Wild About Utah: The Great Salt Lake's Importance For Birds

Sep 21, 2021

A bird flies low over water.
Credit Roger Lewis / US FWS

I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two CMU college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves, oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body.

This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.

In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.

These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.

Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater increased risk.

At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes.  These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.

So we humans aren’t the only ones suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy. Jack Greene for Brigerland Audobon Society, and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.

Sound credit to Kevin Colner.