“The air is wild with voices, avian dialects are being spoken from every direction. The sky vibrates with wings.” (Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge)
One of the things I love about going to Utah is the inevitable early mornings: I wake up before dawn, otherwise a painful procedure. Last week, such early morning happened to be in Brigham City in northern Utah. Rested and ready for a road trip, we headed to another favorite oasis–the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The refuge protects the meeting place of the Great Salt Lake with its largest freshwater component, a 75,000-acre haven for millions of migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.
To reach the refuge, you drive for 12.5 miles off the Interstate 15, over farmland and canals. In a distance, blue mountains, lost in the haze, begin to light up with the rising sun. In mid-September, tufts of green grass and bulrush, already touched by autumn, give way to patches of wild sunflowers. Very soon, everything around will turn into a symphony of brown and grey: winter here is bewitching in its spectacular bleakness. For now, all is mild and quiet. We have to stop to watch the valley awaken.
As if on cue, clouds of birds rise up. Swallows, swift as quicksilver, surround us, darting over the canals and the road, grasping for bugs. Summertime, I hear, is uncomfortable at Bear River because of mosquitoes. In mid-September, we are unbothered, although tiny gnats do begin to buzz increasingly as the morning continues.
Finally, with lots of stop and go from one bird perched at the side of the road to another, we reach the refuge. Normally a great place to start, the impressive James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center, the new visitors’ center, is closed until 8 am. Luckily, gates to the refuge open at daybreak, so we begin our solitary 12-mile looping tour of the grounds (a round trip drive through the refuge is only 37 miles from I-15, but one can spend hours and hours here).
Past the visitors’ center and several distant lonely figures fishing for something in the shallows, we are alone again. I remember saying, “My goal for this visit is to get a good view of a pelican.” The Great Salt Lake Basin, of which Bear River is part, is home to one of the largest white pelican colonies in North America (populations can exceed 20,000!): they nest at Antelope Island to the south and spend the rest of their season at Bear River. Just as I said it, we saw him:
Imagine my excitement, when several miles down the road, we stumbled on this view:
My goal triumphantly met so early in the journey, I am at peace to admire the staggering explosion of life all around. Apart from the pelicans, this is the season of American avocets, now silver and black (the Great Salt Lake is home to up to 14% of the continent’s breeding avocet population and hosts over half of the continental migration population!), Western grebes, herons, snowy egrets, and ducks–many, many ducks, too skittish to pose for photographs. The refuge website has a treasury of information for birdwatchers on seasonal activity, migration highlights, and sightings (my favorite is the simple monthly account of wildlife happenings at the refuge–clearly, there is no “off” season here).
With sounds of birds in the air, fluttering and conversing with each other, mountains back to their hazy blue outlines, and no other humans for miles around, the morning feels incredibly peaceful and crisp. Monotonous and monochromatic as these views may seem, I cannot get enough.
It looks as if the sky and the water became one canvas, slowly absorbing everything in between. And I don’t seem to mind.
Gradually, the light becomes harsher, the birds less omnipresent. We have to head back to begin our day. I feel recharged–this place is healing, fortifying, no matter the season. Already, I look forward to coming back here. Winter, with its cacophony of tundra swans and bald eagles, may be the best season yet.
On our way out, a pheasant runs heedlessly across the road in front of us, making us stop, scramble for cameras, and then rest for just a little while longer, breathing in this place–until the next time.
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