Why counting shorebirds can fill a missing piece in the Great Salt Lake conservation puzzle

This article is published by the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a partnership of news, education and media organizations that work to educate people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake and what can be done to make a difference before it’s too late. . Read all our stories here greatsaltlakenews.org.

Timpie Springs • Timpie Springs Waterfowl Management Area is located off Interstate 80 in Tooele County and next to the nearby Cargill plant salt pan.

Here, Sageland Collaborative ecologist Janice Gardner, along with Sageland Collaborative Executive Director Josh Wood and photographer Harrison Porter, began this messy, overcast study early Friday morning. This flat, treeless area is a spring-fed playa marsh with swaying grass and a glistening pool of water at its center.

Gardner says that some people think of wetlands like these as barren and lifeless, but they are extremely productive habitat for shorebirds. Insects are an excellent food source for birds, and grasses provide a place to hide from predators.

Gardner, Wood and Porter are here because the shrinking Great Salt Lake is literally a matter of life and death for migratory shorebirds. Some shorebirds breed in the lake, lay eggs and raise their young. Others stop at the lake during their migration routes, using the marshes as refueling points on their long journeys.

Shorebirds rely on the Great Salt Lake so much that one conservation group considers it one of the most important sites for birds in the Western Hemisphere. Gardner says the lake is like the “ultimate Maverick” gas station for dozens of shorebird species from all over the hemisphere.

“Without a doubt, the Great Salt Lake is the most important wetland in the Midwest,” he said.

However, with the lake’s water level dropping to historic lows for two years in a row, shorebirds are slowly losing this critical habitat.

The Sageland Collaborative views the Great Salt Lake wetlands as a missing piece in the Intermountain West’s wildlife conservation information puzzle. However, the Great Salt Lake wetlands need a report compiled by the group in 2020, acknowledging a lack of communication and cooperation among wetlands managers due to a lack of data, as well as staffing and other deficiencies.

Access the 2022 Migratory Shorebird Survey.

About 100 volunteers earlier this month surveyed 50 wetlands along the Great Salt Lake, counting shorebirds and collecting data on how creatures use the wetlands during the fall migration season. A total of 189 facilities were also investigated in 11 states in the western United States.

Exploring the Great Salt Lake

Equipped with binoculars, a long camera lens, and binoculars mounted on the Subaru’s window, Gardner drives along the embankment at the water’s edge, counting any shorebirds they spot.

The first thing he sees are the black-necked otters, their long, pink legs wading in the shallows as they poke their needle-thin beaks in search of food. American avocets and wills float on the calm surface of a nearby pond. Gardner then notices the dangling heads of a snow birch and her chick in the grass. There are also pelicans that squeeze fish into a corner of the pond before swallowing them.

This August survey is an attempt to fill a large data gap and obtain a similar comparison of how shorebirds use different wetlands in the Great Salt Lake and the rest of the West. The last comprehensive effort to collect data on migratory shorebirds in the Intermountain West was between 1989 and 1995, but nothing else has happened since then.

Conservationists plan to repeat the survey at the same locations over the next three to five years during the spring and fall migration periods to continue generating new data, Gardner said. Otherwise, making decisions about how best to protect shorebird habitat in these wetlands without that information is like trying to manage a TikTok channel using dial-up AOL Internet, he says.

“Conducting shorebird surveys across the region allows us to fill in that data,” adds Gardner. “We know that as we lose water, our wetlands dry out, which means there are no more bugs to eat. So we think this is bad news for shorebirds.”

Turn surveys into valuable information

A 1995 survey covered about 162 sites across the West and yielded a wealth of valuable information about shorebirds and how they rely on the region’s wetlands, said Max Malmquist, a research associate with the National Audubon Society’s Salt Lakes Program. to count shorebirds during the study period.

The survey told experts which are the most important places for shorebirds, such as Owens Lake in California, the Lahontan Valley in Nevada and the Great Salt Lake. Malmquist said this 2022 survey will hopefully update this important information so that land managers can make decisions about how best to protect them where they are now.

“This kind of information and data will be critical to how they manage their wetlands and what management actions to take to maximize the amount of habitat available for shorebirds,” he said. protect birds and ensure they have the habitat and food resources they need, especially during migration.”

John Neill, Great Salt Lake ecosystem program manager for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, said without knowing how general populations of shorebirds are doing, it’s difficult to make any specific management for them. He expects the survey to provide information on shorebird breeding and wintering trends.

“This will give us some confidence to provide more management for these birds during migration and habitat for shorebirds,” Neill said.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, lake levels near Farmington Bay were close to average and had more salt water, Neill explained. But in later years, as the lake level dropped, the bay became more freshwater than saltwater, and now there are more fish in the bay.

This means that now more pelicans, cormorants and herring fish are taking to the bay to eat. This new survey can help document those trends as the birds change their behavior and fly to different areas around the lake.

A new challenge

Gardner says changing lake conditions make this survey more difficult in some ways than the 1995 survey. As the water level is low, the shore of the lake is further away and now inaccessible. Researchers could once take an airship over the lake to count the birds, but some of those areas have dried up, making boat travel impossible.

Part of Gardner’s survey involves a grueling half-mile trek over lifeless mud that he guesses was once submerged.

The receding waters exposed steep, reef-like deposits of sediment and microbes known as microbialites at the Malmquist study site near Great Salt Lake State Park. This forced him to dodge subtle obstacles while calculating. Gardner adds that the low lake level means there’s more surface area of ​​shoreline right now, and more volunteers are needed to cover all those spots.

Gardner and Malmquist say it can be difficult to find a consistent flow of volunteers to help with the twice-yearly surveys. Gardner adds that billing 50 sites and coordinating dozens of volunteers on the same day can be as logistically complex and stressful as planning a wedding.

But this work is important. Shorebirds have evolved over the centuries using the same migration routes. Gardner says if they can no longer come to the Great Salt Lake and have to recalibrate those tracks, they could really struggle.

Malmquist and Gardner both hope the surveys can give experts important information about the lake they need to protect a lifeline for shorebirds.

“If we lose all these places at once, I think it’s really going to test the resilience of birds and their ability to move from place to place and find habitat where it’s available,” Malmquist said. “If there’s no habitat, we can start to see some very interesting things happen.”

“We’re kind of on the verge of a potential ecosystem collapse,” he adds. “And so I think the next couple of years will be very telling of what will and will actually happen to the birds if we don’t do something about the lake.”

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