Bear River

For me, it always come back to the land, respecting the land, the wildlife, the plants, the rivers, mountains, and deserts, the absolute essential bedrock of our lives. This is the source of where my power lies, the source of where all our power lies.

~Terry Tempest Williams

It was hard to leave Boulder Mountain, but the road beckoned. Weather patterns were holding us back from heading to Jackson, WY, to see friends as a large rain and snow system seemed to be sitting on the Teton-Yellowstone area. We considered a trip farther west to a very under-utilized national park, Great Basin, in Nevada. But the lack of very many camping options deterred us, so we opted instead for a complete turn-around and got an Airbnb in Springville, UT (we agreed we finally needed a night in a place with a nice shower). We were very impressed by the mountainous areas of Utah as we drove through and we will certainly be back.

The high meadows, aspens, and conifers of the Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest (click photos to enlarge)

Melissa found some good-looking areas in the nearby Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest, so we headed there the next morning, exploring some high elevation meadows with somewhat muddy roads and scattered pockets of snow, before settling on a lower elevation campsite.

Glacier Lilies and Spring Beauties in a high meadow
Fields of Glacier Lilies at an elevation of about 9000 ft in the Uinta Mountains
Our beautiful campsite at about 7800 ft off the Mirror Lake Highway

We checked a couple of spots off the Mirror Lake Hwy before picking a relatively open site at the edge of a small drop-off with distant views of mountains. The rocky ledge was home to a few ground squirrels and I managed to convince them I was harmless by sitting still for many minutes.

A Golden-mantled Ground Squirrel having a morning snack

A less cooperative resident was a new species for me, a Green-tailed Towhee, that was singing from s small shrub snag until I would try to approach for a photo. We noticed a pattern in its behavior – shortly after I would retreat, the bird would return to the same snag and start singing again. So, I finally just sat down at a distance and heavily cropped the image you see below.

I looked at the field guide description online and was impressed that the author must have known this particular bird as they said “one of the best ways to find them is to visit a shrubby mountainside or sage flat during spring or early summer. Males will spend long periods perched at the tops of shrubs and singing.”

A Green-tailed Towhee laying claim to the mountain

The next day we headed to a destination I was eager to visit – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge near Salt Lake City. This is a large wetlands complex that is home to huge numbers of waterfowl during migration as well as a variety of other birds throughout the year.

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is a sea of wetlands with a beautiful snow-capped mountain backdrop

Two species I particularly hoped to see were American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts, both of which nest on the refuge. At the refuge entrance, an American Avocet obliged and was feeding right next to the road at a boat ramp. Birds of the World Online discusses the meanings of the names for this beauty – the generic name, Recurvirostra, comes from the Avocet’s long recurved, or up-turned bill. The name Avocet is from the Italian avosetta, which means ‘graceful bird’.

The American Avocets are in their breeding plumage now, with a nice cinnamon hue to their head and neck.

We spent the next couple of hours slowly driving the 10-mile auto tour and taking in the thousands of birds scattered throughout the varied wetlands that comprise this impressive refuge. Here are some of the highlights…

The refuge web site states that it is home to the largest White-faced Ibis colony in North America (and I can believe it as we saw so many of these birds feeding in the shallows).
This time of year, the waterfowl are not the stars of the refuge, but we did see a few species such as this Gadwall, plus Blue-winged Teal (probably the most numerous duck we saw), Mallards, and…
Always a delight to see Cinnamon Teal. Northern Utah’s wetlands provide habitat for over 50% of the breeding population of this beautiful bird
We were thrilled to see our first Long-billed Curlew in the short grasslands on the refuge. The generic name, Numenius, is from the Greek noumenios meaning “of the new moon”, since their 8-inch long curved bill is reminiscent of the crescent new moon.
We watched avocets at every stop, sometimes not living up to their “graceful bird” moniker
Avocet yoga
An American Avocet with a trio of White-faced Ibis
Another stunning long-legged wader, the Black-necked Stilt. The refuge hosts about 3% of the breeding population of these beautiful birds, but an estimated 80% of their migratory population passes through the refuge and surrounding wetlands each year
We see these birds on our Outer Banks, but seeing so many and being able to spend so much time observing them was a real treat
They look like a child was given a black and white sock and some pink pipe cleaners and black wire and told to assemble a bird
Western Grebes were feeding along many of the roadside ponds and canals. They can be recognized by their red eye being surrounded by dark feathers, a thicker dark line down their neck, and a somewhat dark yellow bill
Similar in appearance to the Western Grebe, but the red eye of this Clark’s Grebe is surrounded by white feathers, the dark line down the neck is quite thin, and the bill is bright yellow
Black-crowned Night Herons were quite common on the refuge and were out feeding along the marsh edges
Small flocks of American White Pelicans were seen all along the auto tour road
A male Yellow-headed Blackbird belting out his “song” among a picturesque (but hugely problematic) stand of Phragmites grass
Our last bird on the refuge was a surprise, a male Ring-necked Pheasant. This species, originally from Asia, has been successfully introduced to many parts of the word as a game bird, including the U.S., where it is common in the Midwest

