The Great Salt Lake’s Importance for Birds

Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater. Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater.
Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body. The Great Salt Lake’s Importance

This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.

In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.

These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.

Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.

At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.

So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.

Credits:
The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
Picture:
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Strand, Holly, Important Bird Areas, Wild About Utah, October 21, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/important-bird-areas/

Strand, Holly, One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets, Wild About Utah, June 3, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/one-of-the-worlds-largest-shrimp-buffets/

Chambless, Ross, When the Great Salt Lake we know is gone, what shall we name it?, Commentary, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/08/19/ross-chambless-when-great/ [Accessed September 19, 2021]

Shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), https://whsrn.org/about-shorebirds/shorebird-status/

Drought Negatively Impacting Great Salt Lake Microbialites and Ecosystem, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 15, 2021, https://geology.utah.gov/drought-negatively-impacting-great-salt-lake-microbialites-and-ecosystem/

Chidsey, T.C., Jr., Eby, D.E., Vanden Berg, M.D., and Sprinkel, D.A., 2021, Microbial carbonate reservoirs and analogs
from Utah: Utah Geological Survey Special Study 168, 112 p., 14 plates, 1 appendix, https://doi.org/10.34191/SS-168

Riding, Robert, Definition: Microbialites, Stromatolites, and Thrombolites, Encyclopedia of Geobiology, SpringerLink, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature., https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-9212-1_196

Romero, Simon, Booming Utah’s Weak Link: Surging Air Pollution, The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/us/great-salt-lake-utah-air-quality.html

2015–2025 Wildlife Action Plan, Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 1 2015, https://wildlife.utah.gov/discover/wildlife-action-plan.html

Governor Cox Declares 2021 as Year of the Shorebird at Great Salt Lake, Declaration celebrates 30th anniversary of Great Salt Lake as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, Western Water News, National Audubon, May 12, 2021, https://www.audubon.org/news/governor-cox-declares-2021-year-shorebird-great-salt-lake
See also: https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/1182-cox-declares-2021-year-of-shorebird-great-salt-lake.html

Gov. Cox Issues Drought Executive Order, Governor.utah.gov, March 17, 2021, https://governor.utah.gov/2021/03/17/gov-cox-issues-drought-executive-order/

Grandaddy

Granddaddy: Oft Have We by Alfred Ralph Robbins Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Oft Have We
by Alfred Ralph Robbins
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Oft have we, my friends and I,
Left cares of home, and work day woes
To find a haven, there cast a fly;
And where we’ll camp–God only knows.

Oft have we hiked the trail uphill
To see it pass, and again return–
Walked mile on mile, to get the thrill
Of a meadow lake and a creel filled.

Oft round the lake we’ve cast and fussed
And wished it something we might shun;
But something deep inside of us
Just holds us fast till day is done.

Breathtaking Beauty by Alfred Ralph Robbins Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Breathtaking Beauty by Alfred Ralph Robbins
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Utahn Alfred Ralph Robbins loved exploring the Grandaddy Basin in northeastern Utah’s High Uintas with a group he called The High Country Boys. He compiled his labeled-and-dated sketches of camp and lake adventures among a sprinkling of black-and-white photographs in a scrapbook spanning the 1920s through the 1960s. They were casting at Governor Lake in 1927 and resting at Pine Island Lake in 1952 with 125 trout strung between the trees. I know they fished Pinto Lake, Trial Lake, Betsy Lake, and just about every lake in the area for 40 years. I know they, outfitted by Defa’s Dude Ranch, even stopped “on top of the world” on their way to Hatchery Lake with Alvis Newton Simpson, Robbins’s son-in-law and my grandfather, because he captured and preserved it.

Alfred Ralph Robbins and Grandson Jerry Newton Simpson 1947 Utah Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Alfred Ralph Robbins and Grandson Jerry Newton Simpson 1947 Utah
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
As my father handed down copies of this family fishing scrapbook to his grandchildren, my sons and daughters, after what they called a Fishing-with-Grandpa Simpson Saturday, he included a cover photograph of his Grandaddy Robbins, in his fishing waders, holding five-year-old grandson’s hand. My father added, “I only made one horse pack trip to Grandaddy Basin with Grandpa Robbins, but it was a very eventful week. It stormed one day and we could hear the rocks tumbling down the mountain when the lightning would strike and dislodge them. Another day there was a mayfly hatch as we were fishing one of the lakes. When that happened, the fish would bite on anything that hit the water. The mosquitoes just about ate us alive, and repellant didn’t help much. We saw some fish about three feet long near the rocks on shore, but we couldn’t get them to bite. We caught plenty of other fish and ate fish for supper most days that week.”

