From the alpine plateaus of the High Uintas to the sandy washes in the heart of the slickrock canyons, Utah comes in a magnificent palette of topographic flavors. Given this natural physical diversity and the many-faceted ecosystem spectrum it creates, it’s no surprise the Beehive State is such a mecca for birdwatching.
All across the globe, the long-distance journeying and the courtship and nesting pursuits of our feathered friends embody the shifting tempos of the wilderness year, summoning the seasons like nothing else. Whether you’re an absolute avifauna fanatic or simply someone curious about the natural world, tapping into the goings-on of Utah’s birds adds all the more depth to the jaw-dropping scenery–at every corner of the calendar. Here we’ll take a look at three outstanding places for plying your birdwatching hobby.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Accounting for some 80,000 acres along the lower Bear River and its delta in the northern Great Salt Lake, this is one of America’s preeminent birding sites. It’s a year-round hotspot, although the freezes of winter tend to drive most of the throngs of migratory waterfowl southward. From bald eagles to rough-legged hawks, however, wintertime’s ideal for spotting raptors as they scout for prey and carrion. Waterfowl and shorebirds wing through in the thousands from March through May; many embark northward to more distant summer breeding grounds, but better than 60 birds nest in Bear River–from black-necked stilts to Canada geese. Geese, ducks, and other migratory waterbirds return in droves in autumn, with the spectacle of tens of thousands of gathered tundra swans one of the most breathtaking natural phenomena in Utah.
The Great Salt Lake in general is a standout hub for seeing birds of all stripes; other fruitful sites include Antelope Island (a state park that also famously harbors a healthy herd of free-roaming bison) and the Salt Creek Wildlife Management Area.
One of the best bird watching spots along the Wasatch Back, this impoundment of the Provo River is situated east of Park City. More than 160 species of birds utilize the varied habitats along and below the reservoir at one time of year or another, from flycatchers and western warblers in the riparian brambles to a great variety of waterfowl and shorebirds. Raptors are a particularly conspicuous guild: Spring migration along the Rocky Mountain Flyway sees kestrels, ospreys, accipiters, turkey vultures, red-tailed hawks, bald and golden eagles, and others soar through the vicinity. Several birds of prey, including golden eagles, commonly nest at here as well. Lock down your lodging in Park City and then beeline to the Jordanelle for some grade-A birding!
Zion National Park
The scenic virtues of Zion are world-famous, but this 230-square-mile park, set at the threshold of the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Desert with plenty of Rocky Mountain echoes, is also a peerless destination for bird watching. A wonderful mix of habitats–from riverside cottonwood stands and spring-nourished hanging gardens to pinyon-juniper scrub and high pine forests–play host to better than 200 bird species. Among these are state rarities such as the California condor–one of North America’s heftiest flying birds, often glimpsed from Angels Rest–and the Mexican spotted owl, which nest in rugged sandstone gulches and slot canyons. Utah Birding Spots suggests late April into May might well be the absolute pinnacle of the Zion birdwatching year, given the multitude of songbirds nesting here–from painted redstarts and summer tanagers to yellow warblers and canyon wrens.
This trio of avian paradises only hint at the full dimensions of Utah bird watching. Whether you’re glassing for wading birds along a desert marshland, tracking grouse and owls in the high-country woods, or parsing the broad-winged silhouettes of soaring raptors over a maze of canyon lands, you’re going to be enjoying quality time with some of North America’s grandest landscapes.
Minnie Daughtry works as a travel writer. She enjoys posting about her travels on the web. Look for her articles on many travel websites.