Monday, May 11, 2009

Desert Destination: Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge

Over the weekend I had the opportunity to celebrate the 50th birthday of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, located about 140 miles southwest of Salt Lake City. I really like this area and have visited before, but this was the first time I got to spend more than a few hours. For the birthday celebration, the wildlife refuge invited people to come for the weekend and take free classes and camp out.

There is a pay phone at the refuge--one of the very few concessions to modernization. It is very primitive and far out in the middle of nowhere, so travelers should go prepared.

I got there Friday night in time to witness the full moon rising. It looked particularly beautiful coming up over the desert mountains, lighting up Fish Springs Flat.

The Pony Express marker reminds us that this area has been important for a long time. I bet the Pony Express riders enjoyed full moons--it made their gallops across the desert so much easier.

Usually the refuge is closed to camping, but on this weekend it was allowed. I took my bike, and when I got up in the morning went for a lovely ride along the impoundments.

I got an excellent view of this American Pelican, complete with its breeding bump on its bill. Both males and females grow this bump to show their interest in breeding, but at the end of the breeding season, it is shed. Talk about taking dressing up to a new extreme!

These heavy birds, 10-17 pounds each, were often seen soaring overhead, their nine foot wingspans making them conspicuous.

On Saturday morning, refuge manager Jay Banta welcomed everyone and introduced the instructors.

People had come from many different areas, and we were all eager to learn. I chose the aquatic birds class, and there was also land birds, history, and botany classes. Notice the coats--it was cold! A north breeze kept us shivering--but it also kept the bugs away. When the breeze slowed down, I got bitten to pieces.

There were quite a few Red-necked Phalaropes bopping in the water. They have reversed sexual dimorphism, meaning that the females are larger and more brightly colored than the males. The males are a duller color because they are the ones who incubate the eggs and care for the chicks.

 The Long-billed Dowitchers were busy probing for insects.

Our group spent a lot of time like this, looking through binoculars and spotting scopes to see what was out on the marshes.

We found a little bird island, where cormorants were sitting on nests and a pelican was coming in for a landing.

It was windy and chilly, so the pelicans hunkered down.

Except this one. She was a bit of a showoff.

The American Avocets were busy searching for invertebrates to eat.

One of the best parts of the trip was that we got to go into areas of the Refuge that are often closed. Although we saw some really dry desert, like these alkaline flats, it was impressive how much of the nearly 18,000 acres were covered with water. It was obvious why this refuge is such an important stopover for migratory birds--it really is the only sizable water body in over 50 miles. Many birds also breed here.

The geology tour not only looked at rocks, but also examined where Fish Springs water comes from. The Utah Geologic Survey has recently drilled monitoring wells and done extensive water quality sampling. They believe that most of the water comes from nearby Snake Valley, as refuge manager Jay Banta explains in this post.

Many of the groups got to see this rattlesnake, curled up under a bush right next to the refuge headquarters.

Lizards abounded, including this baby horned lizard.

And everyone who went out to the marsh could see plenty of bullfrogs sunning themselves. They were huge and disgusting. They are nonnative, brought in prior to the refuge for a bullfrog farm. Frog legs, anyone?

In the afternoon there were more classes: archeology with a trip to one of the refuge's caves, geology, history, and botany. I chose the botany class and learned five new families of aquatic plants. It's a rare day when you can learn one new family, so five made it quite a treat!

One of the plants we looked at was this spiny naiad (Najas marina), which is common in some of the springs. We also looked at a variety of terrestrial plants, some of which were blooming.

In the evening we had a potluck dinner and then some of the people who had previously worked at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge spoke, including the first refuge manager. He and his wife had come out when there was no indoor plumbing, in fact there wasn't even an outhouse. There was no water supply except the springs themselves, and of course there was no electricity. They came in November with a one-year old and another baby on the way, and somehow managed to survive and even come to love the place. This refuge manager, Lynn Greenwalt, not only got the refuge off to its start, but eventually became Director of the Fish and Wildlife Service from 1974-1981. 

Another speaker was Bob, who has been retired for 20 years but was better at finding birds than any of the rest of us despite wearing hearing aids. Bob and his wife didn't stay at the refuge for long because his wife disliked it so much, but he found the place so enticing that he drove from Arizona in his new hybrid car to attend and reminisce about his short stay. 

Kim was acting refuge manager in the 1980s while the Fish and Wildlife Service searched for a manager. At one point she was the only employee left out at Fish Springs, which she said was one of the best times in her life. 

Listening to the stories made me realize how much special places like Fish Springs means to people. So many of the fish and wildlife refuges are located out in the boonies and require a special type of person to live out far from civilization and protect what's out there. They also require special groups of friends who are willing to come out and visit and educate people about why those places should be protected.

Sunday morning I woke up early and took another bike ride to enjoy the morning sights and sounds. I disrupted a group of snowy egrets and a black-crowned night heron.

There were more classes offered Sunday morning, and my only regret was that I didn't have time to take more classes, because they were all excellent. It was great getting to meet the variety of people who had traveled to the middle of the desert for a fun and educational weekend.

Happy Birthday, Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. I hope the next 50 years are just as good, if not better, than the first 50.

1 comment:

Caroline said...

So much beauty on this big, wonderful earth. Awesome!

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