Visit one of the world’s best spots for watching bald eagles

Bald Eagle Fly-In at Klamath Basin

Snow, scavengers, and sex in the sky

Laurie McAndish King


Each winter, just as surely as frost laces the trees and ice begins to silence the wetlands, hundreds of bald eagles congregate in a “fly-in” at northern California’s Klamath Basin. The weather is numbing, but if you’re willing to rise before dawn and brave sub-freezing temperatures, you’ll witness one of the most spectacular events a wildlife enthusiast will ever see.

One icy day in early February I joined a dozen or so other raptor fanatics at the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge. We had spent the night in an unheated cinderblock motel, catering mostly to duck hunters. It was a daunting start, but I was game; bald eagles are awe-inspiring birds, and I wanted to see them up close.

The eagles’ eyesight is said to be so sharp that they can see a fish from a mile away, or a rabbit from two miles. They can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour in a dive. They can carry the heaviest load of any bird; although bald eagles weigh ten pounds, on average, one was once documented carrying a fifteen-pound mule deer fawn.

Up well before sunrise, we drove through early-morning darkness to reach the eagles’ night roost, a deciduous forest on a sheltered slope. The bare-branched trees, stark black skeletons outlined against a dim, snowy hillside, provide easy perching, roosting, takeoffs, and landings for bald eagles that cluster here at night.

That morning, we witnessed hundreds of the majestic creatures rising in the thin post-dawn air. The dark brown bodies and snow-white head-and-tail plumage of adults, along with their impressive size — average wingspans approach seven feet — made the raptors unmistakable. They labored upward one by one and then wheeled together in a “kettle” of 50 or more individuals, spiraling in a lazy vortex on a rising thermal.

A group of dozens loitered in treetops and on the ground less than 100 yards from the road, occasionally fighting for morsels of scavenged food. One immature eagle was particularly persistent, trying — without success — to steal a scrap from five other birds in succession. We watched for hours as the eagles stood in the snowy field, soared skyward with effortless ease, and dove from the heavens for prey.

Best of all was the eagles’ unforgettable courtship ritual: A pair climbed so high they were nearly invisible, circling one another with elaborate swoops and chases. Then the two birds locked talons and cartwheeled head-over-tail, plummeting in a death-defying freefall until the very last moment before crashing to earth, when they separated and glided off in apparent nonchalance.

Flying in from as far away as Alaska and the Yukon — some have traveled well over a thousand miles — requires a lot of energy. But the rewards of wintering in Klamath’s extensive shallow marshes and grassy uplands, where nearly two million waterfowl also spend the winter, are great: The weakest birds make easy prey.

With a backdrop of 14,000-foot Mount Shasta to the southwest, the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge is well worth a trip for humans, too. Established by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908 as the nation’s first waterfowl refuge, it’s now a National Historic Landmark. So it’s fitting that our national bird is among the more than one hundred avian species — ducks, geese, swans, cranes, other waterfowl and shorebirds — that find food and shelter here.

Bald eagle and Mt. Shasta

We haven’t always treated the bald eagles well, despite the fact that they’re our national emblem. In the early eighteenth century they were a common sight on much of the continent, where as many as half a million lived. But America’s growing human population hunted the magnificent birds. We shot them and trapped them and poisoned them. We disrupted their habitat and food supplies. We polluted the environment with DDT, severely impairing the eagles’ ability to reproduce. By the 1950s, barely 400 nesting pairs remained in the lower 48 states.

Bald eagle at Klamath Basin

The Bald Eagle Protection Act of 1940 and the Endangered Species Preservation Act of 1966 helped turn the tide, and banning the use of DDT in the United States in 1972 saved our national bird from extirpation. Today there are as many as 10,000 nesting pairs in the lower 48 states — and northern California’s Klamath Basin is one of the best places to see them.

If you go, dress warmly! (Locals say the colder the weather, the more eagles there are.) Optimal viewing is in January and February; during the mid-February peak as many as 500 bald eagles congregate in Klamath Basin.

For more information, check out the Klamath Winter Wings Festival or visit the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge website.

An Elephant Ate My Arm

A version of “Bald Eagle Fly-In” was published in An Elephant Ate My Arm: More True Stories from a Curious Traveler — a collection of stories about some of the world’s most distinctive places. The book won first prize at the 2021 Paris Book Festival, and is available from Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA; from other independent bookstores at IndieBound; and online.



Laurie McAndish King

Award-winning travel writer and photographer specializing in nature and culture.