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.

The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon,
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon,

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah,

Strand, Holly, Important Bird Areas, Wild About Utah, October 21, 2008,

Strand, Holly, One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets, Wild About Utah, June 3, 2008,

Chambless, Ross, When the Great Salt Lake we know is gone, what shall we name it?, Commentary, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 2021, [Accessed September 19, 2021]

Shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN),

Drought Negatively Impacting Great Salt Lake Microbialites and Ecosystem, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 15, 2021,

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,

Riding, Robert, Definition: Microbialites, Stromatolites, and Thrombolites, Encyclopedia of Geobiology, SpringerLink, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature.,

Romero, Simon, Booming Utah’s Weak Link: Surging Air Pollution, The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2021,

2015–2025 Wildlife Action Plan, Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 1 2015,

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,
See also:

Gov. Cox Issues Drought Executive Order,, March 17, 2021,

Written by Hall Crimmel & Dan Bedford, Filmed and Edited by Isaac Goeckeritz, iUtah EPSCor, Rachel Carsen Center Environment & Society,
Based on the book Desert Water; The Future of Utah’s Water Resources edited by Hall Crimmel and published by University of Utah Press, 2014

Carney, Stephanie, Vanden Berg, Michael D., GeoSights: Microbialites of Bridger Bay, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Survey Notes, Utah Geological Survey, State of Utah, January 1, 2022,

Autumn Migrations

Autumn Migrations: Redhead Ducks Courtesy US FWS Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Redhead Ducks
Courtesy US FWS
Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Here comes Autumn, especially noticed in the northern parts of Utah: the colors, the cool air, the absence of many insects, the falling leaves, and the occasional dusting of snow in the mountains.

In these weather-changing conditions, wildlife species have four options: adapt to colder weather, migrate to better conditions, hibernate…or die. Today, we’ll consider migration.

As recorded by the National Geographic Society, Entomology Professor Emeritus, Hugh Dingle, mentions five basic characteristics of migration:

Prolonged movements that carry animals outside familiar habitats.

  1. They tend to be linear, not zig-zag patterns.
  2. They involve special behaviors of preparation and arrival (such as overfeeding).
  3. They demand special allocations of energy.
  4. They maintain attention to the greater mission. Meaning they are undistracted by temptations, and undeterred by challenges, that would turn other animals aside.
  5. They feel they can eat, rest, or mate later.

The entire migration movement involves body shape, physical processes, and genetics of each species.

For ten years, scientists have been documenting one of the largest aerial mass migrations on earth. According to Science Magazine, three and one half trillion insects were recorded on radar traveling from southern England to Africa and back. They represented 3,200 tons of biomass (living tissues), which was more than seven times that of the thirty million songbirds that make that same annual flight.

Movements don’t have to be monumental to be considered migratory. For instance, some consider the daily changes in depth of ocean zooplankton to be a form of migration. They spend the day near the surface benefiting from the food provided by sunlight, then sink to darker depths at night to hide.

Some rattlesnakes in Western Canada are also considered migratory as they have been tracked to relocate anywhere from 5 to 33 miles each year. This movement is spurred by cold temperatures which reduce food, and a scarcity of good den sites below the earth’s surface, which must be warm enough and at times capable of holding up to 1,000 snakes. In contrast, Arizona rattlers travel far less because they don’t require that need.

Pronghorns, which are not really antelopes, travel far and fast, around 60 miles per hour. One group travels hundreds of miles from north-central Montana up into Alberta for breeding in the Spring. Another group of nearly 20,000 goes from Grand Teton National park south to the sagebrush plains near Pinedale, Wyoming for the winter. The routes of both groups do not vary, which can be hazardous if they are blocked by snows.

Biodiversity of ecosystems and processes, which enable each species to survive, is critical. But Conservation scientists also try to preserve migrational behaviors.

