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Henefer Lek Madness

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, April 2, 2013 

On Easter Sunday, Sam and I decided to take a drive out to Golden Spike just to get out of the city.  I talked her into heading that way via East Canyon and the Henefer Greater Sage-Grouse Lek.  We left Salt Lake shortly after 6am and got to Henefer before the sunrise. I arrived a little later than I had hoped, but was shocked at what I saw when we hit the Summit/Morgan County line.  There were 10 female grouse along the south edge of the road in Summit County.  There were no grouse in the road, but on the north side of  the road in the area where I normally watch the grouse display were 8 vehicles parked up to the fence .  There was one van on the south side of the road where for years we have parked and watched the birds.

More vehicles than I have ever seen at the lek, parked right where normally birds are displaying.

I pulled off to the south and for a moment sat confused and befuddled.  Why were all these cars parked where the grouse often displayed?  I thought about parking where I normally would by the corral, but then I would be facing no birds, and have a wall of vehicles blocking the birds that were in the fields to the north. Instead I pulled in behind the convoy of folks that were presumably mostly photographers--there was a row of 500+mm lenses projecting from windows. I wondered how many of the folks were here for the first time and jsut following the lead of other vehicles.  I had never thought to park on this side of the road, becuase it was apparent when you arrived most mornings that the birds were on the road. I was upset that in the past I could watch these birds form as close as 20' and see their display up close.  Now the closest birds were over 150’ out into the field

The "sage specks" barely visible at 500mm in my view finder

As I sat there longer I had mixed feelings.  For one the birds were displaying out in the field, and there were plenty of males and dozens of females.  Because they were out in the field, they weren’t on the road, meaning they weren’t going to be killed while trying to mate.  It was a silver lining.  But at the same time it was not the experience I had come to expect up here.  As with previous posts about Henefer I always have mentioned parking as far to the south and east as possible, but in the case of this morning everyone was as far north as they could go, north of the actual pull off in an area I would consider off limits to vehicles.  It was directly where I have watched birds displaying year in and out.

 This male grouse had plenty of admirers... maybe the fields are the best place for lekking...

Don’t get me wrong, I fully expect people who want to see and photograph wildlife to go to places like this and enjoy it--I am actually all for it.  The more people learn about birds like this, the more aware they might be of our impact on them.  But its hard to watch something change so drastically in just a few years.  My biggest worry is it turning into (and excuse my French), the shit show that Farmington has turned into surrounding the Eagles.    I had several people email me privately, including folks who have visited from Wyoming in the past, expressing their frustration with the situation too.  Some complained abotu the actual people, getting out of their cars, letting kids run around, and even one person letting a dog out of teh car.  I was shocked to hear that.  When I went I saw none of that--everyone was in their cars and being respectful of the birds--it was just where they were parked that had me bothered.  Take a look at the difference a few years makes in how close the birds were...

Here is how close the birds were in 2006:

And again in 2007:

It’s hard to believe those birds were in the same place as my best shot from this morning:

In the end I actually felt like it may what's best for the birds.  I would rather watch them from a distance where they can display safely away from the cars, then watch them get hit by drivers not paying attention.  But if the only reason they are displaying where they are is because cars are parking where they want to display, then that is an issue. When you visit the lek, please be mindful of the birds, and just use common sense.  I still advocate parking to the southeast, and giving the birds as much space as possible--and if you are like me, you probably won't want to head up there on a weekend with the growing crowds.

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Blogger Kenny Frisch said...

When I was there, there was a male and about a dozen females in the road doing their thing, so my views were a little closer. Luckily any car that drove through slowed down when passing the grouse.

April 2, 2013 at 12:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting read. I visited the lek yesterday for the first time and was puzzled as to why the birds were displaying out in a field with all the tall vegetation around them but this seems to explain the unexpected behavior. When we arrived there was one car already there parked on the “wrong” side of the road. Many birds were already out in the field but there were a couple on the other side of the road where you suggest parking. We just followed the other car and before long a couple of other cars pulled in around us. Since we had never been there before we didn’t know that the road was their actual lek. Maybe a sign would help so that visitors would know where the designated parking area is. I am sure that everyone would gladly park on the “right” side if they knew.

Anyway, it was really neat to experience the show even if it wasn’t ideal viewing conditions. I just posted a few of my photos from the lek yesterday morning here:



April 2, 2013 at 6:42 PM  
Anonymous Christine Bastian said...

It hard to hear the place that started it all for me being called a s*** show.  I go to Farmington usually about 3 days a week.  The only crazy day I saw was the one advertised in the paper as "Eagle Days in Farmington".  But we all know the Eagles come early and stay after.  I think that anyone who wanted to avoid families would be prudent to skip the day when there are activities for kids advertised.  The complaints make me a bit sad.

