The snow is falling along the Wasatch Front in enormous quantities, closings schools and hampering travel. The Little Bear River in Cache Valley is nearly a solid block of ice, creating a forest of frozen cattails and reeds along its banks. Mountain roads are blanketed with feet of snow and best left to ardent snowmobilers. At first glance there doesn't seem to be much bird life, maybe an occasional flock of blackbirds or the territorial magpie bobbing through the back yard.
Below the snow line and into southern Utah, leafless cottonwoods and spent sagebrush seem to provide little to view. But then you get out into some warm clothes and out of your house, and into nature and everything changes - instantly. Utah is alive with life - winter or summer, spring or fall.There is a beauty to birds that can't be fully appreciated from a distance. Unique shapes, amazing flight displays, colorful feathers, rhapsodic songs: differences that separate bird species on one hand, yet tie them together on another. Birding has quickly become one of North America's fastest growing outdoor activities.
There is a unique attraction of an American dipper bobbing into a swift-running current looking for grubs in the frigid, ice-encrusted upper Provo River near Heber City. The dipper is as comfortable underwater as it is in the air, it is an amazing creature of adaptation to its environment.
There is a drama in the patience of a great gray owl, sitting on a naked branch in a boreal pine forest in the Cache National Forest, enduring the falling snow, listening intently for the faint scratching sound of a mouse moving under the snow. The great gray's camouflage is so effective that to just see this owl in the wild is a treat. As I stood off a short distance and watched this owl work, catching mouse after mouse with penetrating dives into the snow at a meadow's edge, I was as fascinated by it as much as any animal I've ever seen.
Birding in Utah is a year-round quest and an adventure to the thousands of bird enthusiasts that live in our state. As fair weather migratory populations come and go, the resident denizens of Utah's hinterlands continue to exist and survive, looking for the first warm rays of sunlight and lengthening days that are the harbingers of the coming spring.
While some of the bird species we might expect to see in Utah may change with the passing seasons, Utah is a birder's paradise in all seasons.
What do you need?
For most birders - binoculars, a good pair of eyes, strong legs and an accurate field guide to the birds are the only necessary pieces of equipment. With this in mind, you just need some time and patience to look and listen, walk and stalk, and discover our local bird populations.
I prefer field guides that show actual photographs of the different species, not just paintings. My primary bird guide is the three volume set, "The Audubon Society Master Guide to Birding."
Older, bulkier styles of binoculars have been replaced by smaller, more powerful, and yes, more expensive models. Most have lenses that are multi-coated to reduce glare, ergonomically designed bodies to assist in vibration-free use, and armored (rubberized) exteriors to protect against minor drops and falls.
There are two keys to picking the right binoculars. Your first consideration, as in all outdoor adventures, is weight. How much can you comfortably carry for hours on end? The weight is usually determined by the diameter of the lenses. The greater the diameter the greater the weight - but also more light is let in - thus, the brighter your view appears.
The second key is magnification. How many times closer will the object be when using the binoculars? Seven times (7X) or maybe ten times (10X) closer? Without violating the first rule, buy all the magnification you can. To tell the difference between sparrows, thrushes and other small birds, binoculars are essential at nearly any distance.
Where do you go?
In most areas of our state there are established birding groups that can help the beginner along the path to birding heaven. One of the most celebrated of all groups is the Audubon Society. The Society's members regularly conduct birding activities to help collect important data about bird populations, ranges and activities.
Success, for most birders, is determined by their life list, all the species they have positively identified over the course of their life.
Birds, like most other wildlife, exist along the transition zones of nature. These zones can be defined in many ways. Where land meets water - where meadows meet forests - where deserts meet mountains - where grasslands meet wetlands - where oak and maple give way to pines and aspens, and for the suburban birder, where open spaces meet trees and shrubs that provide important habitat.
Habitat is the answer to finding birds. Areas that bring together the most types of transition zones provide the best habitat. Unique among birds is that once you get past the best areas, all areas of Utah are inhabited. Hundreds of different species spend all or part of their lives in Utah. Some are residents, others migratory and still others are just casual or accidental visitors.
On a recent trip to Zion National Park I encountered a Northern Flicker working the canyon floor, flipping leaves and twigs, its bright red mustache, black chest spot and spotted breast pattern adding color to a dull, overcast winter day. The chunky bird ignored me, coming within 10 feet of my tripod and camera, before hopping away.
On an early morning trip to the southeastern marshy area of Utah Lake, morning fog created a surreal dreamlike atmosphere as a great blue heron worked the unfrozen areas of the marsh. Within 50 yards of the great blue, a black-crowned night heron roosted on a fence post. Geese, ducks and various wading birds like American avocets and black-necked stilts followed the shoreline out of sight.
One of my favorite winter birding locations is the Lytle Ranch Preserve, first protected by the Nature Conservancy, now an outdoor laboratory for Brigham Young University. It is located in the Beaver Dam Wash near the Utah-Nevada-Arizona border, approximately 35 miles west of St. George. Its rare combination of desert and water has turned this former working ranch into a delicate ecosystem that provides habitat for many interesting bird species in Utah's only Joshua tree forest.
This unique desert area, with its steady supply of water and riparian habitat, attracts numerous species of birds to Utah that don't normally come this far north. I've seen dozens of species, from common great horned owls to green-winged teal - from rare Crissal-thrashers to vermillion flycatchers - and from Phainopepla's to golden eagles.
Whether you search the state for rare birds, or just keep bird feeders in your yard for your local sparrows, juncos or pine siskens, birding in Utah is a very rewarding experience. You're breathing fresh air, working your body, and learning about one of nature's most beautiful creations. Our forests, deserts, valleys and salt marshes are teeming with bird life. Get out of your house, out of your car and take a look.