Farmington Bay • Most Utahns are familiar with the story about the California gulls saving Mormon pioneer crops by eating the horde of crickets that threatened to leave them hungry.
Few, however, are aware of a similar story involving a symbol of the United States. It happens every winter at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area when hundreds of bald eagles descend to feast on carp.
It may not sound glamorous, but wildlife enthusiasts and photographers flock to the bay when it happens.
"Honestly, it was what got me into photography," said Rob Daugherty, of Rob's Wildlife. "I was looking around on Flicker and some eagle pictures popped up that were taken locally. I drove out and couldn't believe what I was seeing. I had never experienced anything like that before. I had heard of three or four in a group, but nothing like the 100 to 400 I saw concentrated in one area."
Non-native carp may not be threatening pioneer crops, but they are impacting waterfowl that rely on the marshes of Farmington Bay because they hurt water quality and limit vegetation growth.
As a result, bay managers take steps to reduce the carp population by lowering water, then using a naturally occurring toxin to kill the fish a feast in which the eagles are eager to indulge.
"The eagles will certainly utilize and take full advantage of the carp when they are available," said Bob Walters, watchable wildlife coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. "It is basically a free lunch."
Rotenone, the chemical used to remove the carp, is controversial, but used widely across the world to remove fish populations. Utah wildlife officials say rotenone is not a threat to other wildlife, birds or humans at the applied concentrations.
People have been heading to the marshes and along river corridors across the state for years to watch for bald eagles. In 1990 Walters noticed a large concentration of the raptors at Farmington Bay and set up the first Bald Eagle Day free public viewing event. It is held each February and now typically includes Farmington Bay and four or five other locations.
In addition to being a bird most people get to see on a regular basis, bald eagles inspire awe for other reasons.
"I hear people all the time say they can't believe how many eagles there are and how close they are to Salt Lake City," Walters said. "Their size and appearance add to the wonder, but there is something about seeing the symbols of freedom and liberty of our country that really makes it special for people."
Bill Fenimore, a Utah birding expert and advocate, said as many as 408 individual eagles have been spotted on a single day at Farmington Bay. They usually start showing up in mid-November as part of a fall migration south and then disappear about the middle of March to migrate north.
Daugherty has learned a lot since that first trip to Farmington Bay in 2008. He knows the best times to view the eagles and the prime locations. He now spends parts of nearly every day in February at the management area and he is not always alone.
"You kind of learn when the best photo opportunities are coming," he said. "If you see an eagle circling another eagle you can expect to see some kind of an interaction such as a battle for a fish. It is fascinating to see the beauty and to learn how they behave."
Daugherty has his own impressive collection of bald eagle images on the web now. His work draws the attention of other wildlife photographers eager to experience the wonder of the Farmington Bay eagles.
Jerry Alt of Chicago contacted Daugherty last winter and asked if he could tag along for a couple of days. Alt had spent time photographing eagles in other locations, but was drawn by the ability to be close enough to get high quality close-ups.
"You can sit in the car and get these amazing shots. There is an intimacy and breadth to the pictures you can get at Farmington Bay that is hard to replicate in other places," Alt said. "One of my first shots was of an eagle coming right at us. I looked in to take the picture and had a face full of eagle in my lens."
Alt said he sold images from that first day at Farmington Bay "before they were even downloaded. I'm coming back and bringing friends."
Twitter: @BrettPrettyman@UtahBucketList Utah's annual Bald Eagle Day
The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources holds Bald Eagle Day each February at several locations across the state. It is typically held in early February. Details will be posted on the website when dates and locations are decided.
The Utah Bucket List
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See a video of bald eagles at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area at [coming from nancy and Kim]
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