Do you have similar memories in the wild with your grandparents recorded somehow? Turning to one of my favorite books, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” I read again how Terry Tempest Williams described the memories with her grandmother among avocets, ibises, and western grebes during their outings in Utah’s Great Salt Lake wetlands. Grandmother Mimi shared her birding fascination with her granddaughter Terry along the burrowing owl mounds of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Williams wrote, “It was in 1960, the same year she gave me my Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds. I know this because I dated their picture. We have come back every year since to pay our respects.”

I’m not a grandmother yet, but I will one day make a trek over Hades Pass again, gaze at the Grandaddy Basin below, and capture nature’s poetry with pen, camera lens, and little hiker hands in mine. Bloggers have technologies today to share instantly with me and the rest of the world their adventures in this Grandaddy Wilderness region. Documenting autobiographical history has evolved from dusty diaries and scrapbooks with black-and-white photographs to today’s digital image- and video-filled blogs in exciting ways that can include the places in Utah you love with the generations you love. Consider it your contribution to history.

Grandaddy Ohs and Ahs by Alfred Ralph Robbins Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Grandaddy Ohs and Ahs
by Alfred Ralph Robbins
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

I would not miss the Oh’s! and Ah’s!
I’ve seen in Doug’s and Noel’s eyes,
When first they saw Grandaddy Lake
From the summit, in the skies.

They are thrilled I know, and so am I.
They show it in their face;
While I just swallow hard and try
To thank God for this place.

I am Grandaddy Basin poet Alfred Ralph Robbins’s great granddaughter Shannon Rhodes, and I’m wild about Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:     Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Williams, Terry Tempest. 1992. Refuge: an unnatural history of family and place. New York: Vintage Books. https://www.amazon.com/Refuge-Unnatural-History-Family-Place/dp/0679740244

Andersen, Cordell M. The Grandaddies. 2015. http://cordellmandersen.blogspot.com/2015/06/photoessay-backpack-1-2015-grandaddy.html

Wasatch Will. Fern Lake: Chasing Friends in Grandaddy Basin. 2018. https://www.wasatchwill.com/2018/06/fern-lake.html

Delay, Megan and Ali Spackman. Hanging with Sean’s Elk Party in the Uinta’s Grandaddy Basin. 2015. https://whereintheworldaremeganandali.wordpress.com/2015/09/05/hanging-with-seans-elk-party-in-the-uintas-grandaddy-basin/

Rhodes, Shannon, Wild About Nature Journaling, Wild About Utah June 22, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/wild-about-nature-journaling/

Embarking on an Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design

Ecological Transition through Permaculture Design: Before and After Permaculture Rain Garden USU Moab Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before and After
Permaculture Rain Garden
USU Moab
Photo Courtesy & © Roslynn Brain McCann, Photographer
Before installing our permaculture gardens at Utah State University, Moab, the only birds I observed from my office window were Eurasian Collared Doves and crows. The space is small. It used to consist of concrete and a mono-planted row of juniper bushes. Seven years ago, over 40 members of the Moab community helped us dream up a new vision for the space. We took out a few parking spaces that allowed my building’s roof rainwater runoff to run-in to our garden and into a rock-lined swale and a series of basins. In an area that receives an average of under 10 inches of rainfall per year, our USU Moab permaculture gardens now harvest an estimated 125,000 gallons of rainwater either directly into the garden soil, or into a series of rain tanks for later use.

Alongside planting the rain through water harvesting earthworks, we installed an ecological design with a fruit and shade producing overstory, and an understory of shrubs, plants, and grasses. The understory performs one or more of four functions: pollinator attractors, nitrogen fixers, nutrient accumulators (which pull nutrients deeper in soil layers towards the surface, becoming available through a chop and drop technique), and soil stabilizers. Now, broad-tailed hummingbirds, spotted towhees, rock wrens and more can be seen and heard as the garden bounty ripens each year. These birds bring color, song, and delight as they contribute to pest control, devouring aphids, grasshoppers and pesky plant eating beetle grubs.

