By Mel White
Birds in This Story
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Like many of its southwestern neighbors, Utah encompasses habitat stretching from arid desert to Rocky Mountain conifer forest. Tourists appreciate Utah for some of the nation’s most stunning national parks: Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, and Zion. Birders know the state for, among other attractions, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, a vast oasis for waterfowl on the north side of the Great Salt Lake.
Each year, millions of migrating shorebirds stop to rest and feed in the Great Salt Lake region. Antelope Island and its causeway allow access to part of this spectacle, along with views of ducks, grebes, gulls, and other waterbirds, plus Bald Eagles.
The Wasatch Range and Uinta Mountains offer convenient ways to reach highland habitat with birds such as Dusky Grouse, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, rosy-finches, and Pine Grosbeak. And all of Utah’s national parks offer interesting birding, with Zion perhaps being the most productive.
An active birding community has set up birding trails with information about fine destinations around Utah, focusing on the northern, southwestern, and eastern regions of the state.
Utah Birding Hotspots
If you’re ready for an adventure and well stocked with supplies and a full tank of gas, consider a trip to this extremely remote refuge, about 100 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. It’s a long way across the desert on unpaved roads, but the oasis of Fish Springs can make for a memorable birding experience.
The natural springs here create an ecosystem in which 10,000 acres of the refuge’s 17,992 total acres are wetlands. This means impressive numbers of waterfowl (including Trumpeter Swan and Tundra Swan), grebes, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, wading birds, Sandhill Crane, and shorebirds. Osprey appears in migration, Bald Eagle and Rough-legged Hawk in winter, and Golden Eagle year round.
Like many such oases in the desert, Fish Springs attracts rare vagrant birds that have wandered off their regular routes. Reddish Egret, jaegers, Williamson’s Sapsucker, and Black-throated Blue Warbler are some examples. A few birds regularly seen include Short-eared Owl, Prairie Falcon, Loggerhead Shrike, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, Sage Thrasher, Black-throated Sparrow, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
It’s best to visit the refuge in fall through spring. And if the journey seems a little long, consider the Pony Express riders and stagecoach passengers who once made the oasis a regular stop on their trips.
This site in extreme southwestern Utah is a truly significant natural area. It’s a part of the Mojave Desert ecosystem that barely reaches into Utah, hosting plants and animals unusual or unknown elsewhere in the state. The natural springs here create an oasis in an arid region, which is one reason the Nature Conservancy acquired it in the 1980s.
Lytle Ranch is now owned by Brigham Young University and managed as a field research station and wildlife preserve. People who wish to visit should call 801-422-5052 at least a week in advance. Some camping is allowed.
Look for Common Black-Hawk, which nests here at the extreme edge of its range. Birders who make the trek over unpaved roads to reach the remote site (be sure to get directions from the website) might see other species such as Gambel’s Quail, Wild Turkey, White-winged Dove, Greater Roadrunner, Lesser Nighthawk, Common Poorwill, Anna’s Hummingbird, Costa’s Hummingbird, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Bell’s Vireo, Gray Vireo, Bushtit, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher Crissal Thrasher, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Black-throated Sparrow, Summer Tanager, Lazuli Bunting, Hooded Oriole, and Scott’s Oriole.
One of the great birding phenomena of the West is the late-summer and fall gathering of birds near the causeway to Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake. Millions of birds stop here in migration, with hundreds of thousands present on any day. Eared Grebe and Wilson’s Phalarope are the stars, but the list of other species is long.
The seven-mile causeway leads to Antelope Island State Park, crossing the lake where huge numbers of flies and brine shrimp provide food for shorebirds such as American Avocet, Western Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope, as well as Bonaparte’s Gull. Waterfowl and wading birds, including White-faced Ibis, are present here too.
On Antelope Island, birds include Chukar, Northern Harrier, Long-billed Curlew, Burrowing Owl, Horned Lark, Rock Wren, Sage Thrasher, Grasshopper Sparrow, and Brewer’s Sparrow.
Just north of Bountiful, Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area has a very long bird list, leaning toward migrant waterfowl, summer wading birds and rails, and migrant shorebirds. It’s most famous, though, for Bald Eagle; often dozens of individuals are present here in winter.
