Wharton: Festival shows that birding is big in Davis County
Published: May 10, 2013 08:41AM
Updated: May 9, 2013 01:51PM

While it’s not likely that Utah will be issuing a new license plate promoting the state’s wonderful birdwatching opportunities any time soon, it might not be a bad idea.

As the 15th annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival gets ready to open next week, I looked up some watchable wildlife statistics for Utah and the Mountain West from the most recent U.S. Fish and Wildlife national survey, an effort that is done every five years.

It showed that 558,000 Utah residents, 27 percent of the state’s population, enjoy watching wildlife; 159,000 out-of-staters come here each year, at least in part, to see birds and big game. The survey said the number of wildlife watchers in mountain states including Utah increased 28 percent from 2006 to 2011, while the number who watch away from home went up 13 percent.

Few in Utah know the importance of wildlife watching as much as Bill Fenimore, an avid birder and owner of Wild About Birds Nature Center in Layton. Bill has been involved with the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival since its inception.

“I think it has been a marvelous experience for everybody in the community,” he said of the festival, which runs May 16-20 this year with vendors, art shows, food and live bird and animal displays scheduled May 17 and 18 at the Davis Legacy Events Center in Farmington. “It has put us on the map in the birding community. We get people from around the country and other countries.”

Bringing tourists to Davis County was one of the main reasons the county organized the festival. Neka Roundy, who heads tourism, has also been involved from the start.

She recently heard Utah Lt. Gov. Greg Bell say in a speech that genealogy and birding are two major tourist draws, with the state thinking about incorporating birdwatching more in its tourist plans.

Roundy said some area motels notice visitors coming from out of town for the event. She also feels that some of the new Great Salt Lake Bird Festival walks and programs — including the use of pontoon boats, horseback riding on Antelope Island, tours of a trail behind Lagoon and the new Kaysville East Mountain Wilderness Park and bicycling along the Legacy Parkway Trail — help families and urban dwellers learn to watch birds close to home.

“The Great Salt Lake Bird Festival has tried to offer a balance in the programming it offers,” she said. “There are tours on remote, private land, shorelands and urban trails. We are trying to portray birding as a family-friendly hobby.”

Fenimore said the festival also has brought in some of the nation’s top bird experts to deliver keynote speeches at its annual dinner. This year’s featured speaker will be shorebird expert Kevin Karlson.

A look at the festival’s website, www.greatsaltlakebirdfest.com, shows a variety of activities, walks and tours, some free and most at a low cost. Fenimore said there are about 60 tours available.

One of the most fun is a relatively new addition to the festival. That would be the Big Stay Birding event, which will take place over a 24-hour period May 17 at Farmington Bay’s Goose Egg Island. Birders, some of whom take pledges to help fund the Hasenyager Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay, spend time counting every bird they can see or hear from the single site. Many spend the night in what Roundy describes as a tailgating party for birders.

Fenimore said the best thing about the festival is that it often introduces families and younger children to the natural world that is in their backyards.

As a longtime Great Salt Lake lover, the wonders and sights this amazing Utah resource offers make me happy that I live so close to the lake and that events such as the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival feature its importance.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton