Fish Springs is a beautiful, yet harsh environment; it's a series of springs nestled in between the Dugway and Deep Creek mountain ranges. It's a 4 hour, desolate drive out there. There is no cell service, and weird things happen along the Pony Express road. The drive out can often be bland, but if you look hard enough, it's possible to see wild horses, antelope and a Prairie Falcon or two.
Jeff, Brittany Badger(Ingwell) and I went out to Fish Springs for the New Year's weekend to take place in their annual CBC. Brian Allen, the NWR manager was nice enough to let us spend two nights in the bunkhouse before and after the count. This year we had very few participants, I'm guessing most didn't want to make the long drive on a holiday weekend.
The night before the count, the three of us went out on the refuge for a little owling. There is a picnic area with a few majestic cottonwoods, and that's where we decided to call for owls. It was a crisp night, and the leafless cottonwood skeletons towered over us, the only barrier between us and the luminous stars (sometimes it's good to get out of the city lights). After five minutes of inactivity, we decided to pack it up and move on. As we were leaving, we heard two very loud calls, saying "who's awake? Me toooooooooo." We bailed out of the car for the second time, and two silhouettes stood atop the cottonwoods. A pair of Great Horned Owls serenaded each other for five minutes or so, then flew away together.
The count started at 9 AM the next morning. Immediately upon leaving the bunkhouse we spotted a mixed flock of Dark-Eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows. A moment after that, Jeff refound a Townsend's Solitaire that we had spotted the day before. Our morning was off to a good start.
We walked over to the NWR office for some logistics before the count. Brian Allen, the refuge manager gave us our assignments, and we were off. Just outside the office, we spotted another mixed flock; this one contained more Tree Sparrows, Juncos, a Spotted Towhee, and a Robin.
Before birding the refuge, Jeff, Brittany and I birded just beyond the refuge gates in a spot where I have often found Sage Sparrows. We were lucky enough to find the only four Sage Sparrows of the count, and one of them gave us great looks. The Sage Sparrow is a beautiful bird with a very memorable song, so I am always excited to see them.
The birding on the refuge was a little slow (from what I remember in years past), but we did pick up some good birds. A Great Egret flew around our car for five minutes or so, we ran into an Eared Grebe, and saw a good sized flock of Tundra Swans. I was quite disappointed because the Fish Springs count is one of the few spots I see American Bittern; this year I saw none.
After lunch, we met up with the other team (Valerie Frokjer and Nathan Darnell), and we headed down to some of the southern springs. We got out to chat at one of the springs, and as Valerie was walking towards the phragmites, a couple hundred birds flushed out. A group of ducks headed to the left, and 32 Black-Crowned Night-Herons headed to the right. I didn't ID the ducks because I was too busy looking at the Night-Herons; it was one of the bigger groupings of that species that I have ever seen. Night-Herons are a little beautiful and a little awkward in flight; Jeff made a good observation when he said that they fly a little bit like owls.
After that, the day ended with the great duck flush of Fish Springs (I'm not going to explain this one; you have to be there to experience it); the teams picked up a few duck species that we didn't get previously on the count.
It was a pretty good day. The count had 49 species, and our team had 34 species for the day.
We had a great time. The scenery is majestic, the birds are great, and it's always good to see our old friend, Jay Banta. The Fish Springs count is an annual tradition for me, and I always look forward to it. I suggest that every Utah birder does this count at least once in their life.