A date, a smelly lake and a pair of binoculars changed my world.
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 Gulls, 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?