I sat in the backseat of a beaten down, white truck that was crawling down a thin, long road that runs between the habitats of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. A cold fog blurred the horizon ahead of me.
The lake was the sky. The sky was the lake.
Even in January, the morning after one of the biggest snowstorms Utah has seen in years, the life this glimmering lake supports echoed against the thick snow in the form of a song. I stuck my head out the window and felt my skin redden as the frosty air kissed my cheeks. I was desperate to hear the singers’ whistles.
“We count the birds by tens,” said Brian Ferguson, the birder and former forest ranger who was driving the truck.
I frantically scanned a crowd of singers—small black songbirds speckled with gold and green. Ferguson told me they were European starlings. I tried to count in tens as a group flew by us in a synchronous pattern. There were more than 100.
Refuge volunteers go on these counts every two weeks—spending their mornings counting any bird in sight to determine how many are visiting the Great Salt Lake. These counts have revealed that there are fewer birds in recent years, as the lake has suffered through a prolonged period of drought.
A “spark bird” is the first bird that truly kindles a birder’s interest in the sport. Many birders describe this as the animal that swayed their hearts and opened their eyes to the beautiful world of ornithology—an “aha moment” in which they committed to scrutinizing fowl for life. As we drove, I saw fifteen northern harriers gliding up and down, searching for lunch. Maybe they would be my spark bird. Or perhaps this raptor, with its brown and cream cell-block wings, could be my “aha!” Or maybe it could be the bald eagle, settled far off in the distance, isolated in the snow, with nothing but a stark tree to keep it company. Snow filled my boots as I stepped out of the truck to gaze at an array of tundra swans. In the distance, they looked to me like snow angels.
“Look, Clarissa,” Ferguson said. “This is your real National Geographic moment. There are 2,600 tundra swans out there.”
I looked through my binoculars and wondered how in the world my guide had counted them all so fast. But that was the moment—or at least it was somewhere about the moment—in which I realized that maybe my spark bird wasn’t going to be one specific bird, from one specific species. Maybe this experience was my spark. Maybe it was all of the birds that flock to the shores of a lake that I have known my whole life but had never really seen.
And something inside of me wanted to count them all before they are gone.
The Decline of the Great Salt Lake
Year-round, North American migrating birds follow the sun, the stars and the planet’s magnetic field to find their way to this oasis in Utah’s desert. The birds take the Pacific and Central Flyways on their long journeys to reach the warm skies of Mexico or the icy heavens over Canada. Twelve million of these birds—from more than 300 different species—know with surety that the Great Salt Lake, the largest salt-water lake in the western hemisphere, will welcome them to its rocky shorelines, salt marshes, lakeside uplands, beaches, shorelands and playas.
This lake, the ultimate stopover location for these travelers to rest and fuel up, historically welcomed these birds with the utmost hospitality, offering them an abundance of aquatic vegetation, brine shrimp and brine flies to sustain the thousands of miles made on their excursion.
Out here there are birds and birds and birds—and rarely a person in sight—but just a few miles away, in the city named for this lake, there are multitudes of humans. Salt Lake City is one of the nation’s fastest-growing urban areas, in the heart of one of the fastest-growing states. With increased water demand putting pressure on the Great Salt Lake’s water resources, along with climate change, water flow into the lake is declining, lowering water levels.
If something doesn’t change, drastically and soon, the scientific consensus predicts the lake will completely dry up. The movement toward that eventuality is already causing ripple effects across hundreds of species. But if the lake vanishes completely, those ripples would become a tidal wave.
Without the Great Salt Lake, many migrants wouldn’t have a place to stop on their long journeys, some would experience habitat loss as invasive species take over their wetlands, and others would choose different routes, stoking new competition with species across the flyways. And three species—eared grebes, Wilson’s phalaropes and American white pelicans—may exemplify the turmoil that is to come.
The Eared Grebs in Troubled Waters
The same surety that has brought 3 to 5 million eared grebes to the salty waters of the largest terminal lake in North America could be the very reason many of these migrators won’t make it on future journeys. As many as 90 percent of the entire North American population of these small water birds—with their red eyes, tiny head and sleek black body—stop on their journey from Canada at the shores of the Great Salt Lake to gorge themselves on the copious rose-tinted brine shrimp and alkali flies before December when they continue their migration to Mexico.
Each July, when these grebes return to their open saltwater habitat, the migrating birds flock together in the open waters, making it appear as if you could walk from island to island, stepping on their heads. John Neill, an avian biologist with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said in his time working with these grebes there have been numerous moments out on the lake where—for miles and miles—they are the only species in sight.
