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Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Lakes


Ashland’s Natural Wonders – The Lakes

By Peter Kleinhenz

Last week, during the the late summer heat, as I was misting my carnivorous plants (go ahead and judge), all I wanted to do was get wet myself. I went swimming. On hot days, nothing beats grabbing some snacks and heading to a lake for a swim.

Many animals, especially birds, have the same idea but in reverse order. Ashland lies between two excellent lakes that are each perfect destinations during hot and dry weather. By visiting these sites, you can cool off and have a fantastic wildlife experience.

Ashland, on average, receives about twenty inches of precipitation each year. Medford gets even less. Most precipitation, when it does fall, comes in the winter. This means that any water that exists in the summer is going to attract wildlife. Any permanent lake is like an oasis to birds.

Whether they live in the area year-round or are stopping to take a break during migration, these bodies of water provide a place to drink, rest without having to fear land-based predators, and are a source of plentiful food. So let’s get birding.

I suppose that, before I say, “this is what you will see”, I should tell you that you won’t see much of anything without a good pair of binoculars. If you have the means to see far, though, there are birds aplenty at both major lakes within thirty minutes of Ashland. These lakes are Emigrant Lake and Agate Lake, and both can be “birded” in similar ways.

When you first arrive at either of these lakes, walk to the lake and scan the water. Though hard to see with the naked eye, birds are almost always on the water in the middle of the lake. The birds I see most frequently in this situation are also two of my favorites. These are the Western and Clark’s Grebes.

Both species could not look more elegant. Both birds have a sinuous neck that ends at the point of a long, sharp bill. This bill is used to spear fish underwater, something grebes excel at doing.

Do not focus only on the water itself, however. One of the most exciting birds to watch is very likely soaring above it.

The Osprey is perfectly adapted to what it does best: dive down to capture fish in the water.

Soaring effortlessly with a six-foot wingspan, an adult osprey uses its superb eyesight to spot fish underwater. They hover to get their bearings, then dive up to 130 feet out of the sky to snatch fish with their sharp talons. The scales on their talons face backward, serving the same function as barbs on a fishhook. This, my friends, is a master predator and it is almost impossible to visit Agate Lake or Emigrant Lake without seeing at least one.

The final spots you must search if you visit either lake are the mudflats. These areas are at the ends of the lakes, and provide places for birds to rest away from people enjoying the lakes.

The birds to be found in the mudflats are mostly shorebirds of the sandpiper variety. I go birding a few times a week, and even I have trouble identifying many of them. But, hey, that’s how you learn!

I will say that White Pelicans are often present and, if you can’t identify them, you should probably just sell your binoculars.

The mudflats are always worth checking, though, because migrating birds will often stop here before moving further south or north. Birds like Phalaropes, American Avocets, and Pintail Ducks may be seen resting their wings and feeding on the abundant plant life and invertebrates in the shallow, muddy areas.

Go take a dip in either lake, then spend a half hour or so birding. You never know what you will see, but you are guaranteed to see something remarkable. Enjoy!

Directions to Agate Lake from Ashland

Take I-5 North from Ashland and take exit 30 to Hwy 62. Take 62 to White City (about 5.5 miles).  Turn right on Route 140 (Lake of the Woods Hwy).  Go about 4 miles and turn right on Antelope Road. The entrance to Agate Lake is about 1/2 mile down Antelope Road on the right and is marked with a sign.

Directions to Emigrant Lake from Ashland

Take I-5 exit 14 on the east side of Ashland and head east on Ashland Street (this is also Route 66). Go 3.5 miles and watch for the sign to Emigrant Lake.  This will take you to the campground and the west shore. To reach the east shore (where the birding is best), get back on 66 and travel 3 miles and look for a homemade sign that says Green Springs Spur. You will see a gravel road with a gate across it. Park there and walk to the lake.