What we have learned through our small urban campus is that with permaculture design, any landscape can undergo a complete ecological transition – even a landscape that is only a few feet wide and was previously partially covered in concrete.

If you are interested in applying permaculture design to your landscape, start by observing your site as it currently is. See how water flows in a rain event. Walk around during the hottest days of the year and feel where the hot and cool zones are. How does the sun move across the site during summer solstice. During winter solstice. What views do you want to take in and block? What species engage in your landscape and what ones are missing? These are the types of questions you can ask yourself. Then, as you begin to think about design ideas, here are some general tips:

    • Ask elders in your community about extreme weather events and other helpful historical information
    • Think about what your landscape is currently doing for you, and what you would like it to do. Then, develop your goals for the site. This will help you determine what is and is not currently working
    • In the desert, as a general rule, place your paths high and dry, plants low and wet (or at least wetter)
    • Discover what plants might work well together in what is called a guild. For example, if you have a nitrogen dependent shrub, plant nitrogen-fixing plants around it.
    • Harvest as much rainwater as possible through active systems like rain tanks, and passive systems like earthworks that slow, spread, and sink rainwater
    • Plant your high-maintenance plants in your most-frequented areas – alongside the pathway between your house and chicken coop, for example.
    • Birds and humans appreciate diversity in heights, species, and food-producing plants
    • Start small
    • See failures as opportunities for learning

    For Utah State University Extension Sustainability and the Department of Environment and Society, this is Roslynn Brain McCann and I’m wild about Utah!

    Credits:
    Images: Courtesy and copyright Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and copyright Kevin Colver
    Text:     Roslynn G.H. Brain McCann, Utah State University Extension Sustainability
    Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster
    Additional Reading:

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Rainwater Harvesting, Wild About Utah, October 19, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/rainwater-harvesting/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Permaculture, Wild About Utah, May 23, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/permaculture/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Three-Leaf Sumac (Rhus trilobata), Wild About Utah, November 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/three-leaf-sumac-rhus-trilobata/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Dandelion, Friend or Foe?, Wild About Utah, April 4, 2016, https://wildaboututah.org/dandelion-friend-foe/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Edible Weeds: Lambs Quarters and Purslane, Wild About Utah, March 27, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/edible-weeds-lambs-quarters-and-purslane/

    Brain McCann, Roslynn G.H., Yellow-bellied Marmot, Wild About Utah, September 21, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/yellow-bellied-marmot/

    How To Create a Bird Friendly Yard

    Male Western Tanager Courtesy Pixabay
    Male Western Tanager
    Courtesy Pixabay
    How To Create a Bird Friendly Yard
    Growing up in Smithfield Canyon in northern Utah, I heard birds singing every day. We had the incredible luxury of having variety of native plants and trees in our yard and the yards of our neighbors. The natural landscape of the canyon makes every yard bird friendly!

    When my husband Marc and I moved to downtown Logan, we realized we need to be more intentional about creating bird friendly yards. We purchased two feeders to attract birds to the yard. We started with a globe feeder filled with black oil sunflower seeds, a sock feeder filled with nyjer thistle, and a suet cage.

    I set up the feeders where I had the best line of sight from where I spent the most time at home. I was really disappointed that the birds weren’t coming to my feeders! After a bit of research, I learned that I need to place the feeders where the birds are most comfortable, near trees, bushes, and flowers where they can take cover and enjoy food from native plants.

    Taking note of this, I relocated the feeders near bushes and trees and rearranged the furniture in my home to allow me a better view. Because relocating the feeders took them farther from my home, I put a small pair of binoculars in the console of our couch so I could grab them quickly if a bird landed at the feeder.

    Black Oil Sunflower Seeds (Chickadees, Finches, Grosbeaks)
    Black oil sunflower seeds feed the widest number of birds year-round, including chickadees, finches, pine siskins, and grosbeaks. If you are new to attracting birds to your yard, start with black oil sunflower seeds.

    Learning to recognize different species by sight and sound is made easier by paying attention to your feeders. If you are lucky birds will stay at the feeder for 30 seconds, giving you time to study the markings or grab your binoculars for a closer look. The globe feeder with black oil sunflower seeds helped me learn the difference between a pine siskin and a female finch.

