CHASING DOWN THE MUSE
Frost settles mist-like over the rust colored alfalfa fields as I
drive slowly along the earthen dikes in the Klamath Wildlife Refuge.
Gold light marks the end of day and the waning sun shimmers on flocks
of Canadian geese as they root for grubs within the spent grain.
Barely visible within the tall stalks, their long necks and social
“cackle and honk” ruffle the chilling air.
Cameras, tripods and water bottles fly as I slam on the brakes and
leap from the SUV. Binoculars and camera dangling, I crouch low on
the side of the road. There, tucked among the geese, are the objects
of my journey. Two majestic black bodies topped with snow colored
heads stand tall in the cold field -- bald eagles.
The bald eagle was chosen on June 20, 1782, as the emblem of the
United States because of its long life, great strength and majestic
looks. It is the only eagle unique to North America. Its scientific
name, Haliaeetus leucocoephalus, signifies a sea (halo) eagle
(aeetos) with a white (leukos) head. At one time the word “bald”
meant “white,” not hairless.
The bald eagle is found over most of North America, from Alaska
and Canada to northern Mexico. About half of the world’s 70,000 bald
eagles live in Alaska, with another 20,000 reside in British
Klamath Basin is a mix of shallow freshwater marshes, open water,
grassy uplands and croplands that are intensely managed to provide
feeding, resting, nesting and brood rearing habitat for waterfowl.
Geographically, it sits in the midst of the Pacific Flyway, one of
three major migratory bird patterns in the United States. In mid-
November, more than one million birds stop over in the basin.
Called the “Everglades of the West” because of its great diversity
and abundance of fish and wildlife, the area is host to five national
wildlife refuges: Lower Klamath, Tule Lake, Clear Lake, Upper
Klamath, Bear Valley and Klamath Marsh.
Lower Klamath was the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, established
in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt “as a preserve and breeding
ground for native birds.” More than 80% of the western migratory
birds use the refuges’ wetlands. In the winter months, they provide
the essential habitat for the largest concentration of bald eagles in
the lower 48 states.
The basin is in the middle an environmental crisis. Only 80% of
its original wetlands remain, and the quality of water is degraded by
chemicals used in agriculture and the ravages of drought.
It is the only wildlife refuge in the U.S. that allows broad scale
commercial farming. Bureau of Reclamation land practices have
allocated and diverted water from the Klamath River to farmers in the
region where onions, alfalfa and potatoes have consistently been
rewarded at the expense of herons, geese and eagles.
After a major salmon die-off in October, 10 conservation groups
filed a lawsuit to challenge the current administration’s
mismanagement of these wildlife refuges. The groups have asked the
federal courts to order the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to review
current policies of giving commercial farming interests precedence
over wildlife in low water years.
Cold stings my fingers as the light fades. My water bottle slips
to the ground and startles the eagles.
They had been keenly aware of me before, but now, uneasy, one
stretches forth his enormous dark wings and takes to the air. The
second follows, and the pair soars low across the grain. Their
strength and grace inspire reverence.
So how is it that we, having duly named these incredible creatures
our national emblem, could allow anything to threaten their health
The marshes of Klamath Basin and the salmon in the rivers provide
their winter home and sustenance, respectively. Without healthy
wetlands, the eagles suffer from a weakening of the species and
As they wing their way out of sight, I am saddened, but also
filled with conviction. To lend my voice to their plight seems like a
small start. To do whatever I can to protect their habitats, and
those of other wildlife, a mission.
Information on litigation can be found through The Wilderness
* CATHARINE COOPER is a local designer, photographer and writer
who thrives off beaten trails. She can be reached at
email@example.com or (949) 497-5081.