January Utah Custom Day Tour Recap

January 21, 2020 - From Salt Lake City, Utah

I don’t lead very many domestic tours in the winter. Typically after September and before May, I might lead 2-3 torus each year in northern Utah. Generally, these are 1/2 day or day trips where a client happens to be in Utah for something else and wants to maximize their time. I don’t really advertise much in the way of winter tours as there hasn’t been as much interest in the past—but I likely am missing out on some opportunities (Rosy-finches, gulls, and raptors come to mind). In any event, this past week I led what will likely be the only winter tour I do this year due to the pandemic, and it turned out to be a pretty good day.

My client, from Minnesota, was looking for a chance to pick up a few lifers while in town helping family during an adoption. With a small target list including some difficult to find birds, I recommended an itinerary that I thought could maximize our time, and also shared some self-guided information to help them outside of our tour on more far-ranging species. If you book a specific tour with me but need help finding some other birds, don’t hesitate to ask—I can usually provide a few options to help you on your quest.

For our day trip, we would start at Antelope Island State Park, then visit a few sites along the Great Salt Lake before trying for a vagrant sparrow, and pygmy-owl to wrap the day. But like so many private tours, we shifted gears and changes course early on as we started birding.

At the state park, we quickly located the first target—CHUKAR, as we found a flock of around a dozen birds just after sunrise. Quick tip, as of late early morning has been the most reliable time to find Chukar almost anywhere in Utah. After the rough winter in 2018-19, this species has generally been much less common, and often quite difficult to track down mid-day. Following our success with the Chukar, we turned towards wrens but struck out on that front (Rock is usually reliable, and I had a Canyon while scouting earlier in the week). Instead, we managed to locate a SAGEBRUSH SPARROW—a bird I had only seen a couple times prior in the winter along the Great Salt Lake. While this species is generally rare on the east and south sides of the lake, it is extremely rare in winter. A pretty good bird, and a surprise lifer for my client. 

Sagebrush Sparrow at Antelope Island State Park

After leaving the park we immediately adjusted the route for the day to go look for a recently reported Mew Gull in Weber. We ended up dipping here, but it put us within 30-minutes of Lewis’s Woodpecker, a target we earlier chose to skip, but with it being about 20 minutes closer, we decided to go for it—and located 3 LEWIS’S WOODPECKERS almost immediately upon arriving at the woodpecker spot. 3 lifers by 11:00 AM.

We got back on track and made our way to Farmington Bay WMA, which is a worthwhile stop any time of year. Today was no different and we hit the gull jackpot with 7 species. We missed Mew Gull, which ironically had been reported earlier in the day, but managed to pick up GLAUCOUS GULL, and GLAUCOUS-WINGED GULL, 2 more unexpected lifers. 

Digiscoped Glaucous Gull at Farmington Bay WMA

We also saw loads of AMERICAN AVOCET, a decent number of GREATER YELLOWLEGS, lots of PIED-BILLED GREBE, and the most NIGHT-HERONS, BALD EAGLES, and NORTHERN HARRIERS my client had observed at one location. The sunny weather made for great photo ops and this GREAT BLUE HERON hunting on the road was a fun stop on the way out. 

Great Blue Heron hunting along the road at Farmington Bay WMA

We decided to skip the vagrant sparrow which hadn’t been seen in a few days and my client had tried for a couple times already. Instead, I wanted a slam dunk lifer so we headed towards Park City and a feeder where I knew CASSIN’S FINCH would be present, and they did not disappoint. We also added STELLER’S JAY for the day and a handful of other montane birds.

Still wanting to look for Pygmy-Owl I laid out some options. We decided to try for a Yellow-billed Loon that had been present for more than a month now and was on our way to a reliable owl spot. But with the warm weather the past week there was a lot more open water on the lake, and with little time to search for the loon we dipped. Wanting to leave plenty of time for the owl search we made our way to a stakeout, where unfortunately despite trying for an hour we were unable to locate any pygmy-owls. This bird is tough year-round, but in the winter they often stick to the same general area for weeks. Alas, the only interesting bird in a tree we saw was more than a dozen WILD TURKEY that flew into some nearby conifers to roost for the night. 

Sunrise over the Great Salt Lake

The day started off with a fantastic sunrise, as we drove over 250 miles on the day and racked up 58 species of birds. Not the biggest list, but no less than 6 life birds, and a few pretty good finds for Utah in January. We did all of this in 2 vehicles, masked up, and socially distanced throughout the day to do our part to help stop the spread of Covid-19 but still connect and share a wonderful outdoor experience.

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