Waterfowl migration on Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges 1953-2001

Biological Science Report 2003-0004
By: , and 



The Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) complex, located in northeastern California and southern Oregon, is situated on a major Pacific Flyway migration corridor connecting waterfowl breeding grounds in the north with major wintering grounds in California and Mexico. The complex comprises five waterfowl refuges including Lower Klamath NWR, Tule Lake NWR, Upper Klamath NWR, Klamath Marsh NWR, and Clear Lake NWR, and one bald eagle refuge, Bear Valley NWR. Lower Klamath and Tule Lake NWRs are the largest refuges in the complex; historically, they supported some of the greatest autumn and spring concentrations of migrating waterfowl in North America. Starting in 1953, standardized waterfowl surveys from small aircraft have been conducted in autumn through spring. This report summarizes waterfowl migration activity (i.e., abundance, species composition, distribution on refuges, and chronology) over four time periods—the long-term (1953-2001), early (1953-76), recent (1977-2001), and the most recent (1998-2001)—to describe changing patterns of migration on Klamath Basin refuges from autumn 1953 to spring 2001.

Over the long term, waterfowl abundance (birds per day) on the refuge complex averaged about 1.0 million in autumn and about 360,000 in spring. A record peak count of 5.8 million waterfowl was recorded September 24-25, 1958. Average abundance of autumn staging waterfowl for the refuge complex, after reaching record levels in the 1950s and early 1960s, began a decline that lasted until the 1980s. A gradual recovery occurred during the 1990s, but autumn abundance has not recovered to pre-1970 levels. In contrast to autumn, average spring abundance was generally lower in the early decades but has gradually increased through the 1990s, particularly on Lower Klamath NWR.

Dabbling ducks represented an average of 68% of all waterfowl in autumn and 55% in spring for the long term. Northern pintail (Anas acuta) was dominant, representing 62% of all dabblers in autumn and 51% in spring. A significant decline in pintail abundance starting in the late 1950s altered waterfowl composition on Klamath Basin refuges. As pintail declined, other species such as mallard (Anas platyrhynchos) and green-winged teal (Anas crecca) increased in abundance. Although Arctic nesting geese, including white-fronted (Anser albifrons), cackling Canada (Branta canadensis minima), white geese (lesser snow [Chen caerulescens caerulescens], and Ross’s [Chen rossii]) have become less prominent in recent decades, they reached an historically high abundance during autumn in the 1960s and 1970s, particularly on Tule Lake NWR.

Tule Lake NWR supported the highest average autumn waterfowl populations until surpassed by Lower Klamath NWR around 1980. During the recent period (1977-2001), Lower Klamath NWR accounted for 60% of all waterfowl using the refuge complex in autumn and 61% in spring. Habitat diversity and wetland productivity contributed to its greater waterfowl abundance. Tule Lake NWR supported the most geese over the long term, 79% in autumn and 66% in spring; however, total waterfowl abundance on this refuge in autumn has been in decline, likely because of reduced diversity and productivity of sumps in the refuge. Upper Klamath, Klamath Marsh, and Clear Lake NWRs accounted for less than 8% of total waterfowl use in autumn and spring but provided diverse habitats for migrants.

Waterfowl use-days on Klamath Basin refuges typically peaked in mid-autumn, decreased as migrants passed through the basin, and then reached a lesser peak during spring passage. Waterfowl abundance reached a pronounced peak in autumn during the early period (1953-76), but spring peak buildup was much less pronounced. For the recent period the autumn peak was more subdued.

Waterfowl abundance, species composition, and distribution on Klamath Basin refuges have fluctuated over the decades and have been influenced by events such as productivity on breeding grounds and habitat conditions on wintering grounds that cause shifts in migration patterns. A major challenge for the future appears to be the availability of adequate water for wetland management on Klamath Basin refuges.

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • Areas Surveyed
  • Methods
  • Results and Discussion
  • Conclusions
  • Acknowledgments
  • References
  • Appendixes 1–5
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Federal Government Series
Title Waterfowl migration on Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges 1953-2001
Series title Biological Science Report
Series number 2003-0004
Year Published 2004
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) Western Ecological Research Center
Description 66 p.
Country United States
State California, Oregon
Other Geospatial Klamath Basin National Wildlife Refuges
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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