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Birders rejoiced: Rain boosted success at GSL bird festival

By Stephanie Chambers, Outdoors Correspondent - | May 20, 2015
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Jessica Johstoneaux and her husband Ash visit the Salt Lake to come view the different variety of birds. The couple came from Provo to check out the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

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Seagulls gather at the south marina by Tooele. The goal was to spot as many bird types as possible for the bird festival. At the Great Salt Lake on May 15, 2015.

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Jessica Johstoneaux and her husband Ash visit the Salt Lake to come view the different variety of birds. The couple came from Provo to check out the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

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Seagulls gather at the south marina by Tooele. The goal was to spot as many bird types as possible for the bird festival. At the Great Salt Lake on May 15, 2015.

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Seagulls gather at the south marina by Tooele. The goal was to spot as many bird types as possible for the bird festival. At the Great Salt Lake on May 15, 2015.

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Salt Lake visitors get outfitted with kayaks to go bird watching for the The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

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The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival was held at the at the south marina by Tooele. The goal was to spot as many bird types as possible. At the Great Salt Lake on May 15, 2015.

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Tour guide Dave Chizzone takes a group of visitors on a kayak tour of the Salt Lake. The goal was to spot birds for the The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

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Salt Lake visitors get outfitted with kayaks to go bird watching for the The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

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The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival was held at the at the south marina by Tooele. The goal was to spot as many bird types as possible. At the Great Salt Lake on May 15, 2015.

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The Antelope Island Causeway was one great spot for bird viewing during the 2015 GSL Bird Festival. This female Purple Martin was spotted during Tim Avery and Jeff Billsky's field trip Bird Marathoning. Participants saw 170 bird species across 7 counties in 17 hours.

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Attendees of Tim Avery and Jeff Bilsky's GSL Bird Festival field trip, Marathon Birding got to see the Great Horned Owls at Antelope Island as well as 169 other species of birds

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A Flammulated Owl, which is a highlight of the GSL Bird Festival's Marathon Birding trip every year. Learn about two species of owls, at 3:45 p.m., on Oct. 3. Meet at the visitor center, Ogden Nature Center, 966 W. 12th St.

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A dark morph broad-winged hawk in Ogden Canyon. Great Salt Lake Bird Festival goers still got to see many birds despite the rain.

A wet weekend of heavy rain didn’t dampen the spirits of Great Salt Lake Bird Festival goers. Only four of the 61 field trips were canceled and workshops and clinics at the Davis County Legacy Events Center in Farmington had good numbers — a showcase tour of the event, Marathon Birding with Tim Avery and Jeff Bilsky, even broke the festival record for number of bird species seen: 170 species in 7 counties in just under 17 hours of birding.

“The bad weather actually helped,” Avery said during a phone interview. Avery owns Mountain West Birding Co. and has led the Marathon Birding workshop for eight years, with the help of Bilsky for the last five. “We got lucky. With the weather clearing up on the date of our trip, it made for ideal birding conditions.”

The Marathon Birding field trip takes birders out on a day-long trip to see as many species of birds during the day as possible.

“Its a shorter version of something known as a ‘Big Day’,” Avery said. “In birding a big day is when a group of birders attempts to identify as many species as possible in 24 hours. Last year, myself, Colby Neuman and Kenny Frisch broke the 14-year-old Utah Big Day Record when we saw 205 species in the state on May 12.”

“I was honestly shocked what we were able to see given the weather — it actually helped keep a lot of birds down probably which made picking up migrants easier than in the past,” Avery wrote about his May 17 GSL trip in a blog post at http://utahbirders.blogspot.com/ detailing the event and birds they were able to see.

Avery said one of the highlights of the trip was seeing the rare Dark morph Broad-winged Hawk in Ogden Canyon.

“That’s a pretty rare one in Utah,” Avery said. “I’ve seen a few of them. They migrate through in spring and in fall, but they’re generally high in the mountains so people don’t tend to see them very often.”

Neka Roundy, festival chairwoman, said she saw a lot of happy birders. The annual festival hosted five days of field trips (Thursday through Monday) and two days of workshops and clinics (Friday and Saturday) at the Davis County Legacy Events Center and attracted people from all over the state and the country.

“It went really well, despite the rain. I consider this a successful event. We had a lot of birds. We had a lot of families. It just felt good. The festival was good; people saw birds,” she said.

Roundy said although it seemed like it, the rain wasn’t steady and her guides reported still seeing plenty of birds, in maybe a different way than they normally do.

“What my guides were telling me is that they (birds) won’t be so flighty; they’ll be seen, but they’re not going to fly away.”

The five-day festival focused on not only birding, but birding with family.

“What I personally like is that we offer a variety of ways to go birding, so if you come with your kids or spouse, who don’t care, they can go horseback riding and do birding, or they can go out on the lake and do birding. There’s a variety of ways to involve family.”

Jessica Johstoneaux, of Provo, who just started birding in January when she found a bird book at Deseret Industries, brought her husband Ash from Provo, doing exactly what Roundy recommended, getting him involved in birding with another activity.

He said he wasn’t as excited about the birds, but he wanted to try kayaking on the Great Salt Lake.

“We just recently got into bird watching just in the last couple of months or so, so we’re excited to go out on the Great Salt Lake,” said Jessica. “We’ve never done that before either. We’re excited to combine both.”

“All those ‘we’s’ are really ‘I’s'”, said Ash, laughing.

The Johstoneauxs were attending a Friday morning kayak birding tour. That day the rain held long enough for Dave Chizzone of Gonzo tours to lead 10 people from the Great Salt Lake Marina to a rookery (a bird nesting site) that is normally an island in the lake.

Brian Wolfer/Special to the Standard-Examiner

Tour guide Dave Chizzone takes a group of visitors on a kayak tour of the Salt Lake. The goal was to spot birds for the The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival on May 15, 2015.

“Halfway between here and Black Island is a big pile of rocks called Fritz Island, that is a rookery, and it’s the closest rookery we have. Hopefully we’ll see some birds. All of the little islands are now peninsulas because the water level and it seems to be having an effect on what bird life we have there. So I can’t make any guarantees about what we’re going to see or how many,” said Chizzone.

During the tour participants saw sea gulls, got to float over and hear the story of a shipwreck, and then paddled back when the lake started to get choppy as another storm moved in.

Kim Sullivan and Bruce Pendery drove from Logan to experience the kayak trip during their first ever GSL Bird Festival.

“It would have been nice to go out to a hotter birding spot,” said Sullivan, who teaches ornithology at Utah State University. “We didn’t see anything special as far as birds go, but it was still fun to get out and do something different. We’ve never gone kayaking on the Great Salt Lake. We had a good time.”

David and Sheila Lewis have attended the festival in the past and drove from Brigham City to try birding by kayak this year. They shrugged off the cold weather and lack of bird varieties with smiles and said they planned on coming back another time.

“The differences in birds were a little sparse,” said Sheila. “At the refuge we see a lot more different things. The low lake level makes it hard, but I’d like to come again and see it later.”

Sheila volunteers at the Bear River Bird Refuge and said that birding is a great way to view the world in a new light.

“It’s like a hidden world around us,” she said. “It’s a really cool experience. You’re hardly aware until you look through the binoculars. A gray bird through binoculars can be amazing. From a distance it looks gray, but in the binoculars it has olive green wings and orange feet.”

Stephanie Chambers writes about the outdoors for the Standard-Examiner. She can be reached at 801-390-6139 or at chambers.steph@gmail.com

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