Great Salt Lake plays major role in avian migration
Some birds like the high country. Some prefer the desert sagebrush. Some hang out in fresh water. Others thrive on saline lakes. Still others return generation after generation to their ancestral lands. These five Great Salt Lake Basin ecosystems are havens for wildlife ... and wildlife lovers.

American avocet nest, photo by Gary Crandall

In the bird world, Utah’s Great Salt Lake and the surrounding basin is sort of the Flying J of the migratory highway. It’s the place they stop to refuel and rest a bit.

The largest natural lake west of the Mississippi, surrounded by 400,000 acres of managed wetlands, the lake is a welcome sight for 10 million migrating birds.

John Luft, manager of the Utah Department of Natural Resources’ Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, calls the Great Salt Lake “an oasis in the desert.”

It is the hub that attracts migrating birds from two of the four major flyways in North America – the Pacific Flyway, following the California coast and inland, and the Central Flyway, covering the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains – thus affecting avian life in the desert and mountains and all those places in between.

Visitors to this spring’s Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, running May 17-21, will see a good number of those avian travelers making their way back north. They will surely see eared grebes, which make up fully half of the migrating hordes and feed almost exclusively on the lake’s brine shrimp. Utah’s famous lake attracts 80 percent of the eared grebe’s entire population.

The male grebes during the spring breeding season are those water birds with the distinctive red eye and yellow fans sprouting on each side of its face to attract a mate. You will never see them strutting on the shore. Their legs are set so far back on their bodies that they simply cannot walk on land. The grebes live their entire life on the water, or flying from one lake to another. They nest in flotillas.

Also likely present in large numbers will be the phalaropes, distinguished by their tendency to spin in circles, creating a vortex to stir up food. Phalaropes stand out in the sky as well. They fly in unison, in a swooping motion called murmuration like a “great, huge ribbon,” said Antelope Island State Park wildlife biologist Jolene Rose.

This is the 20th year of the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, coinciding with the Year of the Bird, declared by National Geographic, the National Audubon Society and other groups to mark the centennial of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The treaty with Canada was passed in 1918 to protect migrating birds from decimation by humans. In part, there was a growing alarm at the number of women’s hats sporting great egret feathers. Over time, Mexico, Japan and Russia also joined the treaty.

“Birds are our connection to the natural world,” said Skye Sieber, outreach associate with the National Audubon Society’s Saline Lakes Program. “Whether people know it or not, they keep things in balance.”

Birds disperse seeds, keep insects in check and feed on invasive fish and rodents. Birds can sound an early alarm to problems in the environment. Massive die-offs of crows infected with the West Nile virus preceded the outbreak of the disease in humans in 2000. So, keeping our feathered friends healthy also keeps the human population healthy.

American avocet feeds on macroinvertebrates at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Photo by Scott Baxter.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
The Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is an 80,000-acre national wildlife refuge lying at the northeast arm of the Great Salt Lake, about 17 miles west of Brigham City. It was established in 1928 to protect migratory waterfowl. Recreational opportunities include bird-watching, fishing and hunting.

One of Les Talbot’s favorite moments at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge involved a predatory great blue heron and a few determined American avocets. Talbot, a retired schoolteacher and regular volunteer at the refuge, was driving the auto tour loop with a refuge employee a few years ago when they came across an untended avocet nest. A great blue heron was standing there, eyeing the eggs, and they thought those eggs were surely doomed.

Next thing they knew, several avocets were “dive-bombing” the heron Talbot said. It was exciting to see, watching those underdog avocets, probably less than half the size of the heron, driving off the interloper.

Both avocets and herons will likely be on hand this spring during the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. The American avocet, in fact, is the featured bird at this year’s celebration. Visitors should get to see the birds in their best dress.

The avocet has a rust-colored head and neck during breeding season, with distinctive black markings on a white body and grayish-blue legs.

The birds fly to Baja California and the inland waters of Mexico for the winter. “When you see them down there, they just look gray,” said Kathi Stopher, visitor services manager at the refuge.

Stopher describes the 80,000-acre bird refuge as a beating heart, its lifeblood, the Bear River, fingering into capillaries that feed the Great Salt Lake. She holds her hand over a map, demonstrating those capillaries with her fingers. The Bear, she said, delivers more fresh water than the Ogden, Weber or Jordan, the other three rivers that drain into the giant salty lake.

That may be why the refuge is widely considered one of the top 10 birding spots in the nation and a globally important shorebird area. Its marshes harbor one of the largest colonies of white-faced ibis in North America, as well as other wading birds like the snowy plover. Visitors at the refuge this spring will also likely see the cinnamon teal, the black-necked stilt, the marbled godwit, the willets, the dowitchers, the greater and lesser yellowlegs – all birds associated with marshes and shores.