As far as letting the kids out of the car.  I am guilty as charged.  If birding meant strapping my 10 and 3 year old into the back seat for lengthy periods while I stared out the window they would hate it.  They wouldn't have a reason to look beyond themselves, they would grow to resent going out just to look at wildlife.  Essentially it would be completely counter productive to what I am trying to instill in them. 
 As it is my 10 year old has her own journal and we are doing a mini "big year" with each other.  She throws down her video game and jumps up when I say we are going birding - and even came home from school running through the door and practically bursting about an American Kestrel she saw.

My 3 year old walks down the trail with me and says pop pop pop... (stop) - looks through his binoculars- then says okay...keep going.  He points out birds to me whenever he sees them.  Yes, sometimes he runs down the trail, sometimes he is too loud, and sometimes he just runs in circles trying to burn energy.  I have seen my three year old walk into a covey of California Quail that continued foraging as if he wasn't there.  Probably a cardinal sin in birding, but had I yelled for him or gone after him I would have flushed the birds.  Kids are better at this than we are.

Frankly, if I have to wait until they are old enough to be told - I may lose my opportunity before I have a chance.  They learn by doing.  Kids are the next generation of wildlife lovers.  They won't love what they are excluded from.

As far as Eagles are concerned, I grew up in the northwest and have yet to see an Eagle disturbed by a child.  Maybe it is different here.  I am used to them everywhere, all year around hanging out in our trees.  The only one I saw perturbed, flew down and yelled at a friend of mine for setting up a tent under her nesting tree.  He moved and the issue was resolved. I never imagined it wouldn't be okay to let the kids out of the car to look at them.

I'm really not trying to be argumentative here.  I just want to present a different perspective.  Although my parents instilled a love of nature in me from the beginning, I am new to the specifics of birding.  I did not know a single other birder when I started.  I've made mistakes and will probably make more.  But I truly believe that the trade off for dealing with newbies in a forgiving and generous way is that we have one more in our conservation corner, for life.  (and they will probably bring their kids) :-)

April 3, 2013 at 4:16 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Kenny: 5 years ago there would have been 10 males right off the road and 20-30 females ogling them. Qutie a show!

@Greg: Great shots! I am going to write DNR and ask them what they envision for the public and its relationship with the lek. Like I mentioned in my post, as much as I hate not being able to watch the birds as closely as I used to, I was glad that I didn't see any get hit the morning I was there, and I didn't see any piles of feathers in the road. As long as the birds don't suffer setbacks in mating, it;s probably a good thing.

April 3, 2013 at 7:37 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


I've been going to Farmington for over 20 years and from mid January to the first week of March it has turned into a self-indulgent, camera fest--where a group of wanna-be professional photographers make sometiems dozens of trips out there over the course of 6 weeks to add more photos just like the ones they already have, to their growing collection. I make maybe 2 or 3 trips during that time period to look for gulls, I see the same trucks, the same bombastic egos talking about birds as if they are experts on the subject because they photograph a few eagles, and a general lack of consideration for everyone else just out to have a good time and enjoy the place. I'll tie this into some of your comments below. It doesn't matter which day of the week you come at that point, Wednesdays are often as busy as Sundays, because all the people who used to come on weekends started coming during the week to miss those crowds.

I never said birding meant strapping your kids in for lengthy periods, however in this example where you are visiting a lek, it is absolutely a NO NO to get out of the car and walk around, or let your kids run around screaming, or let a dog out to go to the bathroom. These birds are highly sensitive and stuff like that can end the morning display in a matter of moments. Its all about knowing learning how to act at certain times and places--usually it comes down to common sense. Would you jump out of a car in the middle of winter and walk towards an owl sitting on a fence post? Would you chase a mother duck with a brood of babies behind it to get photos? Would you approach a bird at a nest freaking out? Would you let your kids run around screaming with a group of people set up photographing some animal or bird? The point I was making is that there is a time and a place for kids to be rowdy, and pets to play, and people to go about their business as usual.

"Frankly, if I have to wait until they are old enough to be told..."

I couldn't agree with you more. My love for the outdoors is directly related to my dad taking us everywhere and doing the things he loved in the outdoors. Climbing mountains, hunting, fishing, camping, backpacking, photography, and just enjoying the great outdoors are things I did from the time I was carried on my parents backs to this day. Had my dad not kept a field guide in his truck, and pointed out warblers, and bluebirds, and kingfishers, then I may not have had that see planted in my head form an early age. Had he not taken me duck hunting, and taught me about the marsh and the patterns in how waterfowl fly and come into land, I wouldn't have learned those things and I very well wouldn't be writing this blog post. But at the same time he taught me responsibility, and respect for others, the outdoors, and the wildlife.

"As far as Eagles are concerned...I never imagined it wouldn't be okay to let the kids out of the car..."

Again not what I was saying--my speak of a shit show was about the sheer number and the general lack of consideration for others. 99% of the time when birding get out of the car and take the kids walking through the brush. You're going to see far less form your car. But at places like a sage grouse lek, or an owl nest, or a flock of birds close to a road--take into consideration how it will effect the bird, others observing the bird, and how your actions may influence others.

