The Great Salt Lake is dying; One of America's largest shorebird refuges is drying up

Persistent drought conditions in northern Utah have put the Great Salt Lake at an all-time low, and the birds are paying the price.

Utah birding has always been a sentimental touchstone for me. When I was 10 years old, my cousins and I crammed into the backseat of my grandma’s Subaru, binoculars and field guides in hand as we cruised over the salt flats toward Antelope Island. The landscape in itself was mesmerizing. Snowy mountain peaks towered over the lake’s glassy water, stretching farther than the eye could see. A salty scent in the air gave an oceanic element to the atmosphere; a signature consistent with birding on the Great Salt Lake.

At the time, this was no ordinary birding trip for me. This morning we were in pursuit of a special bird, a Long-tailed Duck that had wandered slightly far south from its regular wintering grounds. It was the first time I’d ever gone out of my way to see a single bird. Within moments, my grandma’s sharp eye had located the duck in her spotting scope. Little did I realize, this moment would mark the first of many avian “chases” for me.

Historically, the Great Salt Lake has always been shallow. Even at all-time highs, the water has never exceeded 50 feet in depth. Like many larger lakes, such as Lake Michigan, the GSL follows a seasonal cycle; water levels typically drop 1-2 feet from June-September, and remain level until the arrival of spring rains. It was like clockwork… or at least it was. In recent years, persistent drought conditions across northern Utah had us witnessing extremes in the opposite direction. For nearly a century, scientists have been keeping tabs on the lake’s water levels. On Tuesday, July 21, 2021, they declared that the GSL’s water levels had reached an all-time low.

So, what’s the problem with the lower water levels, you may ask?

Throughout my birding career, I’ve had the pleasure of making several trips to the GSL while visiting family in Salt Lake City. Each visit shares one thing in common: I’m left utterly amazed by the sheer number of birds that use the space as a refuge. According to the Utah state government’s website, roughly 10 million birds visit the GSL every year. Perhaps even more notably, an estimated 5 million of these birds are Eared Grebes, making up 95% of the species’ total population. After doing a bit more research, it became evident as to why the GSL was such a birder’s paradise; the lake contains over 17 trillion brine shrimp, a key food source for shorebirds, grebes, and other waterfowl.

Last month, I made my first visit to the GSL since spring of 2019. A common favorite for birders is Antelope Island State Park, a 28,000-acre island of dry prairies, rocky cliffs, and coastline connected by a 7-mile causeway. While the island itself offers lots of unique birding opportunities, the causeway is the true birding mecca. Seeing clouds of waterfowl and shorebirds for most of the 7 miles was a common sight. But this time, things were different…the water had receded up until the last mile.

After finally reaching water, the GSL was teeming with birdlife. Tens of thousands of shorebirds were crammed into the remaining shallow water, stretching past the horizon. By the end of our visit, we had seen over 10,000 American Avocets, another species that relies heavily on the GSL during migration and breeding season. I had never seen more shorebirds in my entire life.

Clouds of American Avocets, Black-necked Stilts, and Wilson’s Phalaropes with a view of Antelope Island. This was just a tiny fraction of the tens of thousands of shorebirds we saw that morning.

At first, I was in awe at the sight of all the shorebirds. It was breathtaking, something that needed to be experienced to be understood. I packed up my scope, taking a final sweep at the horizon with my binoculars… and then realized there was something missing.

Where were all the Eared Grebes?

When I had visited just two years ago, I’d seen 50,000 Eared Grebes in a single scan with my spotting scope. On this day, I had counted 12.

In just two years, the water had grown so shallow that it was no longer able to provide habitat for diving waterfowl such as the grebes. If the water continued to recede, 95% of their population would be compromised and forced to relocate. I looked up again at the thousands of shorebirds that lay before me. In two years, would all these birds be gone, too?

NPR aired a piece in July that delved further into the reasons for the shrinking of the Great Salt Lake. That piece is available here.

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