Stopher hopes they will also see her American bittern, although she and Talbot agree that chances are slim. Stopher said the American bittern is more often heard than seen, located by its unusual call, a percussive sound like dripping water, only more ethereal.

Talbot has seen the bird farther north, in Idaho, but never at the Bear River refuge in his 11 years of volunteering. The bird is solitary and secretive, a brownish color that serves as good camouflage.

When it feels threatened, it will thrust its bill toward the sky, elongate its body and sway with the grasses to blend in with the reeds.

Some refuge visitors have reported sightings this winter. Someone even photographed one in the marshes near the auto tour route.

When you run across an American bittern, Stopher said reverently, “It’s a special find, almost an honor.”

Antelope Island State Park. Photo by Scott T. Smith.

Antelope Island State Park
Antelope Island State Park encompasses 42 square miles of habitat for bison, pronghorn, bighorn sheep, avian wildlife and more. Camping, hiking, bicycling and swimming are welcomed. It is the largest island in the Great Salt Lake and can be accessed via Antelope Drive, about 9 miles west of Layton.

One day in mid-February, while checking a burrow at Antelope Island State Park, Jolene Rose discovered an owl with a naked, featherless chest.

It’s not as alarming as it might sound.

Rose identified the bird as a female burrowing owl preparing to nest. The bird had plucked the feathers from her chest so that her bare skin would be warmer against her eggs.

The surprising thing was that the owl was preparing to nest so early in the season. Then again, it had been an uncommonly warm winter.

Later that week, a male owl unobtrusively stood sentry nearby, more evidence that a burrowing owl family was in the making.

Rose, a wildlife biologist at Antelope Island State Park, is sort of a sentry, too, protecting and advocating for the birds on the island.

Part of that involves maintaining the 50-plus artificial burrows on the island. For each burrow, a 10-foot corrugated pipe, perforated along the bottom to drain water, leads underground to a 55-gallon drum cut in half and placed upside down for nesting. Rose sets up a companion burrow nearby – the “bachelor pad” as she calls it – where the male can cache the mice and other food he hunts for the family.

Rose monitors the burrows, lest human visitors disturb them or they collapse beneath the hooves of the island’s bison. “They walk over your roof and your house is gone,” she said.

In one case, Rose noticed burrowing owls had established a shelter on an embankment beside the paved road leading to Fielding Garr Ranch. Concerned the birds might get hit by a car, she set up an artificial burrow on the other side of the road, farther from the traffic flow, and successfully persuaded the owls to move.

Burrowing owls typically commandeer abandoned badger or coyote dens to set up housekeeping. The male does the house hunting, decorating the hole with deer, bison and coyote droppings, hair, elastic bands, string and whatever other treasures he might find to attract a female.

On another part of the island, Rose checks beneath the roof of a massive hay barn, where nesting boxes are set up for barn owls and great horned owls. The ghostly face of a female great horned peers sleepily from inside one box. Her mate sits in the rafters on the other side of the building, keeping watch.

With luck, visitors to this year’s Great Salt Lake Bird Festival might catch a glimpse of their chicks.

From the ground below, Rose picks up a palm-size “pellet,” a glob of undigested hair, fur and other matter hacked up by one of the owls, and combs through it, pulling out a rabbit jawbone with an incisor and the small teeth behind it, a tiny clavicle from a rodent, and some hollow bird bones.

Several yards away is a moist gray and brown wing, probably from a chukar. The meat is gone, likely last night’s dinner.

This island in the Great Salt Lake supports a diverse batch of winged wildlife. Owls and chukars are among those birds on the island proper, along with hawks, eagles and many others.

The trees and vegetation around the Fielding Garr Ranch are the best places to look for the birds Rose calls “tweeties.” These are the passerines, or perching birds, said to comprise more than half of all bird species, like the sparrow, chickadee, junco and horned lark.

The 7-mile causeway to the island is almost its own ecosystem, with shorebirds like the long-billed curlew – a bird, Rose muses, the Muppets’ Gonzo surely had to be patterned after.

Neighboring Egg Island, which is closed to the public, serves as a rookery for the great blue heron, the cormorants and many gulls.

Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter. Photo by Utah State University.

Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter
Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter is a 1,200-acre nature preserve and wetlands affiliated with the Utah State University Extension Service. Located at 1258 Center Drive, Park City, it offers wildlife viewing, interactive exhibits, trails, weekly nature tours and more.

When Nell Larson hears that loud primeval cry outside her offices at Swaner Preserve and EcoCenter, she knows spring is on its way. Park City’s “beloved” sandhill cranes have returned.

Standing 4 feet tall, with a wingspan of 6 ½ feet, these grayish birds with the red crowns mate for life. Seven pairs of cranes return consistently each spring to this unusual high-elevation wetlands to nest and raise their “colts,” as the chicks are called.

