the 19th century, the Tule Lake region was inhabited by the Modocs. European immigrants, wanting the land for themselves, moved the Modocs first to a reservation in southwestern Oregon, where they were at odds with the Klamath tribe with whom they were grouped. Kintpuash was a leader known also as “Captain Jack” —by most accounts, because of a US army uniform coat with brass buttons that he wore. The Modocs themselves reportedly used these nicknames, though they sound derogatory and mocking now: Scarfaced Charley, Queen Mary, Hooker Jim, Bogus Charley.) He led about 180 Modoc people back to the Tule Lake area.

There they were quickly at odds with the whites, and violence escalated in a series of battles and siege known as the Modoc War. Kintpuash were eventually captured; he was convicted of the murder of General Edward Canby and was executed by hanging in 1873. His head and that of the other executed leaders was severed and sent to the Smithsonian Institution. (These and other remains were finally returned to the family in 1984.)

Kintpuash in 1864 (left) and in 1873 shortly before he was hanged.
“You white people have driven me from mountain to mountain, from valley to valley, like we do the wounded deer. At last you have got me here. I see but a few days more ahead of me.”
“You people can shoot any of us Indians any time you want to whether we are in war or in peace. Can any of you tell me where ever any man has been punished in the past for killing a Modoc in cold blood? No, you cannot tell me. I am on the edge of my grave; my life is in your people’ hands. I charge the white people of wholesale murder. Not only once but many times.”
— Kintpuash, as quoted in Indian History of the Modoc War by Jeff E. Riddle

This story, in and of itself, is as fascinating as it is horrific. There was never any dispute as to whether Kintpuash killed Canby, but how he was pushed into it by others and what led up to that action are worth further exploration.

Today, the site of the siege and surrounding area is known as Lava Beds National Monument. Nearby is the site of the Tule Lake War Relocation Center — a concentration camp where over 100,000 Japanese Americans and others were imprisoned during World War II.

Settlers in 1850 reported that the Klamath River teemed with salmon in numbers so great that their horses refused to cross. The oddly named US Bureau of Reclamation began a large-scale project to drain the wetlands of Klamath Basin in 1905, converting them into areas for agriculture and settlement. Today, less than 25% of the original wetlands remain. Those that do remain are parts of six National Wildlife Refuges. The former watershed is now intensively managed by humans using a system of dams and controlled water release, with the ensuing political battles over water that are common in California. A drought in 2001 and subsequent battles over water use lead to the disastrous 2002 fish kill that became a short-lived media sensation. Some salmon and steelhead species are already extinct in the river; the others are nearly so.

I’ve been coming to Klamath Basin in February for about ten years now, off and on.

Though I’ve never had any outward confrontations, It’s always a contentious trip in my own mind. The people who live in Klamath Basin, Butte Valley, Poe Valley, and surrounding areas are largely farmers and ranchers. Their livelihood and their ability to care for their families seems to depend on diverting water for farm irrigation (through dams which block salmon and also provide hydroelectric power) and using fertilizers which create problematic agricultural runoff (concentrated in the reservoirs created by those dams). Signs with slogans like “Water for People, Not Fish” used to be common. I didn’t notice many of these signs on the trip this year, and I don’t know why. I know that the issues haven’t gone away; they've gotten worse. As they have, it feels like we talk about it less.

Though this is a Mecca for birders like me, whose cars crawl through the wildlife refuges after autumn’s hunters have left, you don’t see a lot of signs of ecotourism. I always feel that this is a place where you may not want to display your National Audubon Society bumper stickers. I always feel like we hush ourselves when we’re around locals, but we stay alert for comments we might discuss among ourselves later. I always feel like the locals are doing it, too. Sometimes I make comments about moving here someday; housing is relatively cheap and it’s easy to romanticize sunrise with calling geese and eagles in the air. My friends always point out that that my neighbors would probably not be sympathetic to my values. They’re probably right (Though sometimes I feel like I have more in common with potato farmers than birders in trim hiking clothes and shiny Swarovski binoculars. I grew up with neighbors who were potato and alfalfa farmers, in Ohio.)

