Celebrating northern Utah’s exceptional feathered friends

By Katherine Pioli

Birds love the Great Salt Lake. On any given day, thousands of them can be seen floating, diving, soaring, burrowing (burrowing owls, anyone?) and stalking along the marshes, grasses, islands, beaches and bays of our great inland sea. Among these feathered fowl, one special creature is as likely to be identified by its bark as by its beak. The sandhill crane, a leggy creature with a long bill and a red mask, is one of the loudest birds in the pond. With the help of special tracheal adaptations, the sandhill crane speaks in purrs, barks and rattles exceeding a dozen different vocal variations. And it can be heard up to 2 ½ miles away.

This year at the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, May 16-19, the sandhill crane gets special attention as the festival’s spotlight bird. Guided fieldtrips seeking out this unusual species will take festival goers across the northern half of Utah to sites at 4-Mile Ranch (near Hyrum), Deseret Land & Livestock (on the Utah/Wyoming border) and Swaner EcoCenter (in Park City).

Those hoping to spot the bird during the weekend’s festivities might want to familiarize themselves with the crane’s interesting—and loud—vocalization patterns and use their ears as well as their eyes since finding sandhill cranes in Utah isn’t exactly easy. Though there are about half a million sandhill cranes in North America—the only continent where they are found—the Rocky Mountain population found here includes only about 22,000 birds. For this subspecies, Utah is just a stopover point on the trip from wintering grounds in Mexico to nesting grounds in Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. During their 2015 September migration, only about 3,600 sandhill cranes were counted passing through northern Utah with fewer than 800 making the trip to the Great Salt Lake (most passed through the Uinta Basin).

Sandhill Crane

Current population numbers for the sandhill crane are strong enough that the bird is considered an animal of “least concern” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. That designation is quite an accomplishment considering that their numbers plummeted during the first half of the 20th century with only about 400 remaining by the mid-1940s. Today those numbers have improved enough to allow seasonal permitted hunts for sandhill cranes in most states. That doesn’t mean that sandhill cranes are completely in the clear. Displacement by human presence and habitat loss are still a huge concern. (One study in Texas showed that sandhill cranes will alter their flight routes by up to 5 miles to avoid wind turbines.) And with all the proposed development in areas close to the Great Salt Lake—the inland port, damming the Bear River, suburban growth, possible expansion of Legacy Parkway—we can only hope that someone thinks of the sandhill cranes, and other wildlife, as these projects take shape.

The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is an annual family-friendly, educational event. Local families looking to explore the natural world in their own backyard and bird enthusiasts from around the world can all find something to fit their tastes, interests and budget. Dozens of workshops, youth programs, lectures and field trips are held each day during the four-day event, at locations all across northern Utah. Some events require tickets but many are free to the public. Check the online program guide for dates, locations and ticketing information.

Vamoose’s picks for the 2019 Great Salt Lake Bird Festival

Friday, May 17

Bird Cartoons 101 with keynote speaker Rosemary Mosco
Rosemary Mosco grew up in Ottawa, Canada, surrounded by rivers and wetlands. While she is in awe of all the natural world, birds in particular have always fascinated her. They are strange—turkey vultures poop on their own feet to stay cool—and powerful—the Northern pygmy owl can kill quails and squirrels, animals twice its size. Using her skills as an artist, Mosco learned that she could make natural history lessons beautiful, creative and easy to understand. Her favorite medium is cartoons. Bird and Moon is her online collection of science and nature cartoons. She also has a new book, Birding Is My Favorite Video Game. During her cartoon workshop, Mosco will talk about her creations and help others discover their own talent for art and the natural word. A book signing will follow the workshop (with only pre-sold books, none will be available for purchase at the event).
6:15 – 7:15 p.m., Eccles Wildlife Education Center, 1157 S. Waterfowl Way, Farmington, free

Saturday, May 18

Painting a Soundscape
Join Tracy Aviary for a family nature program. Discover new ways to interpret our surroundings and sharpen our listening skills.
9-10 a.m., Tracy Aviary, 589 E. 1300 South (Liberty Park), SLC, free

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing Owl Field Trip
Owls are about as cool as they come. They are birds of wisdom, night fliers, silent killers and just so darn adorable. Out on the grasslands of Antelope Island State Park lives a kind of owl that probably takes the prize for being cute: the burrowing owl. These little guys actually stay awake and active during the day so it’s easier to find them. Go looking for these burrowing owls with the help of Antelope Island park ranger and naturalist Charity Owens, nature photographer Brian Ferguson and Utah birder and author Ella Sorensen.
9 a.m.-noon and 1-4 p.m., Meet at the Eccles Wildlife Education Center, 1157 S. Waterfowl Way, Farmington. Limit 25. Mini bus. $40

Sunday, May 19

Beginners can learn to ID birds at the festival

Bird the West Desert & Pony Express Trail
Travel the rugged Pony Express Trail on a loop starting at Clover Springs Campground in Johnson Pass, traveling over to Lookout Pass, and back around past Fitzgerald Wildlife Management Area. Birds to watch for will be bushtits, juniper titmice, pinyon jays, sagebrush sparrows, black-throated gray warblers and horned larks. Guides along the trail will be Keeli Marvel, the natural resources specialist at Dugway Proving Ground.
6 a.m.-3 p.m.: Meet 6 a.m. at the Eccles Wildlife Education Center, 1157 S. Waterfowl Way, Farmington or at 7 a.m. at the Macey’s Grocery parking lot, 972 N. Main St., Tooele. Limit 12. Van. Cost $80

Sunset Dinner Cruise on the Great Salt Lake
Tour the south end of the lake aboard a 54-foot motor yacht. Observe birds in their island and lake shoreline habitats. A four-course dinner will be served (vegetarian and vegan options offered).
6-9 p.m., Great Salt Lake State Park Marina, 1075 S. 13312 West, Magna. Limit 20. $95

Great Salt Lake Bird Festival
Davis County Administration Building
61 S. Main St., Farmington,