Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Birding Utah's West Desert Migrant Traps

On Saturday I led a trip for the Bridgerland Audubon Society to the west desert of Box Elder County, Utah.  Our main goal was to visit some of the famous "migrant traps" in the area.  This area, north of the Great Salt Lake, is well known in the state for being one of the most consistent places to find rare eastern birds in migration.  There are several small freshwater springs surrounded by miles and miles of sagebrush, salt flats, and hypersaline water.  As migrating birds pass over the area, they are drawn like magnets to these migrant traps in search of a drink, a snack, and some rest before continuing north to their breeding grounds.

We met early, 5:00 AM, so that we would have a full day of birding despite a nearly three-hour drive to our first stop.  We chatted about some of our rare bird fantasies for the day, discussed the plan of attack, and then headed west as the sky was starting to get light.  After a brief stop for gas in Snowville, our first birding stop was along Highway 30 in one of the best areas for FERRUGINOUS HAWKS in the state.  We got close looks at an adult light morph here, the first of about four in the next couple of miles.  After this brief stop, we continued on to Lucin, our first migrant trap.

Part of the BAS field trip party scoping a distant Golden Eagle nest from Lucin.
The flycatchers at Lucin set the tone for the day: while we called this trip "West Desert Migrant Traps" we might as well have called it "Identification of Difficult Flycatchers."  Several of the easier species were present, including SAY'S PHOEBE, WESTERN KINGBIRD, and WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, but there were impressive numbers of Empidonax flycatchers, including at least FOUR WILLOW FLYCATCHERS, a DUSKY FLYCATCHER, a GRAY FLYCATCHER, and at least two other unidentified Empidonax sp.  Warblers were also pretty diverse, including ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, YELLOW WARBLER, YELLOW-RUMPED WARBLER (AUDUBON'S), WILSON'S WARBLER, and COMMON YELLOWTHROAT.  Here is a link to the complete eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315363

One of at least four WILLOW FLYCATCHERS at Lucin.  This is not a rare species in northern Utah, but it felt odd to find them perched on barbed wire and surrounded by sagebrush and greasewood!

Our next stop was Rabbit Springs, where the habitat is spread out over a wider area and the trees are not as large.  Three COMMON NIGHTHAWKS calling in flight here seemed unusual in the heat of the middle of the day.  We added one warbler species to our list for the day here, with a couple of MACGILLIVRAY'S WARBLERS.  Sparrow diversity was higher here, too, including many BREWER'S SPARROWS, two LARK SPARROWS, and a SAGE SPARROW.  We had lunch in the shade of a Russian Olive tree here and enjoyed some great looks at a couple of lizard species, a WESTERN WHIPTAIL and a LONG-NOSED LEOPARD LIZARD.  Here is the eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315422

Western Whiptail.

Bob, Craig, Terry, and Leah eating lunch in the shade.

Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
The next stop was at Owl Springs.  Here, we had a few more flycatchers, including DUSKY, WILLOW (singing), WESTERN WOOD-PEWEE, and a pair of WESTERN KINGBIRDS at a nest.  Our only migrant thrush of the day was a late HERMIT THRUSH here, and we also had our only LAZULI BUNTING of the day here.  eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315556

A migrating HERMIT THRUSH stopped for a rest at Owl Springs.
Our next and last stop of the day was at Locomotive Springs Wildlife Management Area, about an hour away.  This area has more open water, so we were able to add a few more species here, including FORSTER'S TERN, GADWALL, CINNAMON TEAL, AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN, PIED-BILLED GREBE, and AMERICAN AVOCET, for example.  A few LONG-BILLED CURLEWS were seen.  eBird checklist: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S14315760

Overall, we had a great day of birding in some very unique locations.  While we weren't able to pick up any rare eastern vagrants, we saw impressive numbers of some expected western species in habitats where they are not found except in migration.  Along the way, we got some great experience identifying a lot of Empidonax flycatchers and learning other valuable tips about how to identify sparrows from tail patterns, how to tell some of the female yellow warblers apart, and how to identify Catharus genus thrushes.  On the way out of our last stop, we added the highlight of many people's day, a large adult DESERT HORNED LIZARD.  It was great to end a good day in the desert with this popular and iconic species.

Desert Horned Lizard near Locomotive Springs WMA.

Kendal posing with the Desert Horned Lizard.

Terry holding the Desert Horned Lizard.


  1. a great post full of interesting photos and information too; I rather liked that Leopard Lizard ; thanks Ryan

  2. Thanks, Carole! It was a fun trip!