By Emma Penrod, Sierra Magazine
It’s early autumn and the reeds surrounding me are mostly dead, but they still sound very much alive, filled with the rush of the breeze, creaking insects, and the shy songs of birds.
My guide, long-time Utah birdwatcher and Audubon Council president John Bellmon, tells me that my keen ear, which hears elusive bird calls all around us, is a gift. Many people bird by ear, he says—you learn to identify the bird songs then follow the sound to its source for a glimpse of a new feathered friend to add to your “life list.”
I am not so easily convinced I have an aptitude for the hobby given my difficulty in actually locating birds of any note. I detect some movement in the reeds across a pond, prompting Bellmon to set up his sighting scope and peer inside. Mallard ducks, he declares. They’re the most common type of duck in Utah—nothing to write home about.
Not that home, for me, is very far.
I have lived in Utah my entire life, but I have never tried birdwatching—despite the fact that the state’s iconic Great Salt Lake is hemispheric mecca for birds. Millions of them—entire species, in some cases—rely on the wetland habitats that surround the lake.
This remarkable landscape is rarely celebrated by the locals. Even life-long residents are often unaware of the natural resource in their backyard. Because of this disconnect, few are aware of plans for urbanization that stand to impact 11,000 to 15,000 acres of wetland habitat in northern Utah in the next few decades.
Galvanized by these threats, conservationists have banded together to help the public connect to their surroundings. That’s what has brought me to Farmington Bay on the southeast shore of the Great Salt Lake—the newly opened Eccles Wildlife Education Center, Bellmon had told me, was the perfect place for a first-time birdwatching lesson.