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Oddly, most people I know in Salt Lake City don’t visit the Great Salt Lake for which the city is named. It wasn’t until Steve, my boyfriend from Toronto, dragged me to the salty shallow, yet expansive, lake to do the last thing I thought we would be doing: birdwatching.
You’d think traveling there would be complicated since no one goes there, but the Great Salt Lake is actually easy to get to. All we did was take the Interstate 15 to Exit 332, and then drove west. until we reached the entrance of Antelope Island State Park where we paid a $9 entrance fee and began our drive on a long narrow two-lane causeway to Antelope Island, one of the largest islands in the Great Salt Lake at 15 miles long and 7 miles wide.
With water on both sides of the causeway I start to feel more removed from the long stretch of suburbs that we passed on the way here. Steve slows the car down and points to some birds wading around in the water close to shore. “Those are avocets,” he explains. “I’m sure you’ve seen them before.”
“There are thousands of them here right now. See over there?” He points in the distance and then I see it. Little dots—yes, thousands of them—on the water. “They’re only here for a few weeks to fatten up on the brine flies.” Steve goes on to explain that the algae and brine flies are dying, and combined with the lake’s sulfites, creates a pungent smell, which at first attacks the nostrils, but surprisingly, I get used to it.
We drive further and see cars parked on the narrow shoulder of the causeway and people with binoculars pressed against their faces. Steve rolls down his window and asks a man, “See anything good?”
“The usual suspects,” a man replies without looking at us.
Steve pulls up his binoculars to see. All I could see were California Seagulls, the Utah state bird, but then Steve says, “Oh, there’s a Franklin’s Gull. And a Bonapart’s Gull. And I think a Ring-billed Gull in there, but I’m not sure.”
How can he tell? They all look the same to me. And then I see it. One of the gulls has a black head.
We leave the shores of the causeway and drive around the island, passing grasslands with tumbleweed and the sweet scent of the short prickly mountain sage was a welcome relief to the sulfery smell of the shores. Steve continues his birding school with me and more than once he slams on the brakes to point out Chuckers, Western Meadowlarks and Marsh Hawks.
On our way back to the causeway I am startled to see a group of buffalo and of course, antelope, for which the island is named. If I turn my head a little more to the right, I can see the skyline of the urban sprawl. I turn back to look at the buffalo and antelope, and as we head back to the mainland of the Salt Lake Valley we spot a coyote. How is it that people who live in Salt Lake City don’t visit here?
Today’s post is by a guest blogger–my husband, Steve (a.k.a. WikiSteve, as I like to call him). He visited Antelope Island a couple of days ago and said the magic words to me: I want to write this week’s blog. (Those are my favorite words behind, “You look so thin!” and “How big did you want that diamond?”) Steve has been birding since age 6 and is the reason why I’m birding today. By trade he’s a petroleum geologist/engineer and uses big words such as halophytic.
Make Blue-green Brine Algae your dietary mainstay – 482 hundred gazillion Brine Flies can’t all be wrong. (Hey, it can’t be any worse than the jucified kale leaves that my wife, the Accidental Birder, makes me drink.)
The Great Salt Lake of Utah has a fascinating halophytic (salt-loving) ecosystem that makes it a renowned birding Mecca. Only a few species can thrive in its hypersaline conditions.
Blue-green brine algae constitutes the basis of the very simple food chain that supports unfathomable numbers of brine flies and brine shrimp, which in turn, support shorebirds and waterfowl by the millions. The Great Salt Lake is a veritable protein-rich food factory.
Starting in Spring and continuing all through Summer and well into the Fall, brine flies emerge from the shallow salty waters in astonishing numbers. The brine flies and the brine shrimp (Artemia franciscana) serve as an essential food source for millions of migratory birds.
It is the first week of Summer and therefore the first week of Fall migration. Already thousands of Wilson Phalaropes, American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Willets are converging on the Great Salt Lake as a staging ground where they will double their body weight in preparation for their long migration to South America. Within a few weeks there will be tens of thousands of shorebirds and you can expect millions more on the Great Salt Lake by mid August.
The Wilson’s Phalaropes here are predominantly females that have finished breeding for the year. In a reversal of sexual roles the plainer males are still raising their young on the prairie sloughs of the Great Plains from Alberta and Saskatchewan down to Kansas and Oklahoma. By mid July the male phalaropes will be arriving at the Great Salt Lake in large numbers soon to be followed by this year’s fledgelings. It’s in August where you’ll find over a million Wilson’s Phalaropes (comprising between one third and one half of the world’s total population for the species) feasting on brine flies and brine shrimp of the Great Salt Lake.
So, within a few weeks from now other shorebird species, returning from breeding grounds on the arctic tundra, will soon join the local Avocets, Stilts, and Willets in the tens of thousands along with hundreds of thousands of Eared Grebes, which were just here back in early May as the Accidental Birder reported. Beholding such a sheer abundance of birds is truly spectacular and the Great Salt Lake should be on every birder’s bucket list.
Check out the gallery below for more photos of the convergence on the Great Salt Lake. (Click on any photo to enlarge and it will take you to a spectacular slide show.)