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Research On Bird’s Use Of Great Salt Lake Leads To Migration Discovery

A Marbled Godwit stands in water.
fishandgame.idaho.gov, Brian Currie

Though the Great Salt Lake is a known stopping point for many migratory birds, new research shows just how important it is for a long-beaked shorebird called the Marbled Godwit.

Three populations of the Marbled Godwit live in North America. The primary population lives in the middle of the continent. They call Saskatchewan, the Dakotas and Montana home. Two smaller populations are based out of Alaska and the eastern coast of Canada.

Utah State University graduate student Bridget Olsen and Professor Kimberly Sullivan used satellite transmitters to track birds from each population as they migrated.  Although their goal was to understand how the birds used the Great Salt Lake, as Sullivan explains, the data they got from the transmitters led to a surprising discovery.

“You would think that the birds in the East would go to the East to winter, just fly south, but they don’t,” Sullivan said. “They fly all the way across the continent to winter in Mexico. But the birds that are showing up on the East Coast are breading in North and South Dakota and then they are flying to the East Coast and they actually cross the path of the ones that are flying west.”

Sullivan and Olsen’s research is the first time this kind of ‘crisscross’ migration has been documented.

The satellite trackers also discovered the mid-continent population of birds, which makes up 95 percent of the North American population, uses the Great Salt Lake as a staging ground for their trips both north and southward.

“They molt their feathers, they grown new feathers, they really bulk up and then they fly overland down along the Colorado River and cross into the Baja California and the western coast of Mexico,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan said the research showed just how critical the Great Salt Like is for a whole species. The data may also help inform decisions on proposed development in the areas surrounding the Great Salt Lake.