Bear River Refuge at the north end of Great Salt Lake is one of the most important wetland areas in North America. Unlike Cheyenne Bottoms which has relatively few breeding waterbirds, Bear River is packed with birds in June.
After the long drive out of the steaming Southeast and across the Great Plains, I finally started to encounter western landscapes in the afternoon of the third day of my trip, near the Nebraska/Wyoming border. My goal was to make it to Lincoln National Forest east of Laramie where I had read about "dispersed camping" along gravel roads in the National Forest. I naively had images of pullouts along deserted roads through beautiful wilderness area. As I exited I-80 into the national forest about two hours before dark, I was rudely reminded that it was a Friday evening on one of the most population camping weekends of the year. The place was a circus. Cars, campers, motorcycles, kids, dogs, the only thing missing was clowns and a circus tent. Large signs proclaimed that camping was permitted only at designated spots. I started driving down road 705 past campsite after campsite. By the time I had gone 4 miles, with no sign of an empty spot I was beginning to think I might not have a place to sleep. Finally I went down a little side road (really just a pull in) which had four campsites occupied by RVs. But off to one side there was a spot where someone had pulled in before. It was just big enough for my tiny car and my tiny tent and I took it. And despite the crowded conditions on the mountain, I saw a lot of birds--western birds that I had not seen in a long time--just walking around my camping area. And despite people nearby, nobody made a lot of noise and I was able to get a nights sleep.
My campsite in Lincoln National Forest east of Laramie, Wyoming. It looks like I'm a hundred miles from anyone but in reality there were campsites all around me and the whole national forest was packed with weekend campers.
I was up long before sunrise, with Violet-green Swallows calling overhead in the dark. I made my morning coffee, packed up my tent, and started down off the mountain toward Laramie. I picked up several birds by voice on my way off the mountain and I was in Laramie right at sunrise. My plan was to use the morning hours to bird the grasslands southwest of town ending in some wetland areas around Hutton Lake.
The first bird to great me on my drive through the prairie south of Laramie Wyoming was a Ferruginous Hawk.
It was a glorious morning driving south on Big Hollow Road (HWY 44). The very first bird I stopped to look at was a Ferruginous Hawk, a bird I've seen very few times in the last 30 years. It was a juvenile, sitting on a telephone poll, and it let me study it through binoculars and my scope and take its photo. That was the only Ferruginous Hawk that I saw but there were numerous Swainson's and Red-tailed Hawks as well as several Bald Eagles (disappointingly, no Golden Eagles that morning). McCown's Longspurs sang from the prairie along with Vesper Sparrow, Grasshopper Sparrows, Brewer's Sparrow, and endless Western Meadowlarks. At the end of Big Hollow Road I transitioned into lush wetlands in the Laramie River valley and quickly ran up a long list of marsh, riparian, and agricultural birds. I easily pushed my Wyoming list over 100 species. Time to head to Great Salt Lake.
Swainson's Hawks were abundant is the agriculatural lands south of Laramie.
After the wonderful birding around Laramie, it was a long drive to Brigham City, north of Salt Lake City, which is the gateway to Bear River Refuge. I made the drive with only one significant stop--I tried fishing in the Green River (o the Seeds-kee-dee as the Shoshone call it), but nothing came of my mid-day fishing adventure. Brigham City was my one planned night in a motel. It was great to get a shower and get cleaned up a bit and I slept like a rock back in a comfortable bed.
I counted 4700 White-faced Ibis coming off a roost as I entered Bear River Refuge.
I was up early, driving the long road to the start of the auto-tour drive in the pre-dawn dark. By driving slowly with the windows down, I was able to hear a nice list of birds including the only American Bittern of the trip, my only Great-tailed Grackles for Utah, my only Utah Sandhill Cranes, and Long-billed Curlews. I also watched a Short-eared Owl hunting over the dimly lit fields. It was before sunrise but getting to be full light as I approached the start of the auto tour. I noted big birds streaming across the road ahead of me--they were White-faced Ibis. Lots and Lots of White-faced Ibis. The were streaming along a canal and it was so many birds I started counting them by hundreds. I got bored and stopped counting at 4700 White-faced Ibis. That is a lot of one species of wading bird in one location.
A huge abundance and diversity of marsh birds filled the wetlands of Bear River Refuge, including several Forester's Terns in full breeding plumage and colors.
Long-billed Curlews stalked the grasslands near the entrance to the Bear River Refuge auto tour.
It was an absolutely perfect Sunday morning on the Auto Tour. For the first 1.5 hours, I did not see another car. It was crystal clear and windless as I drove past endless avocets and stilts, ibis, ducks, grebes, and the ubiquitous Yellow-headed Blackbirds. There were so many breathtaking images it was almost overwhelming. I did my best to just enjoy being out on such a magnificent morning and not try to get a photo or a tally of everything. Oddly enough, the only rare bird that I saw all morning (according to the flagging system in eBird) was a male Common Goldeneye. I started the day with my Utah list twenty or so birds short of 100. By the end of the auto tour, I was way over 100 species for Utah. By about 8:30 am the golden morning light was giving way to mid-day glare and the wind was picking up, so I bid farewell to one of the birdiest places in North America and headed toward the only county endemic in the US and my first target life bird for the trip.