This traveler more than doubles its weight by feasting on aquatic invertebrates. In the latter months of its stay, when the alkali flies die, these grebes are entirely dependent on the lake’s vast brine shrimp population.
To catch these snacks, the birds dip their narrow, drawn-out bills into the cyan water and peck at the shrimp just below. Or they dive underneath the surface, catching upwards of seven shrimp at a time. Each individual eared grebe will eat 25,000 to 30,000 brine shrimp in a single day, according to John Luft, the program manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Likewise, he said that if packed together like sardines, the amount of shrimp needed to sustain that many birds, with such an enormous appetite, would resemble 13,500 bull African Elephants. “They really eat an elephant one brine shrimp at a time,” Luft said.
With diminishing lake levels, this crucial food source could be the first thing to go.
Brine shrimp are small, exoskeletal creatures, at about one-fourth of an inch long, and depend on the particular salinity levels at the Great Salt Lake. As the lake shrinks due to a lack of freshwater inputs, it becomes saltier and saltier every day—slowly morphing into an ecosystem unfit for these tiny crustaceans.
While the grebes spend their time here trying to gain weight for migration, they lose their feathers and flight muscles—trapping them until they put on enough weight to make their final flight for winter. Without the shrimp, the birds have no food and can’t go on. Eventually, these grebes would search for a new place to stop and refuel. But as most of the saline lakes in the West have already dried, they would face stiff competition for food.
Shore Birds in Crisis
Forty-two species of birds that visit the Great Salt Lake come with their long bills to wade along the shorelines and mudflats, foraging for creatures crawling and burrowing in the mud and sand. The Great Salt Lake offers a superb ecosystem, rich with invertebrates, for these birds to thrive.
It has been 30 years since anyone has conducted a regular census of these birds. In August, a coalition of Utah birders began counting again, documenting more than 228,000 shorebirds at the Great Salt Lake. When I met up at the lake with Janice Gardner, an ecologist at Sageland Collaborative, a non-profit organization that gathers data about the lake’s decline, she told me that the new count revealed that an estimated 70% of these birds had been lost since the 1990s.
Upon entering the gates at Timpie Springs, a waterfowl management area in the southwest corner of the lake, my eyes were fixed on the small birds I saw dipping their heads in the water in a predictable pattern. These birds were unlike any I had seen before. Their legs, long and skinny, sat underneath a stout body paired with a tiny head and long bill, which they ducked under the water.
As we drove down an unpaved road, we weaved through wetlands filled with American avocets that were balancing on one leg and black-necked stilts that were bobbing for apples. Every so often, we would stop and Gardner would take out her scope to spy on a mysterious bird in the distance. “Come look at this long-billed curlew,” she said, gesturing me toward the tripod. She had told me this was one of her favorite shorebirds. With the naked eye, I would have never even known there was anything but gold-colored grass where she pointed. Through the lens, I could see that the spotted bird had an impossibly long bill with a delicate curve at the tip.
“In August, there was no water out here,” Gardner said.
This winter’s record-level snowfall was proving to be a good thing for the birds. The lake’s water levels have risen five feet since November. Although, Gardner said, one good winter will only help shorebirds so much, as the issue is not just how much water Utah has, but how the State manages it. Meanwhile, scientific projections based on decades of trends and modeled predictions for the future both indicate more frequent, longer and more intense droughts are coming. So this year has been a welcome reprieve, but it’s not likely to save the lake or its inhabitants. Falling water levels expose large expanses of lakebed mudflats, which could severely impact the lake’s brine fly population, and ultimately, the shorebirds.
The Great Salt Lake food chain is supported by microbialites—coral-like mounds built up of millions of microbes that support trillions of brine flies in their stages of life. In the past, these structures that sit on the lakebed were completely immersed in water. It wasn’t until 2020 that they started to show up above the surface, like a vast field of alabaster tortoise shells. While the tops of these structures are now parched, underneath they are still lush with microbes and the blue-green algae that the lake’s invertebrates feed on. This living structure supports the life cycle of trillions of alkali flies as they gobble up the algae and nutrients it provides.
“They’re losing habitat as the lights go out,” said Ella Sorenson, manager for the National Audubon Society’s Gillmor Sanctuary.
A species of these shorebirds, Wilson’s phalarope, depends heavily on a living, breathing lake and the flies it supports. Each year, in late summer, Wilson’s phalaropes travel more than 3,000 miles, appearing as a giant ribbon in the sky, streaming through the air together, before assembling themselves on the shores of the Great Salt Lake. In the water, they spin around creating whirlpools that collect masses of invertebrates to fuel their migration.
