The freedom of flight. Colors. Birdsong. Biodiversity. Migration. The connection with the natural world. The connection with people. An escape from the mundane. I can’t count the number of reasons why I love birding so much. But one tops the list: the times where I am lucky enough to witness unexpected, jaw-dropping bird behavior that I have never seen before.
These fleeting, awe-inspiring moments become memories that last forever—we birders never stop talking about them: a pair of Peregrine Falcons passing off their prey mid-air, thousands of Yellow-rumped Warblers dripping off Sagebrush during a migration fallout event in Utah’s west desert, a group of Ravens acrobatically playing in the wind as it swirls off a mountain ridge. We all have experienced a handful of our own special encounters with our feathered friends, and the small chance of having one of those moments drives me to get out with my binoculars whenever possible. Luckily, this spring, I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time to see something I’ve never seen before—and I’m still talking about it.
With the cancellation of the 22nd Annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival (due to COVID-19), the organizers decided to honor the event by replacing it with a 4-day “big weekend” where participants could submit eBird checklists from their backyard feeders, local parks, or anywhere people could bird safely.
So, in honor of the festival, my dad and I knew what we would be doing come the weekend.
That Saturday morning, we arrived at the Antelope Island Causeway of Great Salt Lake at sunrise to start our big day on what would have been the first day of the festival’s big weekend. We met four other birders, while maintaining social-distancing guidelines, and began scanning the pickleweed mudflats and shallow waters looking for shorebirds.
The Antelope Island Causeway is a two lane, six-mile paved road that connects the mainland to Antelope Island and provides access to the State Park. The causeway separates the slightly brackish waters of Farmington Bay from the much saltier main body of Great Salt Lake, and is second to none when it comes to observing the lake’s shorebirds, waterfowl and other waterbirds.
About a half mile from the island, the causeway passes over a bridge spanning a channel that allows water to flow from Farmington Bay to the rest of Great Salt Lake. This is the best spot to see the tens of thousands—sometimes hundreds of thousands—Eared Grebes that pepper the lake’s surface in the spring and fall. Phalaropes and other birds also tend to gather at this spot where the fresher and saltier waters mingle.
As we stepped out onto the bridge, something seemed a bit different that morning. The water flowing south to north through the channel appeared to be a bit lighter in color, with a milky appearance. And there was a dense concentration of hundreds of raucous California Gulls, Red-necked Phalaropes and Eared Grebes fighting for a place in the ribbon of milky brew. But what was the light color and was that what was attracting all the birds? We had to investigate.
As we approached the edge of the water, we could see it was filled with millions of brine shrimp (the scientific name is Artemia franciscana, but you might think of “sea monkeys” from your childhood days). MILLIONS. Turns out the pale ribbon was a liquid conveyor line delivering tons and tons of high protein food to those birds opportunistic enough to find it.
The water temperature, salinity, nutrients and other conditions were just right in the days and weeks leading up to our birding excursion for us to witness first-hand the amazing productivity of Great Salt Lake, and the birds that benefit so richly from it. It was as if the gulls were laughing and chatting away while gorging on their Brine Shrimp feast, while the phalaropes and grebes happily bobbed and weaved as they slurped up the soupy treat.
I’d like to think that the birds and the lake had joined with us, the birders, to celebrate the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival and to hope for its full revival in the coming years. As we think about what we’re grateful for this holiday season, particularly in 2020, I’m grateful for being able to get outside and bird—safely—with people I care about.
The 2020 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival: Backyard Birding resulted in sightings of over 337 species in 7 states, Canada and Mexico. Click here to see the comprehensive list.