Biologists and wildlife technicians with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources surveyed bird populations in the wetlands surrounding the Great Salt Lake’s Ogden Bay on Monday.
Approached by the dull roar of the airboat — which has a giant fan in the back rather than an underwater propeller — small birds with large black feet, called grebes, appeared to run across the water as they flapped their wings, seeking to escape.
These wetlands are shallow, with only a couple of inches of water, so the grebes were actually on firmer footing than it appeared, and the airboat, remarkably, somehow still managed to move.
From the wetlands, the expanse of the Northern Wasatch Mountains was in view — from Ben Lomond to Bountiful.
John Neill, an avian biologist who drove the boat, stopped every few minutes, while he and three others on board raised their binoculars and quietly made tallies.
They were looking for about 60 species of birds and had split them up to make the tallying more manageable.
A flock of birds flew by and Jessica Swift, a wildlife technician, focused intently as she counted.
Adam Wickline, another wildlife technician, jokingly confirmed with her that she “got every single one.”
This bird survey was one of two that the department conducts each spring out of five total, with three in the fall.
It’s a continuation of an intensive five-year survey conducted by the Division of Wildlife Resources as part of The Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Project. As part of that study, 51 sites were surveyed 17 times per year.
Ogden Bay is one of the Great Salt Lake’s five globally important bird areas, as identified by Utah’s Important Bird Areas Program, a partnership of “state and federal agencies, numerous conservation and birding organizations, and the academic community” that started in 2001, according to the Audubon Society’s website.
Important bird areas are identified at the state, continental and global levels.
The Great Salt Lake has one of the largest breeding colonies in the West of American White Pelicans — with 20,000 birds, Neill said.
It also has the “largest inland staying population of Marbled Godwits,” Neill said.
Neill said that the bird surveys are really “a measure of the health of the Great Salt Lake.”
If the populations stay the same over time, then it means they have adequate food and habitat.
“Where there’s water, there’s habitat,” Neill said. “When it dries up, the birds leave.”
Last fall, the lake was one foot above the all-time low, Neill said. It’s come up two feet since.
The level of the lake is affected by development further north that uses water from the Bear River.
On the western shore of the Bear River Bay, there was a group of 4-5,000 geese that would gather there each June.
“Now it’s usually dry then, so you don’t get as many geese there.”
Even the area where they launched the airboat was an indication of the change.
The dry ground where the group loaded the boat onto a trailer used to be part of the lake — but it hasn’t been for the last couple of decades because the lake has been so low.