By September, these birds, with bellies full of insects, make their way to the saline lakes in Bolivia and Argentina where they spend their winter with flamingos. As 30 to 40 percent of the global population of Wilson’s phalaropes come to the Great Salt Lake to fuel their lengthy migration, a drying lake would have drastic consequences for this species of shorebird.
Trying to migrate somewhere else might not be an option. According to Sorensen, there is nowhere else to go. “Everywhere else they could go is saturated with shorebirds,” she said. “Utah shorebirds are in a tremendous crisis.” And there is another problem: An explosion of invasive species.
Plight of the American White Pelicans
The lake looked like glass as the sun beat down on its sparkling water reflecting the clouds filling the sky above. I stared out at Antelope Island’s ashen and icy blue landscape mottled with gray and dull ochre. It looked like a painting.
My guide was Lara Chho, a naturalist who does guided hikes on the island. The brisk wind blew my hair in every direction as we walked along the shore. On the hillside, olive and cantaloupe grass lay under lifeless branches, bursting for the taste of spring.
My focus on the trail was interrupted by the sound of a petite bird chirping among the phragmites.
Chho told me it was a juvenile western meadowlark. Its chestnut feathers glowed against the dull, wintery landscape. Its song started with a shrill belt that fell into a soft toot, its melody drifting through the breeze.
“I like to call those birds as the R2-D2 birds because of their multi-toned song,” Chho said.
The snow-covered Frary Peak, the tallest point on Antelope Island, sat in front of us. A mist was hovering over its ivory silhouette. Two crows followed us overhead as we made our way through the muggy trail. In the distance, a herd of bison—what Chho referred to as the “rock stars” of the island—ran through the sand kicking up a storm of dust.
When we reached a location where we could see the island from above, below, I spotted four small black dots, resting on the lake but far away from the marshy shoreline. After peaking through my binoculars, it became apparent to me that those dots were coyotes. I was confused as to why they were so far from land.
Chho explained that, as the lake continues to shrink with each passing year, the coyotes, have been able to walk farther and farther toward the center of the lake. That includes Gunnison Bay, in the lake’s north arm, and what is left of an island and seasonal home to one of the lake’s most recognizable creatures.
During nesting season, after the winter in Southern California and Mexico, up to 20,000 American white pelicans—representing about 20% of the entire population of this bird—make Gunnison Island their home. Once they arrive, both sexes of this four-foot-tall, white bird, with a nine-foot wingspan, build a nest by gathering surrounding gravel and sand to create a two-foot crater to rear their young.
But, as the lake has dried, the water that used to surround the island, and act as protection for the newborn pelicans, has almost completely receded, according to Lynn de Freitas, the executive director of the non-profit Friends of Great Salt Lake.
As a result, overland predators, such as coyotes, have been disturbing the nesting birds, resulting in a decline in the number of pelicans. The annual bird surveys, taken by the Division of Wildlife Resources Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program, have revealed that the nesting birds’ population is crashing. In past years, it has been typical for up to 5,000 young pelicans to be born on the island. In 2022, program counters found 500.
“It’s a brutally frank image of the impacts to ecosystem values—in this case, habitat and bird species—attributed to the declining Great Salt Lake water levels,” Freitas said. “Pretty devastating for sure.”
Pelicans are intelligent birds. One study from an international group of researchers even demonstrated their capacity to learn as a social group. And it doesn’t take many years of predation for an animal like this to learn an important lesson: This place is no longer safe.
There are a few remaining islands on the lake. Maybe the pelicans will go there. But it’s clear they are running out of spaces where they can protect themselves and their chicks.
The Blue Heron of Hope
I inched down the same road my guide and I had driven months before. The saffron sun brightened the already dazzling water. A warm spring breeze made its way through my cracked window.
Every Great Salt Lake birder told me that, once you begin identifying and looking for birds here, it is extremely hard to stop. They were right. I had come back to the Bear River Bird Refuge, alone this time, just me and my old Subaru.
I pressed my foot on the break at the sight of a large bird with a curly, long neck and dagger-like bill with a deep blue strip by its eye. The bird looked astute like it had so much to teach me.
I quickly searched the pages of my field guide. It was a great blue heron.
When the heron began to fly, its scaly wings made it look vast and strong. I followed the bird as it floated beside the road. It was now my guide, showing me its world, abundant and elegant. It showed me an ecosystem that, despite experiencing record-level low water levels, is full of the songs of creatures, expressing their gratitude for what it provides. The wetlands were fuller now than they had been when I first visited, back in January, and although I knew the snow would only save the lake so much, I was elated to hear the splashing of water as ducks ran on the surface.
Although delicate and vulnerable, the atmosphere felt tenacious—so were the birds.
I felt a glimmer of hope.