As is usual, we spent more time than we planned on the refuge, enjoying the continuous display of bird behaviors. It was a windy, gray day, which gave me reason to want to come back on a sunny day and spend an early morning and late afternoon photographing the amazing variety of birds in this special place. Plus, I would love to be here when many of these species have their young. And then there are the thousands of waterfowl in migration…so many birds, so little time.

Stilt Walker

Your legs are longer than airport security lines.


I have seen these long-legged shorebirds on several occasions, but was delighted when driving down a beach road recently to spot their distinctive silhouettes right next to a pullout along the road.

Black-necked Stilts

Two Black-necked Stilts in a flooded field (click photos to enlarge)

Black-necked Stilts are a medium-sized shorebird with anything but medium-sized legs. In fact, they supposedly have the second longest legs in proportion to body size of any bird, with only Flamingos beating them out. And to make sure you notice those lovely limbs, they come in bright pink, a nice contrast to the bold black and white of their bodies.

Black-necked Stilts 1

Adults have darker plumage than juvenile birds

I think this pair included an adult (black plumage) and an immature bird (duskier gray plumage). References also state that the females have slightly less black plumage than the males, so I suppose the lighter one could also be an adult female.

Black-necked Stilt

Some say Black-necked Stilts walk like a model on a runway

To compliment their legginess, they also have a stiletto black bill. They use that sharp bill to feed on a variety of aquatic invertebrates, small fish, tadpoles, and other small animals, with an occasional seed thrown in.

Black-necked Stilt feeding 1

Black-necked Stilt feeding

I watched this pair probing in the shallow waters of a flooded roadside field. More typical habitats include mud flats and marshes. I have seen them mainly in coastal areas, but in some parts of their range they do occur in inland habitats, although rarely in North Carolina.

Black-necked Stilt feeding 3

Feeding behavior included an occasional lunge into the water

Black-necked Stilt feeding 2

Stilt head dunk

Most of the time I watched, they seemed to be picking small items off the water surface. But, they occasionally plunged their head into the water for what I assumed was bigger prey. The one large item I saw one catch looked like a large beetle, or perhaps an aquatic snail (it was black and appeared shiny).

Black-necked Stilt preening


One bird paused in its quest for a snack and started to preen.

Black-necked Stilt preening 1

Scratching an itch

After watching this bird scratching I couldn’t decide whether it was an advantage or not to have such long limbs. I tried to imagine reaching an itch on my head with tennis rackets strapped to my wrist – precise control is probably a necessity.

Black-necked Stilt and reflection 1

Black-necked Stilt and reflection

My time with the birds was brief, perhaps fifteen minutes, but I can think of no better way to spend that time than with one of our most distinctive, and beautiful, shorebirds.

Delaware Delights

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Eastern Cottontail young (click to enlarge)

Another post about my trip last week to NJ, DE, and VA refuges….

After getting off the ferry from Cape May to Lewes, the first stop was Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge. The first critter seen, and one that would be seen over and over again in Delaware, was a bunny. So many rabbits along the refuge roadsides – where all all the predators? Surprisingly, in a week’s worth of refuge visits, I did not see the one mammal I would expect – White-tailed Deer. The mammal fauna, other than rabbits, muskrats, and a couple of Chincoteague species, remained hidden for the week. There was a clue though as to why warm-blooded critters might be hiding – deer flies and no-see-ums were out in force. So, after a quick walk around some refuge trails, it was on to Slaughter Beach to check on the Horseshoe Crabs, one of the main reasons I had made this trip at this time of year.

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach 2

Horseshoe Crabs on Slaughter Beach (click to enlarge)

The tide was coming in and the moon close to full in May, perfect timing to see the annual spectacle of Horseshoe Crabs coming ashore to mate in Delaware Bay. I made a lucky stop at the DuPont Nature Center in Mispillion Harbor where I met some birders getting ready for a shorebird program. A couple gave me a tip on a local beach access where the crabs were mating in large numbers. A short drive and there they were, Horseshoe Crabs by the thousands lining the beach. There is so much to share I will do a separate post on this incredible phenomenon later this week.

