165,000 Acres All to Myself – Stillwater Wildlife Refuge

I had an wonderful time today out at the Stillwater Wildlife Refuge about 70 miles east of Reno. I had only visited this area once years ago before I became interested in photography. I usually don’t think about the Stillwater as a good place to photograph as hunting is allowed 7 days a week during the waterfowl season and it is too hot in the summer. I just needed to get my timing right is all. Today I drove all over this huge refuge and did not see another soul the whole day!
There are several large ponds and lakes dotting the sagebrush plain. The water is the last remnants of ancient Lake Lahontan that covered most of northern Nevada 15,000 years ago. Tundra swans were present as well as ducks and geese. Many bodies of water were dried up, further evidence of our ongoing drought. We started off so promising this fall with good snowfall but January and February have been pretty dry. It is going to be another tough year for wildlife here this summer.
I was disappointed that I did not see any deer, antelope or coyotes but there were plenty of birds. I got the best photos I have ever been able to take of a Meadowlark. They are so skittish but this one stayed put for quite awhile as he sang his spring song. My earliest memory is hearing a Meadowlark like this one when I could not have been more than two out behind our house in the sagebrush. It always takes me back to hear one.
I saw lots of Tundra Swans and sparrows and some herons that were flew off before I could get any pictures. The birds were all very wary no doubt as a result of the recently closed hunting season. I was hoping to see snow geese but they all seemed to have moved on.
I will definitely make more trips out to Stillwater. It was an amazing experience to have it all to myself. I don’t know if I could possibly get that lucky again but I think with 165,000 acres if one or two other people showed up it would not be too crowded would it? 😉

More from the Klamath Basin

More from the Klamath Basin
I want to show more photos of this wonderful place. I took a lot of photos and have been busy editing and culling them. It always takes me a long time to get through everything from an extended shoot. I have some landscape photos here so that people can see what the refuge looks like. I am not a landscape photographer though I attempt it now and then. This trip I was definitely focused on trying to get wildlife shots and just took a few snaps of the surrounding landscapes.
The Refuge itself is a beautiful place. That mountain looming over the horizon is Mount Shasta and it is visible from most points. The white birds are Tundra swans and they were present in the thousands. I was not able to get any good close ups of those. I will try to on a repeat trip I have planned. Apparently I was a bit early for the truly amazing numbers of swans and snow geese that will be stopping over at Klamath in a few weeks on their northward migration. The noise was deafening at times just from these swans. An eagle would fly over them and they would erupt in loud calls and confusion. I think the eagles just did it for fun now and then. They acted pretty casual about all the geese and swans knowing that if they wanted one they could take one anytime they felt like it.
Of course there are other species of birds and animals on the Refuge and I was fortunate to get photos of a Great Horned Owl and this immature bald eagle. I was able to get the closest I have ever been to Great Blue Herons and saw plenty of herons as I drove around. I am looking forward to seeing hundreds of Sand hill cranes when I go back in a few weeks. Took this bad photo of the eagles roosting high up in cottonwoods just to show the numbers you could see of them in one place.
I reserved a blind for a couple of mornings and sat in it for hours in 20 degree weather hoping an eagle or two would land in that tree that I photographed. I was told that sometimes up to 30 will roost in the tree for hours. You have to be in the blind before it gets light and then you must stay in it until you are ready to leave. It was a cold and uncomfortable experience. The blind was too small for me to stand up in and I felt claustrophobic in it in addition to freezing. No eagles showed up and I felt like I wasted valuable time. I am far too hyperactive to try it again anytime soon. I am slowly overcoming my fear of the dark I think; at least in very wild places…

Red-tailed Hawks

Red-tailed Hawks seem to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the Raptors. While visiting the Klamath Basin Refuge last week, I saw and had the opportunity to take lots of photos of them but I seemed to be the only person interested in doing that. Several times people would stop to ask me what I was looking at or photographing and as soon as they saw or I told them it was a Red-tailed hawk they would make a face and drive off or say something like, “Oh those are so common, we are looking for eagles, or roughies.” Red-tails are common but no less beautiful than the rarer birds. I think people passed up some good opportunities to watch and photograph this wonderful species. They are incredible hunters and the fact that there are a lot of them does not make them any less interesting in my opinion.

Rough-legged Hawk

Rough-legged Hawk
I went to Klamath for the eagles but left there with an interest and appreciation for a completely different bird. I am not sure if I have ever encountered the Rough-legged hawk before but was captivated by the beauty of this raptor from the far north. They are widely distributed over North America and Eurasia. They breed on the tundra and in open areas eating small rodents such as lemmings and voles. They winter in southern parts of the U.S. and Europe. I was lucky to see one pounce on a mouse and get shots of it eating it. Hope that those pics don’t offend anyone. I met several other birders on the refuge who were looking for Roughies as they affectionately called them. They are sought after by photographers as they are quite photogenic. They have feathering all the way down their legs and even on their toes as an adaptation to keep their legs warm in their cold habitat hence their name.

Eagles at Klamath Basin

I will admit to having a bit of the winter doldrums. It has been so cold for so long that most open water is frozen over and other than the birds that visit my backyard feeder, the places I visit have seemed empty and sterile. I belong to an online Birding Photographer site and was becoming envious of all the wonderful exotic places full of wildlife and birds that people were visiting. I started daydreaming of visiting some of the legendary places that kept being mentioned like Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico and some different far flung destinations that I can’t realistically visit. That led me on a research hunt to find places I could go that were within reach. It seems silly that I did not realize or have the awareness that California, right next door, had so much to offer in the way of wildlife. Of course it is on the Pacific Flyway and has many refuges. I have overlooked all of this as I usually am oriented to looking east into the desert for inspiration. All of this led me to a weekend trip to the Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge Complex on the California- Oregon border.
Visiting the refuge was an amazing experience that I will definitely repeat. During the winter months the Refuge plays host to the largest concentration of Bald Eagles in the contiguous United States with up to 1000 eagles visiting some years. Millions of waterfowl pass through the refuge on their way south for the winter and back north. The eagles come to take advantage of the bounty. In addition to the eagles there are lots of other raptors that winter there and live on the refuge year round. The amount of and diversity of wildlife I saw was amazing. Sometimes I hardly knew where to point my camera it was so overwhelming.
I rented a 500mm lens for a month so that I could use it on this trip and another outing I have planned in a couple of weeks. I am glad I did as it was nice to have the additional reach that my 400mm would not have afforded me. Speaking of affording, I will have to save my pennies for a 500mm of my own. It was pretty nice using this lens and will be a sad day when I have to send it back. That was what I was practicing with and for prior to this trip. I will be making several posts about visiting the Klamath Basin and showing photos from my visit but wanted to start with the rock stars of the Refuge: The Bald Eagles. Hope you enjoy!