Caravanning around rural roads, looking for places to stop and watch interesting raptors, is a place where I find bliss…cold looks by ranchers in pickup trucks notwithstanding. The diversity of raptors who winter here is astonishing to someone from the Bay Area. In addition to the Bald Eagles, Red-tailed Hawks are abundant, many of them are the dark, gorgeous rufous-morph birds. Ferruginous Hawks, Rough Legged Hawks, and Golden Eagles are also commonly seen, often sitting on the ground or on irrigation rigs in the fields as squirrels run shockingly close to them. There are just so many squirrels. That’s part of why the hawks come here.

The squirrel population is inflated by agriculture. Alfalfa cultivation creates conditions that are good for the squirrels. Locals call them “diggers” (California Ground Squirrels) and “squeaks” (Belding’s Ground Squirrels), and they are a big problem for the farmers. The rodents are everywhere; in Butte Valley we saw a field so teeming with Belding’s Ground Squirrels that it made my skin crawl. We hear sporadic gun shots and sometimes see men with guns in the fields, trying to eradicate as many as they can, but that seems like a losing proposition. The shooting shocks some who come to watch birds. To anyone who understands farming on a practical rather than theoretical level, the question hangs in the air: if the ground squirrels ruin the fields, if the water isn’t made available before it flows through the Klamath National Forest, how will farmers provide for their families?

In another valley, further north, we found a field with a spectacular selection of Bald Eagles and other raptors.

Bald Eagles of various ages on irrigation rig and on the ground.

Bald Eagle plumage varies dramatically during their first five years and “aging” Bald Eagles is an interesting puzzle that goes beyond just identifying the species. We're bird geeks and we love this kind of stuff. So we spent some time at that stop.

While there, I noticed activity on the other side of the road. Two men are carrying plastic buckets as they walk through the field. It’s impolite to point binoculars at people or houses (and we get enough stony looks from ranchers as it is), but I watch them as discretely as I can without drawing more attention to them. They're not picking things up; they're dropping things they pull from the buckets. They're not planting; they stop and look and drop irregularly in the field. I realize that they're probably dropping rodenticide. Rodenticide that the squirrels eat and that moves up the food chain as the hawks eat the squirrels.

Watching eagles with farm workers in the field behind.

Rodenticide is another battle happening in California. Organizations like Raptors Are the Solution are working to get dangerous rodenticides out of the marketplace by pressuring manufacturers and passing legislation to ban anticoagulants and other poisons that kill throughout food chains. Rodenticide is the easiest and least expensive way to clear a field of squirrels fast. It is also the most damaging, leading to horrific deaths of birds of prey and other predators.

I feel helpless. Part of my helplessness is based on my own uncertainty…I don't know for sure what those farm laborers are doing. Part of it is based on social norms of our culture…extraordinary circumstances are necessary to intervene when strangers do us indirect harm. I don’t even really want to talk about it with the people I’m with too much. I feel like I’m in such a position of privilege, to be able to take a long weekend to come out here with binoculars and snacks and play like this. I know that not everyone has that opportunity. So who am I to criticize? Also, speaking up about what’s happening sometimes may mean that I have to endure hysterical handwringing of people who think they know all the answers and don't understand their own place of privilege. That only enrages me further. I don’t know everyone in this group well, so I stay quiet.

I wanted to confirm my suspicions about the substance being dropped in the field. It’s easy to confirm that rodenticide pellets are indeed sold in those kinds of buckets, but I wanted to feel more certain before I wrote about the experience. I called one of the neighboring wildlife refugees and navigated a phone tree before suddenly being connected to a biologist. I think he was as surprised as I was to suddenly be having an actual conversation — and just as uncomfortable.

