Bald Eagle Day draws hundreds of birders to Utah sites
Farmington Bay • A blizzard followed by single-digit temperatures turned this state-managed waterfowl area into a sea of frozen white.
It was difficult to believe that life could exist in this hostile white, gray and blue environment.
But two bald eagles and another large raptor that could have been a young eagle, seemingly oblivious to the cold, perched on a dead tree near a dike.
That's where Jennifer Peterson of nearby Farmington stood with a camera snapping photos of the majestic birds.
"I love the beauty and the peace out here," she said. "These are the only ones I've seen, and we have driven all the way out."
Indeed, as Utah's Bald Eagle Day approaches Saturday, Feb. 9, even organizers aren't certain how many of the big birds will be available to see at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Farmington Bay, Salt Creek, the Fountain Green State Fish Hatchery in Sanpete County, Split Mountain near Vernal and a viewing area near Cedar City.
Two years ago, around 200 eagles hung out near Farmington Bay where carp were plentiful. Dozens of birders parked their vehicles along the dike as if watching a drive-in movie, cameras poked out of car windows.
Last year, the number of birds was way down. Higher-than-normal temperatures scattered the birds all over the state.
Bob Walters, the longtime Division of Wildlife Resources watchable wildlife worker who organizes Bald Eagle Day, recently counted about 20 bald eagles in and around Farmington Bay.
"There were some, including one that would have been great to ogle," he said. "Many were removed from the dikes. There was not a huge number. The expectation is that when Farmington begins to control for carp, that is a time when we might be surprised. There should be many more than that. Some years, the numbers can be described as huge."
The DWR's Jason Jones, who works many of the northern Utah waterfowl management areas, said the agency waited until waterfowl season ended in late January before beginning to use a naturally occurring chemical called rotenone to control large numbers of carp.
The chemical, which comes from a South American plant, is dripped into open water areas. It coats the gills of carp, which can make it difficult for plants eaten by waterfowl to grow, with a substance that kills them.
When this happens, the eagles often gather near the little spots of open water to eat the carp. The chemical poses no threat to the birds.
Still, Jones said there remains plenty to see at Farmington Bay and other refuges. Harriers are common. There are still a few ducks around, and those who look closely might see a coyote or red fox. Mule deer even occasionally come this far west.
"There are tons of harriers," said Diana Vos, who operates the Great Salt Lake Nature Center at Farmington Bay for the DWR. "We are seeing rough legged hawks and kestrels."
The center will be renamed the Robert N. Hasenyager Great Salt Lake Nature Center Saturday in honor of the former DWR employee who headed up a committee that helped build the nature center and the trail around it. Hasenyager and his family will attend the event.
Walters said Utah's wintering bald eagles come from Canada, Alaska and the northern states.
"We happen to exist at a favorable latitude," he explained. "We have relatively mild winter and plenty of food. Locally, carp is a big draw."
Walters said eagles are hardy birds with feathers providing insulation that allows the birds to sit on ice feeding and foraging for hours.
Bald Eagle Day is one of Utah's most popular watchable wildlife events. Two years ago, it drew around 4,500 people. Last year, when eagles weren't quite as plentiful, less than half that number showed up.
"This is the time of the year when conditions can be pretty rigorous," he said. "But it's always proven to be fun. People do suffer from cabin fever at that time of year. People are looking to do something, so it remains popular. It is maybe the most popular statewide watchable event that we have."
Hawkwatch International is expected to have some of its birds on display at Farmington Bay. Volunteers and DWR employees provide information and spotting scopes to help the public get a better view of the birds.
Utah Bald Eagle Day Sites
The free event is Saturday, Feb. 9.
Salt Creek Waterfowl Management Area, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Farmington Bay, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Fountain Green State Fish Hatchery, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Split Mountain, Green River, east of Vernal, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cedar Valley near Cedar City, 3 p.m. to dusk