Want some great birding in northern Utah? I recently discovered a real gem—the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. It’s located on the northeast corner of the Great Salt Lake, just northwest of Ogden off I-15/I-84. The day I visited—midweek in early April—I almost had the place to myself. It was just me and plenty of birds! (Don’t confuse this place with Bear Lake NWR, in Idaho, which is also well worth a visit.)A National Wildlife Refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Bear River is similar to other refuges I’ve visited. There’s a lovely visitor center with adjacent boardwalk, helpful docents, and a list of recent sightings. The remaining area is a series of wetlands separated by dikes. The 12-mile auto loop, open dawn to dusk every day of the year (weather permitting), is the best way to see the birds, as you drive in a giant rectangle on top of these dikes.
As a photographer, I moved slowly, stopping often to take pictures. One major frustration was the dearth of pullovers—most of the dikes are too narrow to permit two vehicles to pass one another, and parking is restricted to the wider corners. I was glad there weren’t many cars, as the only way to get most of my photos was to stop in the middle of the road. Since no one was hurrying me along, I spent over three hours driving the loop. On a crowded day, you’d have to move much faster to avoid annoying casual visitors.
After so many years of drought, visiting a refuge with wet wetlands was a huge treat. Bear River is known for its large population of Western (right) and Clark’s Grebes. At this time of year they were courting, the couples swimming together and twisting their necks in tandem—a sight I’ve always wanted to see! Of course there were plenty of ducks, Double-crested Cormorants and American Coots, along with other grebes, gulls, shorebirds and White Pelicans (above).
A relatively scarce bird in Colorado, seemingly thousands of Yellow-headed Blackbirds clogged the roads and perched in the cattails. They were feasting on the dense clouds of midges that filled the air—and soon the car. Thankfully, midges don’t bite, so I just had to remember to keep from smiling too broadly!
Swallows were also in abundance, in pursuit of those same midges. Marsh Wrens called from the sides of the road, and occasionally ventured into plain view where I could snap their portraits. A Northern Harrier flew back and forth over the drier fields, looking for lunch.
If the refuge was this birdy in mid-April (and I was there mid-day—not the best time to visit), I can only imagine what it will be like in May and June. I’d love to go back to see the grebes carrying their babies on their backs, and to photograph ducklings following their mamas through the marsh. And while I did see some American Avocets (left) and Long-billed Curlews, I’m sure there will be more waders in other seasons. Sandhill Cranes also use the refuge as a rest stop during migration. I definitely intend to return, even though the Great Salt Lake is a full day’s drive from our home in Colorado. Road trip, anyone?