I had a few questions to ask him, but I was particularly interested in what I’d seen in the field. I described it to him and he confirmed that there was a good chance that I was in fact seeing rodenticide use. He said he also had misgivings about it, preferring shooting (though he pointed out that lead bullets create problems, too). He grew up in the region, and told me that shooting squirrels was like ringing a dinner bell for the hawks and eagles…they fly in when they hear it, looking for an even easier meal. But his misgivings about the poisons were tempered by his own family history. Environmentalists from the Bay Area, he felt, want to see things done on their terms, without regard for the decisions that would be made people who actually live in the areas affected. And the people who live here don’t appreciate urban-dwellers imposing their will via the ballot box.

It’s an uncomfortable conversation for both of us. Neither one of us wants to stick our neck out, and we both clearly see a situation that’s complex. We want to have a civil conversation, but at the edges are places where we’re not willing to compromise. I’d choose eliminating the rodenticides, by ballot box or any other means.

The conversations with my environmentally minded friends usually reach an impasse, too, for other reasons. We’re science-minded, of course, and we stick to our guns about data. If you don’t have data to back you up, you shouldn’t make assertions — right? And even with data, what you can actually assert is couched in details that make everything fuzzy. Animal populations in healthy ecosystems often rise and fall in cycles. And migratory bird populations are even more difficult to pin down. If the birds aren’t here, maybe they’re somewhere else.

The weather was warmer on this trip to Klamath Basin that it’s been on my previous trips. I can’t say that’s due to climate change, of course…anecdotal experience based the occasional three-day visit over a decade isn’t data. The ducks, geese, and other birds tend to congregate where there is open water, and since it’s not cold enough to freeze, the open water is spread out. “The birds are spread out,” we hear from the rangers at the refuge offices, and we quote this to each other during the trip like a mantra.

But I can’t shake the feeling that there are just fewer birds. I remember huge noisy flocks, streaming V’s in the sky anywhere I looked, and I’m just not seeing it on this trip. (I didn’t see it on another visit to the Sacramento River delta a few weeks earlier, either).

The birds are spread out, we tell each other. One year doesn’t make a trend, we explain. Nature operates in cycles. We need more data. I guarantee, if you go on a birding trip with nature geeks and you say something about it seeming like there are fewer birds than before, someone will challenge you by pointing out that one day of observation doesn’t make a trend, that populations are cyclical, that conditions can cause it to seem that way, and they will (hopefully gently, but sometimes not) imply that what you’re saying doesn’t have any scientific validity.

On the way here, we passed Lake Shasta, surrounded by a red bathtub ring and trees that look like kindling. I was away for three years, and the others in the car tell me the water level looks a lot higher than it did the previous two years, but it still looks incredibly ominous. Further along, we pass through the Little Deer fire area, where over 5000 acres burned the previous fall…just one of 5,620 wildfires in California during 2014 that burned over half a million acres.

Little Deer fire area.

My experience is that there are fewer birds, less water, higher temperature, more wild fires. And the data backs me up on a lot of that. But I’m not the type that can confidently quotes statistics (or even research them well to write something like this.) And I’m not the kind of person who can enter a vigorous debate over them in a political arena. I hate the media circus around these things. And my ideas of what to do about it are completely impractical (to humans at least).

I’d rather try to tell you how it feels to stand next to 6000-year old rock carvings, on the shore of what was an ancient lake, and experience grace in the form of shrieking Prairie Falcons, feathers stained with blood, navigating the air with an ease that is a mockery of the earthbound and those who must endure mental notions like time, values, consequences.

I’ve been here before and I am just going to stick my neck out and say this:

There are fewer birds.

We leave the cliffs, and caravan onward, past Captain Jack’s Stronghold and then to the “visitors center” at Lava Beds National Monument. It feels strange to pass through and not talk about the Modocs who were here a scant 150 years ago. Only 150 years; a blip in time. The rock carvers of the culture who lived here 6000 years ago would probably consider me to be more or less a contemporary of Kintpuash, people of the same future epoch. We're really part of the same story.

But I don’t bring it up.

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