    Looking at photos posted in the Facebook Group, Birding in Utah, I noticed a pattern of beautiful Evening and Black-Headed Grosbeaks at platform feeders. I had not realized that different birds utilize different styles of feeders! I ordered a platform feeder, filled it with black oil sunflower seeds, and soon had Grosbeaks at my feeders at home.

    Nyjer Thistle
    A nyjer thistle sock or feeder will bring goldfinches to your yard. I love trying to determine the difference between American goldfinches and lesser goldfinches. This task becomes even more challenging when you begin to see differences in males, females, and juveniles. This type of identification is meditative for me and has been an especially important form of self-care for me through the COVID-10 pandemic. T

    Grape Jelly
    This spring, I added a grape jelly feeder to my feeding station. I was working from home and engaging in a Zoom call. I happened to look out of my window at the jelly feeder and nearly screamed with delight when I saw a yellow warbler enjoying the jelly. I took note of the general time it visited and took a photo of it at the feeder on the weekend.

    Resources
    I use eBird, a website and app, to track bird sightings in my yard. Ebird helps me know the dates I can expect to see migrating birds in my yard. I love to look at the data to see which birds I am recording most often and the months that I see the most density.

    Like many of you, I have been spending more time at home due to the coronavirus pandemic. In mid-May, I looked out the window to see a Western Tanager, my favorite bird, perched on the top of a hook holding my feeders. Spending more time at home has become an opportunity to take small steps to make my yard more bird friendly. The birds give me something to look forward to every day and they are a great reminder for staying present and hopeful for the future.

    This is Mykel Beorchia from the Bridgerland Audubon Society and I am wild about Utah.

    Credits:
    Photos:
        Courtesy Pixabay,
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Mykel Beorchia, Bridgerland Audubon Society and University and Exploratory Advising, Utah State University

    Additional Reading

    About eBird, https://ebird.org/about
    Note: eBird is a project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and is supported entirely by grants, sponsors, and donations.

    Grow a Bird Friendly Yard:

    Hummingbird Nectar Recipe, Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute, https://nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/hummingbird-nectar-recipe

    Feeding Birds, Project Feederwatch, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://feederwatch.org/learn/feeding-birds/

    Ebersole, Rene, How to Create a Bird-Friendly Yard, National Audubon Society, July-August 2013, https://www.audubon.org/magazine/july-august-2013/how-create-bird-friendly-yard

    D. Mizejewski, Attracting Birds, Butterflies and Other Backyard Wildlife (Reston, VA: National Wildlife Federation/Fox Chapel Publishing, 2004). https://www.amazon.com/National-Wildlife-Federation-Attracting-Butterflies/dp/1580111505/
    Publisher Website: https://foxchapelpublishing.com/national-wildlife-federation-r-attracting-birds-butterflies-backyard-wildlife.html

    Certify Your Wildlife Habitat, National Wildlife Federation, Accessed 20 July 2017, http://www.nwf.org/Home/Garden-For-Wildlife.aspx
    Certify: http://www.nwf.org/Garden-For-Wildlife/Certify.aspx

    Creating Landscapes for Wildlife… A Guide for Backyards in Utah, Written by Sue Nordstrom and Illustrated by Kathlyn Collins Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning, Utah State University with Margy Halpin, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources; Second Printing 2001,
    Updated for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, by Frank Howe, DWR Avian coordinator; Ben Franklin, DWR–Utah Natural Heritage Program botanist; Randy Brudnicki, DWR publications editor; and landscape planning illustrations by Stephanie Duer.,
    Published by:
    State of Utah Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife Resources,
    Utah State University Cooperative Extension Service and
    Utah State University Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning;
    1991 updated 2001 http://digitallibrary.utah.gov/awweb/awarchive?type=file&item=10215

    United States Department of Agriculture, Plants Profile: Littleleaf Mock Orange. Found online at: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=PHMI4

    United States Department of Agriculture, Plants Profile: Garrett’s Fire Chalice. Found online at: http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=EPCAG

    Plant Lists & Collections, Recommended Species by State, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, www.wildflower.org/collections

    Attracting Hummingbirds to your Yard, Human Wildlife Interactions, Utah State University Extension, April 2015, https://extension.usu.edu/wildlife-interactions/featured-animals/other-animal-topics/hummingbirds.php