Bear River Bird Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah
Every year for many years, my extended family and friends make a trip to Salt Lake City, Utah during our spring break. We were all teachers and skiers, so would choose to go out west to extend the ski season that we had in the east. Because we were working full time, however, we could only stay in Utah for a week. On several of those week long trips, we would take a day off from skiing and head an hour north of Salt Lake City to the Bear River Bird Migratory Refuge. I fell in love with this refuge. When I took early retirement from teaching, my partner and I were able to start spending several weeks in the spring in Utah, both skiing and exploring the national parks in southern Utah, as well, as taking several days to visit Bear River.
I had first heard of this refuge when reading Terry Tempest Williams wonderful book, Refuge. Ms. Williams is a noted conservationist and author who grew up in a Mormon family near the refuge. Her book is a memoir that chronicles the death of her mother and several female relatives from cancer. Though the subject matter may seem depressing, the writing is lyrical as it weaves, in alternating chapters, the story of her family and the story of the refuge. The book chronicles stories of love, loss, mystery and redemption in her family, as well as, in the refuge. I have reread it twice so far.
So this spring as we were making plans to head west, I decided to ship out my longest lens (a Nikkor 600mm) and all the necessary equipment to spend a couple of days photographing at the refuge. I packed my camera (Nikon D700), lens and accessories in a Pelican 1510 case and then packed that case in a large sturdy box, padded with additional gear and FedExed it to the condo where we were staying. It was not a cheap option, but it was a sane option, given the obstacles of carrying all that gear on an airplane. The shipping wasn’t that expensive, but insuring the gear for the replacement value added significantly to the cost. I shipped $15,000 dollars worth of gear and the insurance and cost came to $270.00.
We were staying in Cottonwood Heights, the town that is at the base of Little and Big Cottonwood Canyon. From there to Bear River Refuge was about an hour and fifteen minutes. So on those mornings that I chose to shoot at the refuge, I left the condo at around 5:30 A.M. so that I could arrive at the refuge at sunrise. It was a fairly straight shot up interstate 1-15, with very little traffic at that time of day. When you arrive at the refuge you will see a a visitors center on your left. This center is worth a visit at the end of your shooting day, when the light and the birds have settled down. On the outside of the center there is a nice boardwalk around some wetlands, where you are certain to see American Coots, Song Sparrows, Yellow-Headed Blackbirds and other fairly common species. Just outside the building on the right side, the center has created a huge megaphone of sorts, which gathers the sounds from the refuge and amplifies the calls and croaks emanating from the marsh. It is worth taking a few moments to step outside and just absorb the sounds. If you show up at the refuge short-handed, they will also lend you binoculars for the day.
Another very nice thing about this refuge, which I have not seen at any of the other refuges that I have visited, is that they have an up-to-date bird siting tracker on their website (“What’s being seen”). I followed this site tracker for several weeks before the trip. Twenty three bald eagles one day, 10,000 Northern Shovelers another, Rough Legged Hawks, Sand hill Cranes. As the spring evolves the species that are migrating through changes daily, if not weekly. The hawks and eagles arrive in mid-to-late March. The ducks and grebes early to mid-April. If you can plan your trip for early April, you will not be disappointed with the diversity of wildlife present on the marsh. At just one pond or roadside wetlands, you can easily see Cinnamon Teal, mixed in with Pintails, Gadwalls, Northern Shovelers, Avocets, Black Necked Stilts. Though the refuge is world class, what is not highlighted is the twelve miles of roadside wetlands and salt marshes that you drive along to get to the entrance of the refuge. Do not sell this part of your trip short. Photographically, I think it offers some of your best opportunities for shooting wildlife up close than on the refuge itself. If possible, it is a good idea to use your car as a blind, because as soon as you open your car door most species start swimming away, though usually just to the back of the wetland. Each day I went to photograph, I spent at least two hours just on this twelve mile drive.
To enter the refuge, you turn right, cross a bridge and pass a maintenance shed. Be sure to check the maintenance shed, as sometimes owls nest in the eaves. Also, along the spillway here you usually see Grebes, Western and Clarke’s, along with White Pelicans. The refuge road is a gravel road that is passable to any vehicle most of the year, exceptions being during high water. There are several viewing areas and platforms that get you further out into the refuge or higher above the refuge. Canoes and kayaks are not allowed on this part of the refuge, so weather permitting, these offer excellent viewing vantage points. I usually spend another couple of hours on the refuge, though I find it harder photographically, as the wildlife is further offshore. However, just using my binoculars and viewing new species is pleasure enough. As you drive along the refuge, if it is a warm day, I am sorry to say, you mostly likely will encounter hordes of non-biting midges. You can see clouds of these all around the roads and marshes. Even if you stay in your car, they will surround the car and smudge the windshield. So, if possible, find a cool spring day to drive the road. And as I said earlier, don’t rush getting to the refuge as the road leading in offers excellent viewing and photographic opportunities. Despite the midges, hearing the cacophony of bird sounds on the refuge and smelling the salty air can lighten even the most jaded heart. Though the marsh offers little in the way of fish for wildlife, it is the brine shrimp of the Great Salt Lake and the lake’s prominence along the western flyway that brings in the masses of changing wildlife. This is a necessary and timely stopover for all species migrating to their northern breeding grounds. The Great Salt Lake, covering 1700 square miles, has become sacred and critical habitat.
At the end of my day, when I am leaving the refuge, is usually when I take the time to stop at the visitors center. I check with the wardens about species seen, browse the bookstore and step out onto the patio and listen as the megaphone brings in the sounds of the marsh. Bear River Bird Migratory refuge is a special refuge. The twelve miles of protected salt marsh is a true gem. Even the famous Ding Darling NWR on Sanibel Island in Florida has only a 4 mile drive through. Cape May NWR in New Jersey, despite its deserved reputation, is still sandwiched in among the cottages, sand, and seashores of a busy summer resort area.
If you make list of places you where you like to photograph wildlife, then put Bear River Bird Migratory Refuge on that list. Just read Refuge before you go and follow the refuge’s bird tracker website to get yourself excited about what viewing possibilities await you.