Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge on the south end of the Salt Flats is an interesting spot. It is home to Utah Chub and Least Chub (though they do not advertise that) and a host of migratory birds. The travel to get here is not to bad, and can be done in most vehicles. Drive times to get here from Salt Lake are about 3 hours and from where I live is closer to 4.5 hours. Most of the drive is on surface roads, but depending on the direction in which you travel expect to drive between 15 and 60 miles on dirt roads. These roads are somewhat unassuming, but definitely hide sharp rocks to get a flat tire with.
The Plan and Details of the Trip
The plan was to drive out here and stay a few days and photograph birds. In the process I learned a few important things along the way. First there is no designated camping out here. There is no camping in the refuge, so in order to camp you will need to camp either really far away on BLM land at the Fathers Day Campground or you have to disperse camp on BLM land near by. Luckily there are bathrooms at the wildlife refuge, making it possible to have some amenities while there.
Second the complex is open year around though the entire complex is not open year round. The complex is subdivided up into ponds that are accessible by foot or by car (fig 1). These ponds are not all filled with water at any given moment as well, as some ponds are allowed to dry occasionally resulting in varying habitat (we call this a mosaic landscape in ecology). With this in mind, when you arrive do not expect a perfect wetland that is completely accessible. Pintail, Harrison, Egret, Ibis, and Gadwall ponds are all closed to regular road traffic in the summer and only open after August 15th (Fig. 1). I of course arrived August 13, so was a few days shy of getting into those parts of the reserve.
Third and final there are bird blinds here. They are denoted by the hunter symbol in the map below (Fig 1). I only found one of them and it was in an ok spot, something more useful for a hunter than a photographer, but with a bit of work I bet you could line yourself up with some great photos of a waterfowl coming in and out of the ponds.
They way I approached this was first to drive the road to see what I could see and when I found something interesting I would hop out and photograph it. This of course did not go well, so I found a spot where the birds like hanging out and made plans to come back in the morning.
Figure 1: Map of Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge.
The way I first tried to photograph out here was to set up a bird blind early in the morning. This did not work. No birds came by and I could see them wandering away from where I wanted them to be... in front of me.
From here I changed my strategy. I did bring camo so I covered up as much as possible and quietly wandered over to the birds. I kept low and approached slowly moving forward about a foot every minute or so. Once I got close enough and was there long enough the birds relaxed around me and didn't seem to mind me being there all that much. I crawled up to the waters edge and photographed a series of birds that were with me for about an hour.
Hopefully I am on for identification but I photographed the above birds and the following images
Run and Gun Photography
After my successful morning photography we (father joined in on the trip) went over to the only spec of trees in the area and spooked up the lone great horned owl. I figured there would be one in the area. All the great horns I have ever seen and attempted to photograph like hanging out in cottonwood trees. From here we decided to drive slowly around the marshes and in the process figured out a few things.
Coyotes patrol the perimeter.
Pronghorn Antelope hang out in the northern part of the preserve
There are bird blinds.
From here we drove around until I found a small set of shore birds that looked like they might want to have a photograph taken. From here I hopped out and quietly walked over to the edge of the pond. They had some distance still from me but the telephoto worked out well in my situation and I was able to get some great shots of black-necked stilts.
Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge is not all that useful when it comes to researching when you should arrive. The reality is there are two peak times and then there are slower moments. The peak times are in April May and September October for birds. The mammals are always in the area. During the summer there is a small set of birds who stick around and use the location as a nesting ground and place to stay all year long. For example the birds photographed. While there I also heard sand hill cranes, canadian geese, lot of common nighthawks, coots, a few hummingbirds, mallards and a few other ducks that I could not identify. There was also a great egret about 500 yards away in a big pond. There are birds, but if you go mid August like I did, you wont have that much to photograph.
Ecological Importance of Fish Springs
The great basin resides within the central and the pacific flyways for bird migration in North America. This vast desert stretches' for over 500 miles and is sparsely populated with bodies of water for birds to land at rest and eat food. Along this migratory route are a series of bodies of water that are important for the survival of these birds. First is the Great Salt Lake, up at the northern end of the migratory route in the Great Basin. The next step down on that route is Utah Lake featured below which has extensive wetlands and shallow bays that provide key refuge for birds on their migratory route (Fig 2).
Fig 2: Utah Lake specifically at Provo Bay. Provo bay has portions set aside as a wildlife management areas by the Utah Division of Wildlife in order to protect the integrety of the habitat.
From here the number of bodies of water begin to thin. That is why Fish Springs is so important as it is one of the few stop over points for migrating birds through the great basin. Then next stop down is a mountain range over and is similar to fish springs and is a series of warm springs that flood the valley floor. I have romped a bit in here doing wildlife work and have seen a hand full of birds that roam these parts, but not in the fall as I was not here at that time.
From this point on the number of available habitats that can be used by birds dramatically decreases. Once upon a time the Sevier Lake would have been an important lake for waterfowl and other migratory birds to use, but through the use of agriculture, this body of water is ephemeral and based upon water needs the lake dries out and turns into a salt playa.
One would think that these habitats are generally preserved from human impact, but the truth is that these landscapes, though far removed, are at the heart of the water battle in the west. Many desert aquafers are tapped for water to feed the water needs of cities. At first these water acquisitions may be benign to the springs systems, but overtime they can drain available water especially if water use outpaces recharge rates. This results in a gradual decrease in water eventually leads to salt flats and inhospitable zones for life (Fig 3).
Fig 3: Salt flats of the Great Salt Lake. This area is normally underwater, but with the gradual increase take of water before it arrives at the great salt lake and the increased drought conditions of the region large salt flats have been increasing around the great salt lake resulting in huge expanses of land that is left barren except for tiger beetles, spiders and brine flies.
Consequences of the Loss
I have not seen a monarch butterfly in years until I wandered around Fish Springs. I at first just saw a butterfly of some sort flutter off these sunflowers and didn't think anything of it until one landed on a flower in front of me. After a moment of looking at it, I realized I was starring at a Monarch. This was a pleasant surprise since recent counts have put pacific monarch butterfly numbers at critically low numbers. In 2020 the Xerces Society only counted 1,914 butterflies. The fact that they can count down to the individual is a bad sign for invertebrates. That fact that I saw about two dozen monarch butterflies makes this spot alone an important stop over for these insects.