One pair can easily be seen from the observation deck at Swaner. They take turns incubating the eggs and foraging for food, preceding each change of duty with a dance that involves spreading their wings and jumping. During the summer, the cranes’ feathers turn more rust-colored as they preen and pass along the iron from the soil where they’ve been foraging.

And then there is that call.

“To me, it sounds like an ancient, prehistoric call,” said Larson, executive director of the center. “It almost sounds like it could have come from a dinosaur.”

In truth, there is evidence that the sandhill crane is the oldest known bird species surviving in the world. According to The Nature Conservancy, a crane fossil found in Nebraska was estimated to be 10 million years old. Its structure was identical to the present-day sandhill crane.

Visitors to Swaner this spring will also see shorebirds and waterfowl like the American coot and the spotted sandpiper, as well as birds of prey. During the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, crane expert George Archibald will attend the field trip to Swaner and answer questions. Archibald, the festival’s keynote speaker, is the co-founder of the International Crane Foundation.

Selman Ranch. Photo by Stuart Ruckman.

Selman Ranch
Selman Ranch is a 6,700-acre private ranch near Logan that operates under a conservation easement set up by The Nature Conservancy, allowing the family to run cattle and sheep while still protecting wildlife. Some 1 million acres of property in Utah are involved in such conservation agreements, according to The Nature Conservancy.

At the Selman family ranch near Logan, the Columbian sharp-tailed grouse dance each spring on the old sheep beds.

The male grouse congregate on a high spot where the grass has been worn away by generations of bedding sheep. The orange-eyebrowed grouses’ tails stick straight up and shimmy, the purple/pink patches on their necks swell, and they drum their feet rapidly, competing among themselves to attract a female.

There are three of these dancing spots, called leks, on the ranch.

Bret Selman said the birds’ movements remind him of a plastic windup Easter chick. They’ll drum and then stop, drum and then stop. Selman chuckles. It’s like a bunch of kids playing Red Light, Green Light, he said.

Selman is a third-generation sheep and cattle rancher, and since 2006, the family’s 6,700-acre Cache Valley property has been contracted in a conservation easement arranged by The Nature Conservancy.

The agreement allows the family to continue running cattle and sheep, and it also permits the U.S. Department of Agriculture to monitor and protect the grouse, as well as other wildlife on the land.

The sharp-tailed grouse is a sensitive species, meaning the bird’s population is of concern to wildlife officials, said Ann Neville, The Nature Conservancy’s Northern Mountains regional director. Some 96 percent of the bird’s habitat has been destroyed.

The agreement is a win-win as far as Selman is concerned. The easement allowed the Selmans to avoid a gas pipeline that would have displaced the leks, and the livestock and the grouse work well together. The cow patties, like bison chips of the Old West, attract beetles and other insects that become a high-protein food for the birds.

The Selmans invested the money from the easement into additional property farther west of the family home in Tremonton. Amazingly enough, family members have seen leks there, too.

A few years ago, Bret Selman participated in the bison roundup on Antelope Island, where some of the sharp-tailed grouse from the Selman property had been introduced. From the back of his horse, Selman watched as the running bison flushed out a grouse – in all likelihood, just as they did in the old days.

“To see that, that is one of my favorite memories of all time,” Selman said.

Burrowing owls keep watch in Fairfield Valley. Photo by Eric Peterson.

West Desert
The West Desert is a vast, arid portion of western Utah. The festival’s birding tour overlaps some of the rugged Pony Express Trail and loops from Johnson Pass, to Lookout Pass and past James Walter Fitzgerald Wildlife Management Area about 24 miles south Tooele.

Birding in the West Desert? Well, of course. The gray-green sagebrush may look empty and bland, but life teems there.

The deep-rooted sagebrush sustains the sage grouse, the sagebrush sparrow and the sage thrasher. The higher juniper/pinyon country provides habitat for the pinyon jay, the juniper titmouse and the black-throated gray warblers. The grassy flats support the long-billed curlew.

“It’s fun to me because it’s like a scavenger hunt,” said Keeli Marvel, an avid birder who has 554 birds on her life list, and 328 – a “viable chunk” of the existing species – on her Utah list.

That life list, the total number of species that Marvel has seen during her lifetime, includes 29 species – among them a vibrantly multicolored green jay and the plain chachalaca, similar in appearance and habit to the roadrunner – added last November when she and a friend traveled to a bird festival in south Texas.

Marvel, president of the Utah County Birders, works at Dugway Proving Ground, commuting from Saratoga Springs each day, so she’s well-acquainted with the desert habitat and the birds there.

A zeedle-zeedle-zee-zee means a black-throated warbler is nearby. The nomadic pinyon jay’s song reminds Marvel of laughing, and of clowns.

So, though you might not see them at first glance, you can listen and follow their calls. Even in a land so desolate as Utah’s West Desert, if you pay close attention, you can find them.

This story first appeared in the May/June 2018 issue of Utah Life Magazine.