Drive to the northern end of the Great Salt Lake to reach one of the West’s finest birding sites. Bear River’s nearly 80,000 acres comprise marsh, mudflats, and open water, providing vital feeding, resting, and nesting habitat for waterfowl, wading birds, shorebirds, and other species.
Many features point to Bear River’s importance: It has the largest nesting colony of White-faced Ibis in North America, and the great majority of migrant Black-necked Stilts stop here on their journeys. The refuge provides a critical feeding area for the large colony of American White Pelicans nesting in the Great Salt Lake area. In addition, as many as 11 species of ducks nest here, as well as four species of grebes, six species of waders, nine species of shorebirds, and five species of gulls and terns.
Other nesting birds include Virginia Rail, Sora, Sandhill Crane, Short-eared Owl, Horned Lark, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird. In winter, birders might spot Tundra Swan, Bald Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, and Northern Shrike.
A 12-mile auto route loops through the wetland complex, allowing easy viewing of many of Bear River’s residents and visitors. The refuge also has an excellent visitor center that offers exhibits, maps, and advice.
One of America’s most spectacularly scenic national parks, Zion is a splendid birding destination, in part because it combines ecosystems of the Colorado Plateau, Great Basin, and Mojave Desert. It’s also known for hosting three endangered species of special concern.
The California Condor population was once limited to only captive birds, as the last few individuals were captured in a desperate attempt to save the species. After decades of effort, wild populations have been established around the West, and today condors might be seen in Zion around Angels Landing or on the Kolob Terrace Road near Lava Point. Peregrine Falcon, whose numbers dropped in the 20th century, have since rebounded as well. These powerful fliers might be seen around Zion’s cliffs. Look in narrow wooded canyons for Spotted Owl, a species that has suffered a decline in recent decades.
Birds regularly nesting in Zion include White-throated Swift, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Gray Flycatcher , Dusky Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Gray Vireo, Plumbeous Vireo, Pinyon Jay, Steller’s Jay, Western Scrub-Jay, Mountain Chickadee, Juniper Titmouse, Bushtit, Pygmy Nuthatch, Western Bluebird, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, Phainopepla, Lucy’s Warbler, Virginia’s Warbler, Grace’s Warbler, Black-throated Gray Warbler, and Western Tanager.
Look for American Dipper in the Virgin River and its tributaries. Watch also for the beautiful Painted Redstart, at the edge of its range here.
The small town of Kamas sits about 30 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. From here, Highway 150 is called the Mirror Lake Scenic Byway. It winds through the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and climbs to an elevation of 10,715 feet at Bald Mountain Pass in the Uinta Mountains.
Along the byway’s alpine sections, recreation areas such as Trial Lake and Mirror Lake offer the chance to see high-elevation birds. The road is closed in winter, but the beauty of the Uintas makes the byway and trails extremely popular during the summer season.
Keep an eye out for Golden Eagle, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Williamson’s Sapsucker, Red-naped Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Mountain Bluebird, Townsend’s Solitaire, Hermit Thrush, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Lincoln’s Sparrow, Pine Grosbeak, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.
The trail to Bald Mountain leaves from Bald Mountain Pass near Mirror Lake. Here at treeline it leads quickly into open alpine tundra, known as a place to find Black Rosy-Finch. White-tailed Ptarmigan has been introduced into the Uintas and might be seen here too.
This refuge in northeastern Utah stretches along 16 miles of the Green River, providing a corridor of vegetation in an otherwise arid environment. The wetlands here make Ouray an oasis in a region that gets only seven inches of precipitation annually.
A nine-mile auto route winds alongside the Green River, lined with cottonwoods, before rising to pass through a stretch of grassland. This combination of riparian habitats, wetlands, and grassland give the refuge a diverse bird list.
In the wetlands, spring and summer birds include Gadwall, Cinnamon Teal, Pied-billed Grebe, Eared Grebe, Western Grebe, Clark’s Grebe, Double-crested Cormorant, American White Pelican, American Bittern, Snowy Egret, Virginia Rail, Sora, Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Wilson’s Phalarope, Forster’s Tern, Marsh Wren, and Yellow-headed Blackbird.
Look in woodland and grassland for nesting Wild Turkey, Osprey, Northern Harrier, Great Horned Owl, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Lewis’s Woodpecker, Willow Flycatcher, Gray Flycatcher, Dusky Flycatcher, Say’s Phoebe, Eastern Kingbird, Sagebrush Sparrow, Brewer’s Sparrow, and Black-headed Grosbeak. Sandhill Crane is common here in spring and fall.
