Little did I know how cool this western Refuge in northern Utah of wetlands bordered with snowy mountaintops would be. Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge was full of migratory birds and even some other interesting mammal wildlife. The sounds of the large Tundra Swans overhead and in the water was a true ensemble of an avian choir! Although I’m used to the refuges back east in the oak, pine and swamp forests with their accompanying vast wetlands along the rivers, creeks and sounds of my North Carolina, I found this Refuge to be one of expansive beauty all its own.
A Little about Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
- The refuge consists of around 80,000 acres of open water, mudflats, marshes and uplands that flow into the Great Salt Lake
- mudflats (mud deposited by tides or rivers)
- marshes (low-lying land that gets flooded during wet seasons or tides, and stays waterlogged at all times)
- uplands (areas of high or hilly land)
- About 250 species of birds visit here to eat, breed or migrate through
- Part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem
- Due to the draining the area for irrigation back in the early 1900’s, there was a loss of marshes. A huge outbreak of avian botulism occurred. As a result, it killed millions of birds in the early 1900’s. Local people and sportsmen petitioned Congress to establish a refuge for wildlife in the marshes in the Brigham City area of Box Elder County in Utah. On April 28, 1928 President Herbert Hoover established the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.
- It lies in the Great Basin Hub of the Pacific Flyway for migrating birds.
- It has various mammals that live there in addition to waterfowl and other birds.
Getting around on the Refuge
The visitor center was closed as we were there on Sunday. Obviously, that would have been a great place to start for information. However, there was a stationary information station just outside the gate that allowed us to get some of the pamplets for the refuge and see larger information posted on the station.
Once we saw that the best way to observe this great place is to bike or drive their 12-mile tour route, we were excited. As we began our drive, we rolled down our windows to listen out for any sounds we might could hear. It certainly didn’t take long before we heard a most familiar sound to this North Carolina gal…the beautiful singing of a Red-winged Blackbird in the reedy marsh grass growing alongside the road!
First Bird Encountered…the Red-winged Blackbird!
- 7.5 – 9.5 inches tall, wingspan 12 -14 inches
- Weight: 1.1 – 2.7 ounces
- Habitat: riparian thickets, both freshwater and brackish marshes, some fields
- Nest: dried cattail leaves, sedges…they line it with fine grasses and connect them to the reedy grass stalks or twigs. Can be in cattails, marsh grass
- Food: seeds, grains, berries, wild fruit, insets, caterpillars, grubs
- Hangs out in groups or flocks
- Permanent resident in most of the U. S. Check your local field guides for occurrence in your area.
Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelaius phoeniceus) are listed on the brochure of the Refuge as both a common and a permanent year-round resident. As spring approaches nationwide, the four “flyways” will heat up as birds fly north…the Atlantic, Mississippi, Central and Pacific to be exact. Birds will be flying up north as far as, well, about as north as you can go. These include ocean birds traveling across the seas. So soon there will be a spring change over here of non-resident birds at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Enjoy this video of one singing that I made at the Bear River MBR:
Now this brings me to an encounter I’ve never had at a Refuge before…
Hunting at a Refuge? Yes and with REGULATIONS to Guide You!
We stopped off the side of the road after we left the main gate to the visitor center so I could get just outside the car door and “shoot with a camera” a few photos of the Red-winged Blackbird. As I was taking photos, a car pulled up alongside driver side of the vehicle with their passenger side window rolled down. The guy was in dark camouflage and said, “I can shoot a bird here. I can hunt.” Oh boy…city has come to country I thought. I’m not a hunter, but I could see that they might could hunt here during certain hunting seasons if it was allowed. However, we could tell this guy really didn’t know if he could or not, but he was ready.
I got back into the car and we handed him through the window, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Hunting and Fishing Regulations brochure. The guy wasn’t sure if he could hunt right now, but again he was ready. We told him we didn’t know the hunting season for ducks. (I’m not a hunter and am not familiar with hunting regulations by any means.) The guy pulled off and we continued on discussing what had just happened.
What is That Photo-bombing My Bear River Photo?
The Red-winged Blackbirds were putting on a concert and I wanted to get a few more photos, maybe even video their singing. So, off to the side of the road went. The guy had pulled off, too. That was when I noticed he had an out-of-state car tag on the back of his car. I began to take some snaps and lo and behold there he was…wading in his waders down into the river’s edge with his rifle horizontal at the hip. Not a bird in sight but my Red-wings, in which I said to them “Sit still…Elmer Fudd is in the house! Don’t move an inch!”
