On a single day, it is possible to drive less than 200 miles to experience summer on three distinctly different wildlife refuges on the eastern edge of the Great Salt Lake.
The one obvious thing Farmington Bay, the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve and the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge share in abundance is birds. Lots of birds.
In late June and early July, young birds are starting to hatch. According to literature from Bear River, ducklings can be seen feeding in the shallows with hens, who are flightless because their wings are molting. Avocet and stilt chicks can be seen in the shallows searching for food. Male mallard, shovelers and pintails increase in numbers. The tops of piled vegetation in wetlands are often home to nesting grebes. Later in July, refuge experts say adult grebes with chicks riding on their backs begin to appear. Wilson’s phalaropes show up by the thousands.
There are other less obvious similarities as well.
Admission at all three refuges is free, something that budget-conscious families appreciate during the summer months. Each features a visitor center with educational displays and, in the case of Bear River and Farmington Bay’s Robert N. Hasenyager Great Salt Lake Nature Center, a number of hands-on activities. All three are close to civilization but feel wild and remote. All offer boardwalks and trails or benches where visitors can quietly watch the marsh around them.
But there are differences as well, some so great that all three are worth a look.
The Nature Conservancy’s Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve, near Layton, features an architecturally interesting outdoor visitor center. Unlike the other two, the influence of humans is more limited. Instead of human-made freshwater marshes created by dikes and complicated water-management schemes, such as those at Bear River and Farmington, the preserve features a more natural salt marsh.
That has advantages and disadvantages. With little open water, birds have more cover to hide. A visitor must be a bit more observant. A tall observation tower offers panoramic views of the Great Salt Lake.
The federal Bear River refuge’s James V. Hansen Visitor Center is a state-of-the-art facility, which traces the history of one of the oldest national wildlife refuges in the system. There is a gift shop, a pond and a boardwalk right outside, a place to view a video and many interactive displays.
Brigham City residents Marianne Craynor and Chad Christensen each took local students to the refuge recently.
Craynor said five girls rode their bicycles to the visitor center, where they checked out backpacks that include binoculars, nets for bugs, and other educational materials.
“We want to learn more about the birds and animals that live at the refuge,” said 14-year-old Kyra Hardy.
Christensen said he was visiting the refuge for the first time.
“It is good,” he said. “It’s educational. It teaches kids about the birds. It’s a nice place to bring the kids in the summer to get them out of the house and see some nature and some birds.”
A highlight for some visitors is the guided refuge tours that begin at 10 a.m. every Saturday. They last about three hours.
The group takes a tour bus and is for people ages 7 and up. Pre-registration is suggested; call 435-734-6457.
Refuge specialist Katie McVey said Bear River also has several ways for visitors to learn about activities and bird sightings. Information is available on the website, on the refuge’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @USFWSBearRiver or by calling 435-734-6425 for visitor information.
And don’t be surprised to see a few cows grazing, either. Deputy refuge manager Sharon Vaughn said domestic cattle are being used to help control phragmites, an invasive species that is of little use to wildlife.
Driving the 12-mile refuge route, which features interpretive signs and a few observation platforms, provides a chance to see not only thousands of birds but also wide-open lake marshlands. The route is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
At Farmington Bay’s nature center, two small buildings are crammed with all sorts of interpretive information on marshes. Many are hands-on, as visitors can see wingspans of pelicans and eagles, touch fur from animals that frequent the refuge, see a live snake or look at insects through magnifying glasses.
Two trails that offer different views of the refuge start near the center.
Diana Voss, a Division of Wildlife Resources employee who operates the center, usually can offer information on which birds can be seen. On a recent day, she pointed out great blue herons sitting on the top of tall nests and said some sandhill cranes had been in the area.
“There is a barn owl in the nesting box,” she said. “That’s good news. Their population is down.”
Kent and JoAnn Callahan, of Farmington, come to the area about three times a week.
“I like the silence,” said Kent. “You are so close to the freeway, but it just feels like you are away from it.”
That is a key to the enjoyment of the experience at all three refuges. Though relatively close to the heavily populated Wasatch Front, the refuges live up to their name. They are not only refuges for birds but a peaceful place to escape the hustle and bustle of the city.
Farmington Bay • The Farmington Bay north entrance to Goose Island is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m . The Robert N. Hasenyager Great Salt Lake Nature Center is open weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and features a boardwalk and gravel trail, two buildings with interpretive displays and marsh viewing areas. To reach Farmington Bay, take I-15 Exit 322 and drive north on the east frontage road to Glover Lane. Turn left, taking a bridge over I-15. One entrance is at 1325 West. Take that road north. The Nature Center is located at 1700 W. Glover Lane.
Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve • The area is open seven days a week. From April to September, hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. From October through March, hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Facilities include a mile-long boardwalk, restrooms and an outdoor visitor center. To reach the preserve from Salt Lake City, go north on Interstate 15. Take Exit 332 and drive to Gentile Street in Layton. Drive west on Gentile Street to 3200 West. Turn south there. The preserve is at the end of the road.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge • The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and is closed on Sunday. The refuge is located approximately 50 miles north of Salt Lake City. It can be reached from Interstate 15 by taking the Forest Street exit at Brigham City. The James V. Hansen Visitor Center and a boardwalk around the wetlands is located just west of the interstate. Drive 13 miles farther and take the 12-mile driving tour loop, open daily from sunrise to sunset.