Monarchs in Mexico Courtesy FWS Pablo Leutaud, Photographer Licensed under Creative Commons
Monarchs in Mexico
Courtesy FWS
Pablo Leutaud, Photographer
Licensed under Creative Commons
No doubt, there are fragile creatures which travel south to avoid cold temperatures as well as lack of food. The Monarch butterfly comes to mind. The disappearance of flowers, and freezing cold would spell doom for them in northern climates. So they embark on a 3,000 mile journey to Mexico, or southern California. Let’s consider some other long-distance, roundtrip travelers:
*Salmon and Caribou also migrate 3,000 miles.
*Dragonflies will go 10,000 miles.
*Leatherback turtles swim 12,000 miles.
*Elephant seals and Humpback whales swim over 13,000 miles.
*For birds, Northern Wheatears and Pectoral Sandpipers fly 18,000 miles.
*Sooty Shearwaters fly from the Falkland Islands to Arctic waters, a roundtrip of 40,000 miles.
*The champion distance migrant, the Arctic Tern, flies 44,000 miles from the Arctic north of Greenland to Antarctica every year!
*And the longest nonstop flight goes to the Bar-Tailed Godwit at over 7,000 miles from Alaska to New Zealand in nine consecutive days!

An entire program could also be dedicated to human migrations including various Native American tribes, the Nenets who herd reindeer 400 miles in the Russian Yamal Peninsula, and the ancient people who crossed the Bering Strait to settle in the Americas.

As we close this session of Fall migrations, consider the words of George Eliot who wrote
the following in 1841: “Delicious Autumn. My very soul is wedded to it. And if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive Autumns.”

This is Ron Hellstern for Wild About Utah


Images: Readhead Ducks, Courtesy US FWS, Nate Rathbun, Photographer; Monarchs in Mexico, Courtesy US FWS but licensed under Creative Commons, Pablo Leutaud, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Canary in the Cornfield: Why the Fuss about Monarchs?

NRCS Working Lands for Monarch Butterflies,

Why Some Birds Flock in the Vee Formation

Why Some Birds Flock in the Vee Formation: Canada Geese Flying in a V Formation. Courtesy & Copyright, Brenda Bott, Photographer
Canada Geese Flying in
a V Formation
Courtesy & Copyright © Brenda Bott, Photographer
Spring is that magical season when avian migrants return north from more balmy climates. Utah’s migrants range from ponderous pelicans to tiny hummingbirds, honking geese to crying curlews. Many arrive as they departed, in flocks.Why Some Birds Flock in the Vee Formation

Kevin Colver: Songbirds of Yellowstone, Canada Goose)

But why fly in a flock at all? One reason is predator evasion, the same reason that minnows school and elk, bison and deer bunch in herds. Embedded in a swirling mass of birds called a swarm flock, an individual bird is less likely to be picked off by an aerial predator, such as a falcon or a Cooper’s Hawk. A raptor diving into a swarm flock risks collision and injury. Targeting a bird in a swirling group is visually difficult too. Flying in a flock gains safety, but at what cost? Pigeons flying in a swarm flock take shallower, more frequent wing strokes than a solo bird. Faster wing beats probably provide more control to better negotiate turbulent aerial traffic, but extra flapping costs more in energy.

In contrast, pelicans and other big birds often fly in tidy formation flocks. Flying in a vee formation, a trailing pelican’s heart beats 13% slower than the lead bird. That’s because a trailing pelican flaps less than the leader. Unlike pigeons, then, a pelican flying in a formation flock uses less energy, not more. Big birds with slow wing beats share aerodynamic attributes with airplanes. Some of the air under their wings swirls out from under the tips, creating a spiraling vortex that trails the wing tip. Flying in a tight vee formation, each trailing bird gets a bit of lift from the upwash created by that vortex, and so it can flap a little less and glide a little more. Lead birds tire more quickly, so leaders change periodically. Leaders lose their zip, not their way. In a vee, birds also have their flock mates in good view, which is needed for the tight precision of a formation flock.

(Kevin Colver: Songbirds of Yellowstone, Sandhill Crane)

Pelicans, swans, geese, cranes, ibis, ducks, godwits, they all ply the Utah sky in formation flocks. They may be bird-brained, but our bigger migrants know a thing or two about aerodynamics.

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Brenda Bott, Photographer
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Spectacular flock (called a “murmuration”) of starlings, Sophie Windsor Clive & Liberty Smith, As viewed from Contains advertisements.

Van Ijken, Jan, Flight of the Starlings, National Geographic, Nov 15, 2016,
See also

Additional Reading:

Avian flight by John J. Videler. 2005. New York, Oxford University Press. 258 pp.

