Utah a haven for a dazzling variety of birds, even in the backyard

Monday , May 21, 2018 - 5:15 AM

MORGAN — In Saturday’s early morning light, a tour group of around 20 people gathered in Arnold Smith’s backyard in downtown Morgan.

Around them, a chorus of rolling trills, sharp chirrups, soft warbles, and the occasional rooster crow. (Arnold keeps the roosters to keep the neighbor’s cats at bay.)

From the human visitors came gasps and delighted hoots. Straight ahead, a brilliant yellow Bullock’s oriole. Perched above, two silvery blue tree swallows. Swooping in, a black-billed magpie with its iridescent sheen. Arnold and his son Weston Smith called out the finer points of the birds — the coloring contrast between males and females, the subtle markings, the unique movements. It was like a tour of someone’s personal gallery, except this art flits, dives and sings.

Next to the gate leading to Smith’s personal bird sanctuary hangs a sign — “Park Closing Hour 9 p.m.” It’s not clear if it’s a joke, part of Arnold’s eclectic decor, or a neighborly invitation.

“If anyone wants to come, they’re welcome to come,” he said with a chuckle.

For 20 years, bird lovers from all corners have flocked to Northern Utah for the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. And for 20 years, Arnold Smith has shown visitors the bounty of birds that live beyond the lake — over the Wasatch Mountains, high in Morgan County. He shows them nesting hawks near Echo Reservoir and swallows swooping for bugs over the Henefer Sewer Lagoons. But a highlight of the tour has always been Smith’s own backyard. 

RELATEDGreat Salt Lake Bird Festival to celebrate 20th anniversary

Weston has joined in as a co-guide for the past eight years, turning his own two-acre home into a bird sanctuary, too. It’s also a stop on the tour. He gained an appreciation for birds from his father.

“He used to take pictures of nests and have his kids hold his filters, plastic tarps and mirrors so he’d get the right lighting,” Weston said. “As an 8-year-old kid, it was kind of annoying. You whined a lot. But now, I appreciate the stuff I saw.”

Story continues below photo.

Weston realizes those birds he saw in his youth are things most people will never see in a lifetime, especially as certain bird species become threatened and increasingly rare.

The Great Salt Lake is one of the most significant flyways for waterfowl and shorebirds in the hemisphere. But even in the last 20 years, since the bird festival began, vital saline habitats throughout the West have seen a steady decline.

The Great Salt Lake hit a record low in 2016. California’s Salton Sea is turning into a dry bed of toxic dust. Climate change and human water consumption mean similar things are happening in salty lakes around the world.

RELATED: Salty lakes are disappearing around the world and we’re to blame

As a result, the National Audubon Society reported last year that migratory shorebird populations have dropped by 70 percent since 1973.

They’ve found all kinds of birds are under threat, including those once commonly found in backyards throughout North America. Land birds and songbirds, too, face a variety of threats — from loss of water to habitats succumbing to development. 

Utah remains vitally important to bird well-being, from the wetlands of the Great Salt Lake to the neighborhood nesting sites in Morgan County.

Just weeks ago, Gov. Gary Herbert declared May Utah’s “Month of the Bird,” drawing attention to the state’s diversity of birds and bird habitats. More than 400 species depend on the state’s urban and rural areas, the governor’s declaration states. 

RELATED: If Utah's Great Salt Lake dries up, consequences will be global

Birds have long inspired wonder and provided tangible benefits to Utahns, including the flocks of gulls that saved Mormon pioneers in the days before statehood. 

People have a big role to play in securing birds’ future, too.

Arnold lives on just half an acre. When he first bought the property in 1969, it was full of sagebrush. Over the decades he’s carefully turned it into a high-elevation desert oasis that the feathered creatures love.

“Most everything planted in the yard has been planted here for the birds,” Arnold said. “Or the birds have planted it themselves.”

Among the plants that the birds carried in is the shrubby dogwood. Arnold’s contributions include chokecherries, crab apples and Utah juniper.

He’s counted around 135 species of bird visitors so far. Many of his avian lures are simple. Small dishes of grape jelly to attract the orioles, peanuts for the jays, orange slices for western tanagers, nectar feeders for hummingbirds, and abundant water sources for them all.

Among the human visitors marveling at Arnold’s backyard birds was Pat Lashley. 

“I love to see them, they’re just beautiful,” she said.

Lashley developed an interest in birds by watching them in her own backyard when she first moved to her Holladay home 40 years ago.

“The field behind me was nothing but an orchard, a fruit orchard,” she said, reminiscing about the goldfinches, baby owls, bobcats and deer she used to see.

“It used to be green like this so you’d see lots of things,” Lashley said. “They’ve cut everything down for houses, so I only see about a quarter of the birds I used to.”

She most laments the loss of the lazuli bunting which used to visit — a lovely bird with an electric blue head and peach breast. 

“I called him the ‘bluebird of happiness,’” Lashley said. “Last year I didn’t get any.”

Story continues below photo.

Mary Helen Doherty is relatively new to birding, but she got hooked after seeing sandhill cranes in Sacramento. She traveled to Utah from her home in California specifically for the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival and to join Arnold’s tour. 

“We’re kind of a weird group of people. It gets to be a little competitive,” she said. 

While birding sometimes attracts the quirky, Doherty said, the best avian advocates know how to listen to their calls and learn what they’re signaling about the wider world. 

“I think anyone who’s interested in the environment — the survival of water, the earth, the trees — birds are all a part of that,” she said. “That’s when I have found people who never thought they would like a bird — myself included — (realize) they’re kind of part of the inter-dependent web.”

That should have everyone paying attention to birds, she said, celebrating them and helping to create sanctuaries for them where they can. 

Contact Reporter Leia Larsen at 801-625-4289 or llarsen@standard.net. Follow her on Facebook.com/leiainthefield or on Twitter @LeiaLarsen.  

Sign up for e-mail news updates.