Rogue Birder, ch 2, Dam It

Dam It

With the confidence of discovering something new to spice up the day’s list of sightings, with the wide array of habitats to find those birds, it is no wonder a Rogue Birder can spend a lifetime checking out all the places Rogue birds might be hiding. The valley is ringed with public property including national forests, a national monument, land administered by the Nature Conservancy, Bureau of Land Management, and by state and county agencies. In minutes, it is possible to be near cool timberline and down to devilish hot Upper Sonoran habitats.

As already chronicled, Rogue Birders love sampling the terrestrial habitats from the headwaters of the Rogue River to the rocky top of Mt. McLoughlin, beating the bushes, walking the oak groves, cruising the forests and scanning what remains of grasslands. Besides the moving streams, Rogue Birders also frequently aim their binocs and scopes at the numerous bodies of water scattered from the low valleys to the mountains. The bigger the body of water, at least in the Rogue watershed, the more likely we might chance upon a loon, maybe an unusual gull and, of course, shorebirds.

While an early, wet behind the ears Rogue Birder, my birding was drier than those of the more mature Rogue Birder. However, older birders, if they wished to bird wet habitats, then had fewer wet habitats to bird. In the early days, not so many streams had dams, but as time progressed, more and more dams produced more and more wet habitat. Of course there is good and bad wet habitat. However, I am getting ahead of myself. Suffice to say, damming streams and the evolution of being a Rogue Birder are related. For example, again, not getting too far ahead of myself, many Rogue Birders enjoy birding at Agate Lake, a good place for certain species, but probably the lake is to the demise of nesting Horned Larks. Nonetheless, damming streams did and does have an impact on birds and birders, both good and bad.

Anyway, back in the early years, I was attempting to learn the dry birds, the land birds within walking or biking distance. The drier years encompassed early birding experiences sometimes along creeks and rivers weaving to the bottom of the Rogue River watershed, but most searches for Rogue birds did not regularly include wet habitats. Then, the thought of more or less regularly spotting loons on placid waters and gulls and shorebirds mudding their feet at the shore was but a dream.

Countless small farm ponds and other impoundments occupy the valley and mountains of the Rogue watershed. My collection of topographical maps showed that most of ponds are small and inaccessible to birders but larger bodies of water are relatively available for public consumption and habitat to test the waters of a more mature Rogue Birder.

08 Coast, Table R, Mt Ashland 031

                                              Impoundments along Rogue River

Probably the first impoundment of what ducks like that I ever saw, as a Rogue inductee, was Kelly Slough, the name given to water backed up by Savage Rapids Dam. Bear Creek flows into the Rogue River just upstream from the dam site. The native Upper Tekhelma Indians, called the creek Si’kuptpat, which means dirty water. During my early birding days, my parents warned me to stay out of Bear Creek since raw sewage produced Si‘kuptpat. My first viewing of Savage Rapids Dam was during pre-birder days, when my father drove the family to an overlook to watch salmon struggle up a fish ladder. Since that day, I almost annually witnessed the migrating salmon, but each year the number of fish dropped. As for birding the region, the area below the dam site has been in my Christmas Count area for the last half-dozen years now. I never birded the Kelly Slough, except superficially from land. My respect for the water kept my curiosity at bay. Floating on water, especially cold Rogue River water, was for ducks and brave people.

Content that my Christmas Count area was the best birding by a dam site was good enough for me. I could count on hearing a winter Spotted Sandpiper over the roar of the dam. Savage Rapids was first built as a log dam in 1904 and, in 1931, remodeled with concrete and steel. The wetland behind the dam, Kelly Slough was never adequately surveyed for birds. It must have been a good home for many species. It must have been as the dam was removed in 2010.

