Merrill Webb's
 Top 20 Birding Places in Utah


(From a series of articles written for the Utah County Birders newsletter - Jan to Mar 2008)

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I'm sure most of you have been asked, "Where is your favorite place to go birding in Utah?" Suppose you were getting along in years, and you wanted to visit the very best locations in order to observe the most birds you could before you died. Or, at least, before you were unable to go birding any more. And you want to see some nice scenery while you're at it. So, I've put together my suggested list of the "Top 20 places in Utah to go birding before I die" list. I admit that such a list is quite subjective (based on my own experiences without input from anyone else), so I have organized them alphabetically. See if you agree.

(Listed Alphabetically)  

Antelope Island State Park
photo by Merrill Webb

1. Antelope Island State Park and Causeway

Nothing matches the spectacle of seeing hundreds of thousands of Eared Grebes and Wilson's Phalaropes feeding on the Gt. Salt Lake. Thousands of American Avocets, and hundreds of assorted other shore birds like the Black-necked Stilt and Western Sandpipers can be observed during spring and fall migrations.  Impressive numbers of Black-bellied Plovers, Sanderlings, and Bonaparte's Gulls can be observed during migration as well. It is like no other experience you can have in Utah in terms of total numbers of birds. There is a nominal fee since it is a state park.

Since you are this close to Antelope Island you might as well continue your trip to the island and look for Chukar, Burrowing Owl, Barn Owl, and Grasshopper Sparrow. At Garr Ranch, farther south from the visitor's center, especially during spring and fall migration, there are a variety of songbirds to be looked for. Northern Waterthrush, Wilson's, Townsend's, Black-and-White and Magnolia Warblers have all been seen here. And if the hummingbird feeders are in place the Rufous Hummingbird plus another couple of species of hummers can be easily observed.

Bear River MBR
photo by Eric Huish

 2. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

If you like waterfowl (and shorebirds) this federally managed refuge is a must see place. Thousands of ducks, i.e., Northern Pintail, Northern Shoveler, Green-wing Teal, and Gadwall can be observed during migration. Flocks of Marbled Godwits, Long-billed Dowitchers, Willets and peeps cover the mudflats during the same time. During the late spring and into the summer you can observe the courtship antics of the Western Grebe and also observe the colorful Ruddy Duck. During the winter months, the unmistakable calls of thousands of Tundra Swans fill the cold, crisp air. And its free.

Beaver Dam Wash
photo by Merrill Webb

3. Beaver Dam Wash

There are about ten species of Mohave Desert birds that make their home in the southwestern corner of the state. No one who is serious about keeping a state bird list should die before visiting Lytle Ranch Preserve, owned by Brigham Young University. Located northwest of St. George, the ranch can be accessed by traveling on a graded gravel road once you leave the main highway at a place that used to be called "Castle Cliff". Consult a map for directions. On the drive to the ranch watch for Cactus Wren and Black-throated Sparrow as well as the occasional Loggerhead Shrike which hunts from the tops of Joshua Trees. Birds that can be found at the preserve include the uncommon Common Black Hawk, White-winged Dove, Costa's Hummingbird, Phainopepla, Summer Tanager, Black-tailed Gnatcatcher, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Verdin, Lucy's Warbler and Bell's Vireo. April is the best time to visit because it isn't too hot, yet, and the birds are vocalizing. But you need to be there early (before 10:00 AM) for best results. Other species to look for are the Greater Roadrunner, Gambel's Quail, Ladder-back Woodpecker, Crissal Thrasher, Blue Grosbeak and Hooded Oriole. When the figs are rips as many as three species of orioles are possible as they come in to feed on the ripe fruit. Persimmons ripen by late fall, and the Red-naped Sapsuckers move in to feed on the fruit, which then attracts the large, golden-winged Tarantula Hawks, wasps that feed on the juice made accessible by the woodpeckers. At night listen for the Western Screech Owl, Great Horned Owl and Common Poorwill. If you visit during fall migration, eastern vagrants should be looked for. Lytle Ranch Preserve really is a jewel in the desert.

4. Deseret Ranch
Located mostly in Rich County in northern Utah Deseret Ranch offers a great diversity of birds and harbors one of the largest populations of Greater Sage Grouse in Utah. The problem here is access--and I'm not referring to automobile access. A couple of instate birders have purchased the "rights of admission" so to speak. In order to check out the birds on the greater portion of the ranch a fee is charged by the individual who serves as your guide on the property. [email for information]

It is a great place to find unusual migrating birds, especially warblers and shorebirds. But if you don't mind visiting other places in the state I will mention you can find most of the same birds. It just takes longer. Depends on the state of your health, I suppose.

