Tooele and Juab counties provide plenty of dry desert open space, but there is a 10,000-acre area of wet meadows and marshland in northwest Juab County adjacent to Tooele County that birds find particularly pleasing.
A variety of bird species reside there the entire year, for others it’s a popular migration stopover.
Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge covers nearly 18,000 acres of uniquely varied habitat that supports a diversity of wildlife in an otherwise arid landscape. It’s located along the Pony Express dirt road about 100 miles from Tooele to the east and 100 miles from Wendover to the west.
A group of 14 “birders” spent an entire day at the refuge on Tuesday, Dec. 29 to count birds as part of the annual Christmas Bird Count sponsored by the National Audubon Society. There were about 16 various Christmas Bird Counts throughout Utah this year.
This annual event is conducted December 14 to January 5 throughout North America. It began in 1900 and has become the longest-running citizen science effort in the world.
“It’s the first time this count circle at Fish Springs has been done in a few years. We had a decent representation of species diversity,” said Keeli Marvel, experienced birder and Natural Resource Specialist at Dugway Proving Ground.
Jonathan Barth manages Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge and helped coordinate the Christmas Bird Count on Dec. 29.
After a few days of tallying all the data he reported results of the bird count this week.
He said 6532 birds were counted, 42 species of birds recorded, and 3100 American coot were the most numerous.
He said one American bittern was spotted along with one European starling and one Prairie Falcon.
Rare birds spotted included an American white pelican, usually found in Mexico, along with a Greater Yellowleg, usually found in South, and Central America.
“During these annual counts, we’ve collected more than 100 years of information about birds. We’re using that data to assess the overall health of bird populations and to implement any conservation actions that may be needed for species survival,” said Tonya Kieffer-Shelby, DWR regional conservation outreach manager.
“Recent studies have shown that over 3 billion birds have been lost in North America in the last 50 years, which is why collecting this data is so important. Birds are indicators of what’s happening in an environment. The data we gather about our local birds provides valuable information to conservation efforts worldwide,” she said.
The counting began at 9 a.m. in below freezing temperatures. Erda’s Holly Mills helped with the bird count.
“The part I like most about any group bird count is the camaraderie and the chance to meet other birders. The worst part was the temperatures that morning. I still couldn’t feel my feet by the time I got home,” Mills said.
She indicated “birding” is one of her passions.
“I love the challenge of birding and learning to identify different species and trying to find as many as I can. And it is always a rush to add a new ‘lifer’ to the list,” she said.
“Birders have what they call a “lifer dance” which is basically a happy dance we do when we get a species we’ve never seen before. I also deal with depression and anxiety and PTSD and birding helps me with that. It calms and relaxes me. I also enjoy the community of birders. I have never met a more friendly group of people and we are always there to help each other,” she said.
Experienced birder Robert Parsons and his wife MaryAnn also helped with the Christmas Bird Count at Fish Springs.
“It was great getting out and seeing the birds, especially those that are hanging around all winter. It is simply amazing to me, how these birds survive the winter — in temperatures that are in the 10-20 degree range,” Robert said.
“How do they find food? How do they stay warm? Observing these amazing creatures in these kinds of conditions is really fun for me. We had a great time,” he said.
The Parsons said they saw a wide collection of birds—mostly birds that tend to stay near the bodies of water that haven’t frozen over yet.
“We saw lots of birds, from the enormous all white Tundra Swans (over four feet in length) to the much smaller Song Sparrow (just five inches long). We marveled at how the tiny Marsh Wren (less than five inches in length and weighing one half of one ounce) as well as the American Pipit (weighing less than one ounce) are able to find food and stay warm in this weather,” he said.
“We saw several thousand ducks, as well as large wading birds such as Great Blue Herons and Great Egrets, coupled with smaller wading birds such as White-faced Ibis and Black-crowned Night-Herons. We also saw Bald and Golden Eagles, with 7-foot wingspans, along with the hawk of the marshes and fields, Northern Harriers. Another bird we saw was the Loggerhead Shrike, a small but tenacious bird that impales its food on a thorn or barb. Other birds that we saw included almost 100 Red-winged Blackbirds, Horned Larks, Common Ravens, Northern Flickers and White-crowned Sparrows. Quite a collection for a snow covered area of mostly frozen springs and ponds and temperatures in the mid-teens.”
Parsons added that Fish Springs is equally, or maybe even more so beautiful and fun to visit in the spring when an entirely different group of birds visit and call Fish Springs home for the summer.