The other major body of water in Rogue territory is Emigrant Lake (about 2200 feet in elevation) east of Ashland. It is really a reservoir, but I appreciate the optimism of whoever names things, those christening reservoirs as lakes. Emigrant Lake has been there since 1924. I had just cracked open my first Peterson when, in 1958, I overheard my parents talking about the earthen dam that was to be enlarged to hold water in an upside down horse shoe shaped reservoir, I mean lake. Early birding did not include Emigrant Lake. My first Rock Wren was on nearby Pompadour Bluff and I recall driving by on route 66 to cross the Cascades. The Rogue country’s route 66 is a dangerous curvaceous state highway that clings to the side of steep Emigrant Creek Valley. My direct experience with Emigrant Lake has mostly been the stepchild of high school reunions; the first of a few I attended was the 25th. It was a scary thing. These gatherings are traditionally in August. Whose idea was that? Emigrant Lake is hot in summer and August could not be hotter. Worse, the water level is barely going down enough for shorebirds. Now, a Rogue Birder, the late years, hopefully not the last years, certain shorelines of Emigrant Lake are not bad for sandpipers and cousins. Of course, not unlike ocean beaches, you and the shorebirds compete with charley dogs, the dogs of traveling tourist and visiting locals, the dogs that chase away anything that moves. My apologies to Steinbeck.

Just up route 66 and a little over 5,000 feet in elevation are Hyatt and Little Hyatt lakes, reservoirs dammed in the 1920’s along Keene Creek in the Greensprings, part of the Cascade Mountains. Just down the ridge, maybe 500 feet in elevation and to the north is Howard Prairie Lake created in 1957 and 1958, just as I was becoming an embryonic Rogue Birder. It is interesting, at least to me, that in the 1920’s people were naming water created by a manmade dam as reservoirs, but later were calling such bodies of water lakes. The term lake seems a romanticized name for water backed up by a dam. Garbage dumps would soon become landfills and reservoirs become lakes. The Hyatts, both big and small, and Howard Prairie are technically not within a Rogue Birder’s Territory (RBT). Any natural drainage of these lakes flows as part of the Klamath watershed. The unnatural drainage flows to the Rogue Valley by a system of clever irrigation canals that would make engineer George Washington proud. Even so, Rogue Birders often claim these Klamath tilting lakes as their own, as part of Rogue Country. After all, the irrigation canals wet Rogue orchards and fields. Purple Martins nesting in snags standing in Hyatt Reservoir proved the species breeds in southern Oregon and attracted Rogue Birders. More recently, I have heard Soras whinnying at Little Hyatt Reservoir. Flotillas of ducks and geese, sprinklings of grebes and Sandhill Cranes standing guard at Howard and Hyatt attract Rogue Birders like finches to a bird feeder.

There are two, huh, lakes in the Cascades that are in the Rogue River watershed. One is Fish Lake, which actually started as a natural lake, but beginning in 1902, someone decided to dam it. The lake, sitting nearly at 4800 feet in elevation, is now larger, but like Willow Lake (elevation 3,065 feet), the other major natural body of water draining into Rogue Birder Territory, or RBT, receives less attention from birders. My last Fish Lake experience was in winter, when it was frozen. My birdmobile handled the drive to the snowy shore, but when I got out, I nearly slipped on the icy road. The trees were full of Mountain Chickadees, Steller’s Jays and some probable species of Red Crossbills. Never mind, the crossbill story will have to wait. That day, on the crystalline Fish Lake, might have been birdless had the mixed flock and I not just happen to cross paths. Otherwise, the coniferous forest in the was stone cold, lifeless.

The Rogue watershed eventually included more reservoirs, sorry, I mean lakes, but that did not happen until after my Rogue Birding was curtailed by a stint in the Navy, where I did not see stints or other sandpipers. These new bodies of water also puddled after I became a happy member of the Department of Interior, which is a different chapter in the life of being a Rogue Birder.

