Monday, January 4, 2016

Great Birding Escapes

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge,
Grand marsh of the Great Salt Lake
Bobby R. Harrison

            For a bird photographer, there is not much that compares to the excitement and anticipation of a day in the field at one of the top bird photography locations in the country.  Last spring, my days at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge were very exciting, and filled with great anticipation.  I had made two previous attempts to shoot at the Refuge near Brigham, Utah; but each attempt was thwarted by refuge road construction.  Though disappointed, I was not disheartened, because even the drive itself to the refuge entrance provided exceptional bird photography.

Bear River Water Impoundment with Wasatch Mountains in the background.

     I arrived at the refuge in the early morning twilight while the air was brisk, and filled with cacophonous melodies of the pre dawn chorus.   In the dim morning light I could see an abundance of avocets and stilts wading the shallow lagoons sweeping their bills to and fro as they gobbled-up larva of the brine fly that breeds in the saline water.   While ducks lingered in the cattails, songbirds perched on the highest stalks in the marsh and sang territorial songs.  If I could somehow erase the power lines and cell phone towers in the distance, it would be easy to believe I was in the distant past witnessing a scene from the days of creation.       
      It was not long after my arrival that the morning twilight surrendered, and without warning, the sun burst over the Wasatch Mountains with intensity, and fury that filled the delta landscape with a rich, warm glow.  The warmth of the landscape was the perfect complement to the azure blue waters of the delta, the perfect light in which to take photographs.  The colors were rich and saturated as each blade of grass, feather, and dewdrop were emblazoned with vivid brilliance.  Within minutes the chill that had permeated the predawn air dissipated, and the birds that had been perched, singing their dawn chorus became even more active as they intruded on their neighbor’s territories and chased one another.

American Avocet, Recurvirostra americana eating brine flies.

In 1843 explorer John C. Fremont wrote of the delta; “The waterfowl made a noise like distant thunder . . . as the whole scene animated with waterfowl.”  Though the number of birds has greatly diminished from those early days, the refuge is still a phenomenal place for birds, and birders.  The refuge’s 74,000 acres of marsh are filled with an abundance of avocets, stilts, grebes, pelicans, cinnamon teal and two-hundred and five other bird species.
     Before me stood a plethora of birds to photograph, and I wasted no time.  As I drove along the twenty-five miles of refuge roads I constantly stopped to shoot.  Sometimes I simply used my vehicle as a blind, while often I was afforded the opportunity to set-up a tripod and shoot from a wading bird’s eye view.  As the sun broke over the mountains it seemed that the feeding activity increased.  I was largely ignored by the birds as I shot frame after frame of the feeding frenzy.  Avocets and stilts walked so close, that they came within the minimum focus distance of the lens.  I sat motionless and waited for them to move further away before I could resume shooting.

Black-necked Stilt, Himantopus mexicanus

Not all the birds were busy feeding.  Some were on nest keeping their precious eggs, and future generation alive.  This was the first time I had the opportunity take photos of these amazing birds in their breeding plumage, it was like heaven from me.  It was the reason I was there.   I am constantly amazed by the satisfaction and fulfillment I receive with this simple communion with nature.
Satisfied with my images of the avocets and stilts I continued on my path of discovery, and indeed there were discoveries.  As I drove around a bend in the road I saw a bird I had never seen before.  We birders call them “lifers,” I could barley contain myself.  Within minutes I had images in camera.  The bird was a Clark’s grebe, it is akin to the western grebe, another bird I had not seen or photographed, yet.  That too was going change.  Within minutes a western grebe appeared on the scene and I found myself taking photos of two “lifers.”  It is not always like this; I was in a very special place. 

Clark's Grebe, Aechmophorus clarkii

 Western Grebe, Aechmophorus occidentals on nest.

The day was young and I continued my prowl for more birds set against perfect backgrounds,  and I was not disappointed.  Yellow-head blackbirds and marsh wrens are on my list, and they were ever present.  I finally found a marsh wren perched on a high reed blurting out its territorial call.  Watching the bird I found its favorite perch and parked near by to use my van as a blind.  It only took a few minutes for the marsh wren to make its rounds and perch on the reed I had chosen.   Soon I was rewarded with an image I had held in my mind for decades.  I used the same technique for the yellow-head blackbird with great success. 

Marsh Wren, Cistothorus palustris

     Though I shot in the marsh for three days, a good image of the beautiful cinnamon teal eluded me.  I shot many images of the bird, but I was not happy with any of them.  However, this is not a bad thing, for it gives me the opportunity to return to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and commune among the thundering wings in the marshes of the Great Salt Lake.


HABITAT TYPE: Marsh, open water and mudflats, fresh and brackish water marsh habitat types. Bring insect repellant during the warm summer months.

FEATURED BIRDS: American Avocet, Black-necked Stilt, Cinnonmon Teal, Western and Clark’s Grebe, Black-crowned Night Heron, Short-eared Owl, Marsh Wren, Yellow-headed Blackbird

SEASON: All year, spring and fall migration especially good.

DIRECTIONS:  Take Exit 363 and go west on Forest St. for 2.5 miles.  Follow curve to the left onto Bird Refuge Rd.  Go 9.8 miles to the refuge entrance.

NOTES: Accessible restroom

NEAREST CITY: Brigham City, UT

• Days In Brigham City, 1033 South 1600 West, Brigham City, UT 84302 : (435) 723-3500
• Hampton Inn Brigham City, 40 N Main St, Brigham City, UT 84302 : (435) 538-7080
• Brigham Historic Inn & Suites, 64 S, 100 W, Brigham City, UT 84302 : (435) 695-3363
• Galazie Motel, 740 S Main St., Brigham City, UT 84302 : (435) 723-3439

El Toro Viejo Restaurant - Mexican Restaurant
680 S Main St.
Brigham City, UT 84302
Open until 9:00 PM

China Hua guan Restaurant - Chinese Restaurant
903 S Main St.
Brigham City, UT 84302
(435) 723-8859
Open until (9:30 PM

J & D's Famil Restaurant
720 S Main St.
Brigham City, UT 84302
(435) 723-3811

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