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Birding Utah Canyons in Winter

posted by Oliver Hansen at
on Wednesday, February 13, 2013 

Stansbury Mountain Range - Tooele County, Utah

Winter can be a spectacular time for birding. First, there aren’t any leaves on the trees, making finding birds a little bit easier than during the foliage filled spring, summer, and fall seasons. Second, the amount of open water is greatly reduced making looking for waterfowl quite easy at times. Third, there are birds that come visit us in Utah that if you want to find in the Summer, you’d have to travel up to Northern Canada or Alaska. Last is the solitude. You can get out your cross country skis or some snowshoes and travel for hours without seeing another person.

Me looking at some Rosy Finches

The last week of December I found a small flock of Gray-crowned Rosy-finches a few miles up South Willow Canyon. A great find for me. Last winter birding in Utah County I saw a few flocks of several thousand rosy-finches on the West benches of Timpanogos, but they were too far away for me to identify to species so I didn’t count them for my personal list. This was my first up-close and personal encounter with this species – a new County bird, State bird, and Life bird! Another bonus was that this species has only 2 other records in ebird for Tooele County – and one of those was from 1975!

Gray crowned Rosy-finches

As the New Year rolled around I returned over and over again to the same location to try and locate the flock with no luck. I really want to get this species for my 2013 list. No luck so far. The road is paved about 3 miles up the canyon and is regularly plowed to a winter forest service gate. On a few Saturdays and occasionally after work I’ve actually hiked past the gate a few miles. Snowshoers and Cross-country skiers had left a good packed snow trail on the road past the gate which made for semi-easy hiking. There are miles and miles of exposed cliffs and steep rocky/muddy hills were rosy-finches love to hang out in winter. Unfortunately, there are dozens of other canyons close by that might only take a flock 2 minutes to get to, but for me would take hours. Maybe I’ll get lucky one of these trips.

Miles and miles of solitude

One trip did reward me with a small flock of mountain chickadees and red-breasted nuthatches. Another trip I saw a downy woodpecker excavating a hole in a willow tree and several Townsend's solitaire. The birds are very few and far between. I’ve been amazed at the feeling of solitude while hiking for hours up a snow-filled canyon and not seeing or hearing a single other animal for miles.

Creek in South Willow Canyon

Another bird I’ve had difficulty finding this year is American Dipper. Living in Provo, I could drive 4 miles from my house to the mouth of Provo Canyon and pick one of 4 or 5 parking lots, walk 20 feet to a bridge, and almost be guaranteed a dipper. Tooele County is a little different. There are almost no paved and plowed roads that go up any of the nearby canyons. South Willow is paved for about 3 miles, but the creek is pretty far from the road near the mouth of the canyon and is mostly underground or frozen.

Snowshoes makes winter birding much more enjoyable

After acquiring some fancy new snowshoes yesterday, I had to take them on a test drive. I hiked about a mile past the gate in South Willow Canyon to what is normally a nice picnic area in the summer to find several feet of snowpack. I was able to get a lot closer to the creek with my snowshoes (I was still sinking in a good foot because of how much powder there was!). The moment I got to the creek I could hear the familiar song of an American Dipper and spotted him singing away on a rock in the creek. So much more rewarding to find a dipper after a nice hike than peaking over a bridge at a parking lot. Unfortunately, I only had my little point and shoot camera so no great pics.

Can you spot the Dipper?

Little Cottonwood Picnic Area - South Willow Canyon

Have you had any great winter birding experiences this year?

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Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Oliver: Tooele County is yours to to discover man. I'm sure you're going to find a lot of good birds that would otherwise go unnoticed. Looking back at past years, I can honestly say this winter has by far, been one of the best I can remember. The snowbirds from up north have been phenomenal--Redpolls, Rosy-finches, Waxwings, Grosbeaks, Longspurs, and Buntings. Day time encounters with Long-eared and Northern Pygmy-Owls in Salt Lake County. A Harlequin Duck hanging around the Causeway. 10 species of gulls reported from the lakefront.

There have been no shortage of great birds for sure. But as much as I enjoy this winter birding, I sure am looking forward to spring migration!

February 15, 2013 at 8:35 AM  
Blogger Paulo Gonçalves said...

A very interesting and a nice blog.
Greatings from Portugal


February 20, 2013 at 5:04 PM  

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