The new wet habitats began as Agate Lake, a small, yes, reservoir east of Medford. Since its beginnings in 1965-66, Agate Lake’s low elevation (1500 feet) kept the water open except in the coldest of Rogue winters. The lake’s proximity to most of the Rogue Birders, huddled primarily between Ashland and Medford, with scattered flocks of birders all the way to Shady Cove, meant frequent visits by birders. Horned Larks may have nested there, but the species no longer is known to breed in the Rogue watershed. Maybe it is the frequent flying miles of model planes landing on the model airstrip not far from the Agate dam site. Fortunately, the little toys don’t seem to disturb the waterfowl using Agate Lake. Fast forward 30 years or more, after I retired and moved back to Rogue land, and I am introduced to my first Ruff, found on the southeastern shore. Every fall, birders soar to Agate Lake, knowing that by August and September the water level begins dropping to expose mud filled with an invertebrate smorgasbord to feed a plethora of sandpipers, a few Semipalmated Plovers, dowitchers and cranky Great Egrets. The egrets like their space and drive away terns, shorebirds and other herons if they get too close.

Someone again said dam it to the major rivers in Rogue Birding Territory first in 1977 when a huge earthen dam blocked the flow of the Rogue River in the foothills of the Cascades between Shady Cove and Prospect. It is the largest impoundment of water totaling around 3400 acres. The reservoir is called Lost Creek Lake, taking the name of one of the several small creeks flowing into it. Elevation-wise, Lost Lake is about 400 feet higher than Medford The lake is large enough to attract a couple of species of loons, most kinds of grebes and ducks, and, in the fall when the water level drops, shorebirds at a couple of choice locations. A highway runs through it. Of course, it is under water and is only significant since I used to push my speed around the former highway’s many curves as I alternated between accelerating and braking my little Austin Healy Sprite between my parents’ house in Phoenix and Crater Lake where I worked two summers in 1964 and 1965. What fun. Now the road is like an engulfed cathedral, but I can hear the car’s tires and the muffler tones that only composer Debussy might imagine. After retiring, in 1996, I began occasionally checking out Lost Creek, depending on where I lived. For one year, I lived just below the dam on Big Butte Creek, several miles downstream from Willow Lake, and almost daily checked the Rogue River below the dam for leaks and birds. The dam was doing its job and goldeneyes, mergansers, and sometimes Dippers made appearances. A few years later, a ripening Rogue Birder periodically made the drive from Medford to scan the lake.

Surely the last dam it moment occurred in 1981 when the Applegate River was backed up into mountain valleys to form Applegate Lake. Despite its nearly alpine shores, it sits slightly less that 2,000 feet in elevation. My first visit to Applegate Lake was not until the summer of the late ‘80’s. A forest ranger, from nearby Star Ranger station, whose name escapes my graying gray matter, graciously drove Steve Cross, and I as far as the California border. The narrow dirt road at the border was not flanked by an inspection station. I rode shotgun, literally, as I was collecting for the museum. Steve, then a professor at what is now Southern Oregon University, was checking bat houses he placed under a couple of bridges. Steve, a mammologist, is more precisely a chiroptologists, a person who studies bats, a batman. At least they fly, which may account for Steve being my junior author on a couple of bird papers in the 1990’s. We didn’t see much in the way of birds. Sure, there were the usual suspects, Western Tanager, Steller’s Jays, and a couple of vireos and warblers. The shotgun was never fired.

For a while, from the late 60’s to around 2008, the local sewage treatment facility near the Rogue River west of White City offered great habitat to birds and birders. Rogue Birders call the area the Kirtland Road Sewage Ponds or simply Kirtlands Ponds. Vegetation grew around wastewater ponds created by little earthen dikes. The ponds were sometimes dry and sometimes full of not too smelly stuff for a serious Rogue Birder. A sinus condition did help. The ponds were especially attractive to spring migrating shorebirds, and the site attracted raptors and gulls. The area provided not only a great little wetland in a region fast loosing such habitat; it also cleaned the effluent naturally, without chemicals, and could have contributed to the welfare of the ecology of the region. However, the powers to be did not realize or ignored that and created holding ponds now lined with blacktop. There is not a natural stick of anything and certainly nowhere for a shorebird to stick its bill.

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