  • Acquisition of knowledge
  • The flight apparatus
  • Feathers for flight
  • Aerodynamics
  • Evolution of bird flight
  • Bird flight modes
  • The bird flight engine
  • Energy required for flight
  • Comparing the metabolic costs of flight

Usherwood JR, Stavrou M, Lowe JC, Roskilly K, Wilson AM. 2011. Flying in a flock comes at a cost in pigeons. Nature. 2011 Jun 22;474(7352):494-7.

Weimerskirch H; Martin J; Clerquin Y; Alexandre P; Jiraskova S. 2001. Energy saving in flight formation. Nature. 413: 697-698.

Heading South

US Flyways
Courtesy US FWS

Hi I’m Holly Strand.

Every fall, I scan the sky for the fluid lines of birds heading south to their winter homes. Although the flocks are fascinating to watch, I get a bit melancholy. I imagine the warm and balmy weather ahead of them and the frigid temperatures that are in store for me.

Migration behavior in birds –and other animals– evolved to help them cope with a scarcity of resources during a particular time of the year. Severe weather and lack of food are characteristic of winters in the far north of the Northern Hemisphere. Therefore almost all of the birds migrate. Although more hospitable than the arctic, Utah winters are no picnic. Therefore, birds that breed in Utah have also bought heavily into migration.

Huge numbers of Wilson’s Phalarope
gather at the Great Salt Lake
before migration.(female)
Photo courtesy and
Copyright © 2008 Stephen Peterson

Looking at a map of Western Hemisphere migration routes –or flyways—you might be reminded of the route map of a major airline. There are short regional flights, say to an adjacent state to the south or sometimes just to a lower altitude. There are medium distance flights to Mexico or Central America. And then there are the long haul flights, with birds flying from northern tundra all the way to Argentina, Chile or Antarctica.

Wilson’s phalarope is one of Utah’s long-distance migrators. After the breeding season, about 500,000 birds form the largest staging concentration of phalaropes in the world at the Great Salt Lake. After fueling up on brine shrimp and brine flies, the birds head off to wetlands in Bolivia and Argentina.

Huge numbers of Wilson’s Phalarope
gather at the Great Salt Lake
before migration.(male)
Photo courtesy and
Copyright © 2008 Stephen Peterson

Swainson’s hawk travels farther than any other North American hawk. It migrates to the Argentinian pampas in huge flocks with as many as 5,000–10,000 individual. If a Swainson’s hawk begins migration in the northern part of its range, total round trip distance will exceed 20,000 km.

The rufous hummingbird doesn’t breed in Utah but flies though on its remarkable journey from the northwest and Alaska to Central America. If you measure its travel in body lengths as opposed to distance, this tiny little aviator makes world’s longest known migration.

For pictures and sources please go to

Thanks to the knowledgeable folks on the UtahBirds chatline for their help in developing this story.

The Swainson’s hawk photographed
in Starr, UT will overwinter
in Argentina.
Photo courtesy and
Copyright © 2006 Lu Giddings

For Wild About Utah, I’m Holly Strand

Photo: Courtesy US FWS National Digital Library
Swainson’s Hawk: Courtesy and Copyright 2006 Lu Giddings
Text: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Bechard, Marc J., C. Stuart Houston, Jose H. Sarasola and A. Sidney England. 2010. Swainson’s Hawk (Buteo swainsoni), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

With a length of 9.5 cm,
the rufous hummingbird
has the longest migration
in the world in relation to its size.
Photo courtesy and
Copyright © 2010 Michael Fish

Berthold, Peter. 2001. Bird Migration: A General Survey (second edition). Oxford Ornithology Series. Oxford University Press.

Colwell, M. A. and J. R. Jehl, Jr. 1994. Wilson’s Phalarope (Phalaropus tricolor), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

Elphick, Jonathan, Ed. The Atlas of Bird Migration. 1995. NY: Random House.

Healy, Susan and William A. Calder. 2006. Rufous Hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online:

A Rufous hummingbird
collects nesting material
Photo courtesy US FWS
George Gentry, Photographer

USGS. Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center Migration of Birds.
[ Accessed October 28, 2010]

Weidensaul, Scott 1999. Living on the Wind. NY: North Point Press