Keith Evans of Wasatch Audubon Society contributed to this article.
Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled while rain came down in sheets on the Willard Spur. Luckily my birding buddy and I were in a dry and protected vehicle on a dirt road overlooking the vast wetland. Peering out through the car window, it appeared that the thousands of American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, Marbled Godwits and other water-loving birds didn’t seem to mind the downpour. This momentary rainstorm was a memorable experience for me and my friend, but the critical seasonal water flows and ecology of Bear River Bay’s Willard Spur is what makes it a special and vital place for the birds.
Willard Spur (the Spur) is situated in Bear River Bay of Great Salt Lake. The Spur is bordered on the north by the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and to the east by Willard Bay Reservoir. The Spur is a known but lightly used gem on the Wasatch Front; a special place for birders, hunters, fisherman, kayakers and air boaters. In addition to the invaluable food and habitat it provides to hundreds of thousands of birds each year, it also offers extraordinary characteristics that are valued by many recreationalists and conservationists who want to protect and preserve the Spur for generations to come.
According to a 1999-2012 study of bird populations using Willard Spur and Bear River Bay, notable percentages of peak bird counts on Great Salt Lake (peak counts are the highest recorded counts of individual species observed on the entire Great Salt Lake and its associated wetlands during the survey period) were observed for some species. For example, a peak of 8,715 Cinnamon Teal recorded at the Spur on August 24, 2009, was nearly 33 percent of the entire Great Salt Lake peak count. And 4,765 Marbled Godwits were recorded on July 18, 2001 which was more than 24 percent of the Great Salt Lake peak count. On the Willard Spur, peak counts of 20 bird species were at least 10 percent of Great Salt Lake peak count and five species accounted for more than 30 percent of the lake’s peak numbers.
The Spur is a significant contributor, both ecologically and hydrologically, to the 140,000 acre designated Bear River Bay Globally Important Bird Area. Freshwater inflow from the Bear and Weber Rivers is an important factor promoting the diversity and productivity of the Spur. However, flushing spring flows are critical to maintaining the Spur’s water quality and growth of vegetation and invertebrates. Seasonal variability is also key, and the unique topography plays an important role in the presence or absence of seasonal habitats.
During the spring when freshwater inflows are relatively high, the Spur provides varying depths of water and submergent and emergent wetland vegetation. This benefits many species of migrating waterfowl and breeding waterbirds such as Ruddy Ducks, Cinnamon Teals, Western Grebes, Clark’s Grebes, and Eared Grebes. When inflows begin to drop in the summer and water levels in the Spur recede, the landscape transitions and the habitat is dominated by fringe wetlands, consisting of shallow brackish water with isolated patches of vegetation. Large numbers of Great Blue Herons, Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets, and American White Pelicans forage in the Spur. As levels drop further and inflows diminish in the mid to late summer, mudflat habitats form. The species diversity changes yet again and the area provides staging habitat for migratory shorebirds, such as Long-billed Dowitchers, Marbled Godwits, White-faced Ibis, American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. Hundreds of Forster’s Terns, Black Terns, and Caspian Terns can be seen resting on the mudflats between times of foraging. When inflows return in the late fall, the shallow waters become full of dabbling ducks and other shallow-water loving birds.
Timing of water flows and subsequent natural draw down and re-flooding are critical to the various species of birds that use the Spur at specific times during their life history. Too much or too little water at the wrong time would not provide the same impressive habitat for so many birds. This annual variation in habitat is unique to the Spur, and the resulting diversity and incredible number of birds utilizing the area makes it one of the most productive parts of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. To quote Wasatch Audubon Society’s member Mike Hearell, the Spur is the “Serengeti of waterbirds.”
In 2019, legislation, which Audubon supported, was passed designating the Spur as a new Wildlife Management Area (WMA) named the “Willard Spur Waterfowl Management Area.” The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) will manage the WMA “for beneficial uses covering a variety of birds and mammals, including: propagating and sustaining waterfowl, upland gamebirds, desirable mammals, shorebirds, and other migratory and non-migratory birds that use the Great Salt Lake ecosystem and the Great Salt Lake ecosystem's surrounding wetlands.” The designation protecting Willard Spur does not allow impounding or diking.
Audubon, along with other key stakeholders, are part of a committee to advise the DWR on management planning for the Willard Spur WMA. Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program recently asked Utah chapter members, waterfowl hunters and others to complete a survey sharing their experiences and knowledge of the Spur and ideas for long-term management. Many common themes emerged, including:
- Respondents value the solitude and “natural” open space that the Spur provides
- Users value the opportunity to enjoy the biodiversity and numbers of birds that utilize the Spur
- Respondents are concerned about threats to the Spur, including the spread of invasive vegetation, decreased water inflows, and human disturbances such as unregulated ATV use, target shooting, illegal garbage dumping, and dogs in nesting areas
The survey results will be shared with DWR and the planning committee to inform the management plan for the Spur so that it continues to be a special place for both birds and people.