 5. Devil's Canyon Campground and Recapture Reservoir
In southeastern Utah, driving on State Highway 191 between Monticello and Blanding takes the birder through extensive stands of Ponderosa Pine forest.  Devil's Canyon Campground is a favored stop along the way because finding three species of nuthatches (Pygmy, Red-breasted and White-Breasted) is a real possibility. Plus, this area is probably the most consistent location in the state to observe the Acorn Woodpecker. Other woodpecker species to look for are the Hairy, Downy and the Red-naped Sapsucker. A short distance farther south on the highway toward Blanding is Recapture Reservoir, a favorite stop-over for migrating water birds such as mergansers, grebes and Common Loons.

Farmington Bay
photo by Jack Binch

6. Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area
During the winter months, this state-managed waterfowl area is the best place in the state to observe large numbers of Bald Eagles as they move in for a free lunch of dead carp. Numbers seem to peak during the last of January to the middle of February, so if you like watching eagles, this is the best time and place to go visit. Located on the east shore of the Gt. Salt Lake this management area is just a short drive from major population centers along the Wasatch Front.

During your winter visit there are usually three or four species of gulls on which to practice your identification skills.

Mirror Lake from Mt. Baldy
photo by Merrill Webb

During the summer months watch for Common Moorhen, American Bittern, Virginia Rail and Sora.  Much more common, though, are Marsh Wrens, Cinnamon Teal and Canada Geese, all of which are common nesting species.

7. The High Uintas

For beautiful mountain scenery the drive east from Kamas on the Mirror Lake highway through forests of pinion-juniper, aspen, and finally spruce-fir is a favorite of most instate birders. Plus, this is the best location in the state to observe a variety of high alpine forest birds in a centrally located area.  Around the Mirror Lake camping area, Gray Jay, Clark's Nutcracker, Pine Grosbeaks and Three-toed Woodpeckers are fairly easy to find. And at certain times of the year, with luck, the Black-rosy Finch can be observed foraging in the snowfields along Mt. Baldy pass. Red Crossbills and Pine Siskins can usually be observed in the tops of conifers where they extract seeds from the cones.

8. Quail Creek Reservoir, Grandpa's (Stratton's) Pond and Hurricane Water Treatment Ponds

Quail Creek Reservoir
photo by Merrill Webb

Within a couple of miles of each other in the Virgin River drainage, and located between St. George and Hurricane in Washington County, are three man-made bodies of water which attract many different species of water birds, especially during the winter months.  These are the places to go if you want to perfect your identification skills on ducks because most of them are here.

At Quail Creek reservoir diving ducks such as Common Goldeneye and Bufflehead are common.  Double-crested Cormorants, Eared and Western Grebes, although not considered waterfowl, can also be observed.

Just to the south on the other side of the earth-filled dam is Stratton's, now called Grandpa's, Pond. There is always a good variety of waterfowl here such as Hooded Merganser, Greater and Lesser Scaup, American Wigeon, and an occasional Red-head or Canvasback.

And just to the southwest of this pond are the Hurricane water-treatment ponds on which can be found rafts of Northern Shoveler, Ruddy Duck, and Ring-necked Duck.

Strawberry Reservoir
photo by Merrill Webb

9. Strawberry Valley
Strawberry Valley in Wasatch County would be one of the first on my list of "must visit" sites. This area not only has a lot of interesting birds, and is only an hour's drive from Utah Valley, but it is a beautiful area to visit, especially in the summer when a variety of mountain wild flowers are in bloom.  Centered in the middle of the valley is Strawberry Reservoir, one of the most heavily fished bodies of water in the state. But Strawberry also attracts large numbers of nesting Western Grebe, hundreds of American White Pelican, and many species of waterfowl. Gravel roads along tributaries such as Clyde Creek, Mud Creek, Bryant's Fork, Indian Creek, Co-op Creek, and Strawberry River provide access to a mixed variety of riparian and forest birds such as Willow Flycatcher, Pine Grosbeak, Fox Sparrow, House Wren, and if you are lucky, Three-toed Woodpecker and Northern Goshawk. In the sagebrush-grass steppe Brewer's and Vesper Sparrows are easy to observe. In the more moist areas Sandhill Crane and Savannah Sparrows can be found.

Birding at Zion NP
photo by Eric Huish

10. Zion National Park
While enjoying spectacular scenery in the main canyon of Zion National Park look for Plumbeous Vireo, Yellow Warbler, Black-headed Grosbeak and the Peregrine Falcon which hunts from high vantage points overlooking the canyon floor. Along the Narrow's Trail look for the Painted Redstart, one of the few places in Utah where this species has nested regularly in the last four years. Take a trail on the east side of the mile-long tunnel and watch White-throated Swifts zip by at eye level and listen for the cascading song of the Canyon Wren. Then take the East Rim Trail through Ponderosa Pine parkland near the eastern boundary of the park and watch for Hairy Woodpecker, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Pygmy Nuthatch and the beautiful Grace's Warbler.

During the winter, if you should be inclined to visit when there aren't hordes of visitors to contend with, Winter Wren has been found at the waters associated with Weeping Rock. Watch for Dippers in the Virgin River. And sometimes, near and around the campgrounds and visitor's center Pygmy Owls have been found. There is a fee to enter the park, but in my opinion it is worth it, at any time of the year.


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