My original post wasn't upset at the people being there or their actions--it was about how many and the fact that they were parked on top of the lek. I am one of the biggest advocates out there for getting people interested in birds and birding (especially kids--there are too few that are interested in birds). That's why we hold field trips, have the blog, UBIRD, and have a place to openly talk about anything birds and birding related.

April 3, 2013 at 8:07 AM  
Anonymous Christine Bastian said...

Because the complaints you addressed came directly after the Farmington comment, I misread them as complaints about Farmington Eagle days.  I apologize.  

My point about my kids is that teaching them how to be responsible birders or nature lovers in general doesn't happen over night.  I can explain all I want.  But they won't absorb it, until they experience it.  They will make mistakes and so will I.

"Common sense" doesn't really exist.  (yes I know that sounds as if I'm being insulting to humans as a whole - but truly I'm not).  :-).  Common sense is predicated on all of us having common experiences.  Which of course is not true.  As an example,  If my three year old could walk into a group of Quail and sit among them what would prevent him from trying it with Grouse?  Only someone more experienced would know that doing such a thing is considered a no-no.  Its the same with adults too.  If they have no experiences to recall, or have no one to teach them the ins and outs - how would they know?  (don't worry I'm not one to let my kids go chasing grouse - this is just an example.  Although in truth I wouldn't have let my son approach Quail either but he saw them before I did, and he's quick ).  I'm not trying to make excuses or tell you that you are wrong. I believe you are absolutely right.  But I also believe that if we rely on "common sense" we will constantly be disappointed, irritated, and angry at other people.  I think the solutions are found in the presumption that people are out there because they marvel at the natural world, that they don't want to hurt it, but need guidance not anger.  If they are approached first with all the things they are doing wrong, most will completely ignore the information they are getting.  They will view it like anything else, that it's not worth trying - because unless one magically knows all the rules the guys that have been doing it forever will despise them.  If we make all those people feel like they are on our team and important pieces of it, they are more apt to learn, and play by the rules.

I know I sound as if I'm lecturing (the draw backs if typing not talking) but really I just think the perspective of someone who is new at this could be valuable in finding real solutions.  And that even photographers don't have to be natural enemies.  I always figured they were like me and couldn't get enough of seeing their favorite things.  I've spoken with many about what they are viewing and I.D.ed what I could.  (minimal). Told them what I know about the bird (again - minimal) and had some nice conversations.  If I knew the rules it would have been a great platform for sharing them.

Anyway, I truly appreciate this group.  And Tim, it doesn't take long to see the work you do here is outstanding!  I love that I finally have a place to talk with more experienced people.  I admire you for your efforts in making that happen.  Thank you.  And good luck birding!

April 3, 2013 at 12:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just a heads up. The road at the lek runs north and south. There is a west side of the road and an east side of the road no north and south. That might be one issue. Second, if there are no signs, how on Earth would a new person visiting the lek know where the birds "usually" strut?

April 3, 2013 at 3:38 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


The road actually run NORTHEAST to SOUTHWEST, (more north/south than east/west) and yes at the lek its directly north/south--but this is splitting hairs, because no matter how you come into the lek you know the general south and north direction.

I agree there need to be signs, but that is up to DNR--I am hoping after getting in contact with them this may be something they look into--providing more information for folks who haven't visited before, and having some kind of order at the lek.

If you've read about the lek online, I know that numerous posts on blogs, on UBIRD and other listservs, and there is mention of the birds lek being on the road--anywhere that it is mentioned that gives directions that doesn't mention this is being irresponsible. My post wasn't laying blame on those parked there, only pointing out that fact.


April 3, 2013 at 3:52 PM  
Anonymous John said...

"Common sense" doesn't really exist..."

I would disagree with this. Common sense is common sense. You either have it and use it or you don't. With birds common sense seems pretty straightforward. Give birds the distance they need to feel safe. If you are causing a bird stress and they are showing it, cease what you are doing. These are 2 common sense items that go hand in hand with the first line from the ABA code of ethics:

Everyone who enjoys birds and birding must always respect wildlife, its environment, and the rights of others. In any conflict of interest between birds and birders, the welfare of the birds and their environment comes first.

For the rest of the code see below:
ABA Code of Ethics

April 4, 2013 at 8:05 AM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...

@Christine: Thanks for taking the time to respond. I won't blather on because I think we are on the same page about this, there was just some confusion from my end. The thing about birding, is since it is just some wide open hobby, there aren't any steadfast or written rules. It's mostly just learning form others and following the path other blaze. I highly suggest coming along on some of the trips this summer we will be announcing soon. It will be a great way to meet other birders, ask questions, and get a feel for the community in person. I appreciate your comments, and hope to see you popping up on the listserv!

@John: I agree with you completely. Thanks for posting the link to the ABA ethics code.

April 4, 2013 at 11:29 AM  

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