View from observation tower at Bombay Hook NWR

The next day I spent a cloudy morning with the Horseshoe Crabs and shorebirds at Slaughter Beach and then headed to Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge about 40 minutes north. The sun came out (eventually), the wind picked up, so life was good. Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge protects one of the largest remaining expanses of tidal salt marsh in the mid-Atlantic region. The refuge’s 16,000 acres are mostly marsh, but also include freshwater impoundments and a variety of upland habitats that are managed for other wildlife. Most visitor opportunities are located along the 12-mile Wildlife Drive so that was the main part of the visit.

Snapping Turtle at Bombay Hook NWR

Snapping Turtle (click to enlarge)

Instead of the cute bunnies seen at Prime Hook, the greeting committee at this refuge was a bit more formidable – a huge Snapping Turtle near the Visitor Center, the first of several to be seen along the roadsides here.

Baby Mud Turtle underside 1

Baby Mud Turtle (click to enlarge)

Not all the turtles on the roads were quite as large as that snapper – this tiny baby Mud Turtle was crossing at a culvert between swampy areas. One of the ever-present deer flies stopped in for the pic as well.

American Redstart

American Redstart (click to enlarge)

I picked up a copy of the Delaware Birding trail map and guide (see also The description for the Boardwalk Trail at Bombay Hook reads – “the woods at the beginning of the boardwalk trail can be particularly good for migrant songbirds. The boardwalk trail itself is a great place to see breeding Marsh Wrens…” Talk about truth in advertising! Right after getting out of the car there were birds everywhere – Orchard Orioles, a Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, House Wren, Northern Flicker, male American Redstart, Tree Swallows, and the ubiquitous Gray Catbird.

Marsh Wren male singing head-on view 2

Marsh Wren male singing (click to enlarge)

A walk out the short trail led to some shorebirds and the first Black-necked Stilt of the day. But it was the songs of the Marsh Wrens that caught your attention. A photographer coming off the boardwalk told me he had seen tons of “baby Carolina Wrens, and they had let him get close for photos”. Turns out the boardwalk over the marsh was instead full of the warbles and displays of male Marsh Wrens. Territorial males have an interesting behavior that makes them quite visible – they vigorously sing from one side of their marshy territory for a few minutes and then fly over to to the other side and sing there for awhile. Once in awhile they perform a so-called song flight display, where they fly up a few feet above the grasses, and then flutter down and straddle some plant stalks giving their song all the while. If you just stand within the territory boundaries, you will be serenaded and displayed to at close range.

Marsh Wren nest

Marsh Wren nest (click to enlarge)

Male Marsh Wrens construct several partially completed nests within their territory (much like our Carolina Wrens back home) in the hopes of seducing a female (or two – male Marsh Wrens are polygamous). The nests are readily visible as balls of grasses and reed woven together (about the size of a softball) a few feet off the ground with an entrance hole in one side. If a female finds one to her liking she will finish it off with soft liner materials. If not, she will make her own within a male’s territory. I could have definitely spent more time watching and listening to these energetic songsters (and hoping for some sunshine for photos), but there was still a lot of ground to cover.

Black-necked Stilt 5

Black-necked Stilt (click to enlarge)

Along one of the impoundments I saw the bold black and white of a Black-necked Stilt feeding in the marsh. This is one of my favorite shorebirds although I have seen them only a few times. They are just so boldly patterned and they look like they shouldn’t function quite right with those long skinny reddish-pink legs. They supposedly have the second-longest legs in proportion to their bodies of any bird (flamingos are the winner in the proportional long-legged bird department). A couple of nests could be seen on the marsh flats and watching a stilt fold its legs up to sit on the eggs is entertaining. One pair aggressively approached a Great Egret that walked too close to their nest until the much larger bird shied away. I wish I could go back in a week and see the tiny speckled tan fluff balls on sticks that are the young birds.

Common Yellowthroat male

Common Yellowthroat male (click to enlarge)

Eastern Kingbird

Eastern Kingbird (click to enlarge)

The marshes and impoundments along Wildlife Drive produced great views of a number of other species including Common Yellowthroat, Eastern Kingbird, Black-bellied Plover, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Great Egret, Great Blue Heron, Osprey, and, of course, hundreds of Red-winged Blackbirds.

Eastern Wood Peewee

Eastern Wood-peewee (click to enlarge)

The woodland and forest edge portions of the drive were also productive – Eastern Wood-peewee, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird, and a Northern Waterthrush.

Tree Swallow in nest box

Tree Swallow in nest box (click to enlarge)

The road through the open fields produced more Common Yellowthroat, Indigo Bunting, American Goldfinch, Blue Grosbeak, Northern Bobwhite, a Grasshopper Sparrow, Eastern Bluebird, and Tree Swallows at almost every nest box.

Great Blue Heron in marsh

Great Blue Heron in marsh along Wildlife Drive (click to enlarge)

Bombay Hook NWR is, indeed, a delight, and a place I look forward to revisiting.