After I got back into the car, we were still discussing this guy. Being unsure of just what he was hunting and as a new birder to this area, I certainly would have a hard time ID’ing some of the geese here. I did manage to get a photo of the back of his car with an out-of-state license plate as he drove past. We resumed our driving looking for and at different birds. We were still heading towards the official auto-tour paved 12 mile route to experience the drive through the wetlands to observe birds and other wildlife at the Refuge.
What a Ring Around His Neck…
It wasn’t long before we stopped and exclaimed, “There’s a Ring-necked Pheasant (Phasianus colchiucus)!” That was a first for me. He was standing out in the middle of a field of yellow tan grass in all his colorful glory!
Beginning the Auto-Route at the Refuge
We finally pulled into the parking lot where there was an observation tower, and a covered picnic pavillion to begin the tour. There was couple in the parking lot unloading their bikes. And you guessed it…Elmer Fudd’s car was there, too. About the time I stepped out of the car to start taking some photos of a bird that landed on the pavillion, I heard two gunshots directly in front of me coming from the burned black section just off the parking lot. The shot was soon followed by a hull-a-ba-loo of squawks and honks from about 5 Canadian Geese who took off in flight in the opposite direction from the gunshot. The couple and I spoke about the gunshots and the male cyclist was pulling out his cellphone to call a friend to let him know what was going on here.
They began their cycling and we proceeded on the auto-route. I’m not sure just what the procedure would be in inquiring about something like this. The couple said they thought hunting season for ducks was over two weeks prior, but I had no idea. It concerned me that the hunter proceeded without knowing the season or regulations.
A Furry Swimmer…
Again, I got out to look at birds landing in the grass and looked down into the water near the road and a Muskrat was swimming across the water from the grass to the other side to the grass.
See the video below I made of it swimming.
Next, an Encounter of the Tundra Swan Kind…
If you’ve ever seen them, and heard them, Tundra Swans are unforgettable. Their flocks are not known for being quiet. Every year during migration back home in North Carolina, Lake Mattamuskeet is filled with these. I guess you could call it the eastern counterpart to Bear River MBR. Between the sounds of these guys, and all the other migratory birds floating in the water, the sound is incredible. Well, Bear River MBR was to be NO different where sound was concerned. It was noisy! Everyone was talking at all at once!
Here are a few items to note about the Tundra Swan (Cygnus columbianus):
- Size: 47 – 58 inches tall, wingspan 6 – 7 feet
- Weight: 14 pounds
- Breeds on the Arctic Tundra
- Nest: a mound of grass, moss, and sedges located near a body a water
- Food: aquatic vegetation and roots of submerged plants
- Fly with their necks straight out and feet behind
Northern Harriers Put on a Show
While seeing the Tundra Swans was fascinating, the next birds we found were really cool to see. We surely pulled over to watch the acrobats of two Northern Harriers birds of prey. Northern Harriers (Circus cyaneus) remind you of an owl in the face. They have a face that looks similar to an owl. There’s a noticeable white rump patch visible from their backside in flight.
- Size: 20 inches tall, wingspan: 42 inches
- Weight: 10.6–26.5 ounces
- Nest: on the ground and out of sticks and grass with a fine lining
- They rely on hearing like an owl to help find their prey, hence the facial shape.
- Year-round resident here in Utah; check your local field guide for occurrence in your area.
- Males may have several mates at once.
- Food: small mammals, frogs, snakes, small birds or carrion
- Fly low over the ground when looking for food.
- Couples “skydance”
It’s possible these two were doing the “skydancing” ( a flamboyant flight display) in my photos. Both sexes can perform this. The female can turn over on her back in flight and put her talons towards the male. Have not ever seen this type display before.
My Take on the Refuge
It was well maintained. The birds were wonderful to see and the other mammals as well. I would think spring would be fascinating to see at breeding time. It would have been nice to go inside the visitor center, but since it was closed, we may incorporate that into a spring-time visit to the Refuge.
Check your state to see if there are any local refuges or preserves that you can visit. Check out all the information that is posted throughout the park and make notes, or take photos of them with your phone for later reference. Don’t forget to be still and listen. Look in one spot to see if you peripheral picks up any additional movement of birds, small mammals or reptiles. Visit it online beforehand so you will be familiar with it before visiting. Also, visit it in different seasons for a variety of birds!
I surely am glad to have visited this Refuge. Can’t wait to go back!
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