In southwestern Utah, local birders favor Quail Creek State Park, located about 12 miles northeast of St. George. Its reservoir is known for attracting waterfowl—including more than 20 species of ducks—and its riparian woodland for drawing migrant birds.
Ducks that frequent here including Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye, and all three mergansers; rarities include all three scoters and Barrow’s Goldeneye. Along with Common Loon and the usual species of grebes, birders have seen Red-throated Loon, Pacific Loon, Yellow-billed Loon, and Red-necked Grebe. Osprey is sometimes present in migration, and Bald Eagle in winter. Most winter gulls are Ring-billed and California, but other species are sometimes spotted, along with terns in migration.
Continue north along the west side of the reservoir to reach a patch of riparian woods, where rare migrant songbirds have been seen. For a chance to see more waterbirds, return to Highway 9 and drive east about 2.2 miles. Turn north onto 3700 W Street and drive less than a mile to a fishing pond on the left.
While the Utah mountains are famed among skiers, birders know the high country near Salt Lake City as a convenient place to look for upper-elevation species. Three canyons in the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest offer similar birding, as a drive allows stopping at various picnic sites, trails, and other recreation areas.
From north to south, Mill Creek Canyon, Big Cottonwood Canyon, and Little Cottonwood Canyon are located in a span of about nine miles. Roads lead up into the Wasatch Range, with beautiful scenery along the way. These areas are very popular, so an early start is advisable on weekends.
The birds that live up here include Dusky Grouse, White-throated Swift, Calliope Hummingbird, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Red-naped Sapsucker, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Hammond’s Flycatcher, Cordilleran Flycatcher, Steller’s Jay, Clark’s Nutcracker, Mountain Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, American Dipper, Townsend’s Solitaire, Swainson’s Thrush, Hermit Thrush, MacGillivray’s Warbler, Yellow-rumped Warbler, Cassin’s Finch, Red Crossbill, and Pine Siskin.
Flammulated Owl, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and Northern Pygmy-Owl reside in the highlands, but of course are heard more than they’re seen.
The system of parks and trails in the city of St. George are popular with birders, for good reason. They host interesting resident birds, and as islands of green in an otherwise arid region also attract many migrants.
Tonaquint Park is located south of the downtown area alongside the Santa Clara River, and so features riparian vegetation. More than 200 species have been recorded here, thanks in large part to rarities that have stopped in. The park’s list of 20 warblers, for instance, includes Prothonotary Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Painted Redstart. Around 25 species of waterfowl have been noted.
From Tonaquint Park, you can follow a trail that runs downstream a little more than a mile to the confluence of the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers. There, trails continuing along the Virgin also offer good birding.
Resident birds here include Gambel’s Quail, Cooper’s Hawk, Greater Roadrunner, Black-chinned Hummingbird, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, Black Phoebe, Say’s Phoebe, Ash-throated Flycatcher, Cliff Swallow, Verdin, Rock Wren, Crissal Thrasher, Lucy’s Warbler, Yellow Warbler, Abert’s Towhee, Black-headed Grosbeak, Blue Grosbeak, and Bullock’s Oriole.
The Bonneville Salt Flats of northwest Utah may be some of the most lifeless acres on the continent, but the nearby Great Salt Lake and the mountains to the east are teeming with life, including more than 200 species of birds. The Wasatch Audubon Society created a partnership that assembled a set of birding trails that encompass more than 50 of the best sites in this region. A number of the richest sites are on the Great Salt Lake itself, including the marshes of the fabled Bear River Refuge, where great flocks of white pelicans, marbled godwits, yellow-headed blackbirds, western grebes, and numerous other birds swarm in the shallows, vying for your attention. Even on the lakeshore’s more open or barren parts, you can find pale little snowy plovers, elegant American avocets and blacknecked stilts, and other shorebirds. The mountains that rise to the east of the lake, famed for their skiing in winter, offer an array of different habitats for birds in all seasons. Shady canyons filled with cottonwoods give way to spruce forest, with typical montane birds such as the elegantly patterned Williamson’s sapsucker and Cassin’s finch. At the highest levels, patches of tundra above treeline are among the likeliest places in the world for you to find the rare black rosy-finch. —Kenn Kaufman