The High Country, Part 11

Our stay in Idaho Falls had been disappointing from a sushi standpoint, but we did at least have a nice hotel clerk who hailed from Ogden, Utah. This was advantageous because we would be spending Thursday night in Salt Lake City, and we had nothing scheduled for Thursday afternoon. We could wander the city, certainly, but none of us really felt the urge to investigate the Mormon Temple, parts of which are not even open to gentiles (yes, that's what they call non-Mormons), so we were at something of a loss. At least, until I brought up the idea of seeing the Great Salt Lake itself.

"Ah," said the clerk. "Then you want to go to Antelope Island."

Antelope Island State Park, as we discovered, lies on a 50-square mile island in the southeastern corner of the GSL, just northwest of Salt Lake City. It's mountainous, largely treeless, and mostly undevelooped though there is a working ranch at the southern end of the island and a marina on the northern end. There are several beaches, plenty of hiking trails, and a variety of wildlife, including bison, bighorn sheep, and pronghorns, the source of the island's name, though they're not technically antelopes. The only way to get to the park without a boat is to drive the six-mile causeway from the mainland, which gives you a look at one of the most unearthly landscapes--and magnificent birding sites--I've ever encountered:

DSC01147.JPGThe broad shallows of the lake extend into the heat haze like a gigantic mirage, but in that mirage are real birds, numbering in the thousands, feeding on the brine shrimp and brine flies that live in the salty waters. In this photo, the bird at lower left is a Black-necked Stilt. Beyond it, in the back of the pool and lining the far shore, are American Avocets, their gracefully upturned bills almost invisible at this distance. Beyond them are the dark shapes of White-faced Ibises. Beyond THEM are floating California Gulls, and beyond them, the waters stretch out to the far mountains. Every band you see blurs into another behind it. It feels like being on Jupiter.

The park's visitor's center gives you a wide variety of information about the lake--the noteworthy variations in its salinity, for example--as well as some beautiful views of the causeway:

The concrete walls of the center form a shady and very popular spot for a colony of Barn Swallows, who were extremely obliging to photographers. This female, for example, let me get right under her to document the building of her nest, which you can see is made up of small dabs of mud like the one in her beak:

I also learned that the island was home to a group of Burrowing Owls, which was somewhat unusual in that it has no prairie dogs, the usual provider of burrows for the owls. AISP's owls had to make do with abandoned badger dens, which struck me as potentially troublesome if the den had not been entirely abandoned. Still, I was glad to find out about the owls, because the knowledge made me rethink my assumptions once we were back on the road to the far end of the island. Dad drove us past a field in which I noticed a strange brown lump atop a tall stalk of grass, but since it didn't look anything like a meadowlark, I dismissed it. A few dozen yards down the road, however, I felt uncomfortable with that assumption and asked Dad to let me out of the car. I walked back up the road a short way and fixed my binoculars on the top of the stalk in question. This is what was looking back at me:

DSC01173 Zoom.jpgIt was in fact a Burrowing Owl, the last of the 19 lifers I would log on the trip, and one I tried my best to miss. It was not, however, the last of the wildlife we would observe. True to its name, Antelope Island had pronghorns, including this female:

DSC01151.JPGAnd there were even a fair number of bison, who do look, I must admit, a little startling when you see them with large expanses of salt water behind them. We'd learned at the visitor's center that the bighorn sheep tend to congregate at the southern end of the island beyond the ranch, so we figured we might as well make the drive and hope for the best. We kept scanning the ridge, but without success; we did, however, make it to the ranch, where we once again came in sight of the ubiquitous snowy peaks, commanding over the horizon even in the heat haze of mid-June:

DSC01183.JPGWe kept our eyes peeled on the way back from the ranch, but other than a Bullock's Oriole in one treetop, no new wildlife. The shifting colors of the shallows continued to mesmerize me, and I marveled that the park was not more famous to easterners. This mesmerizing and marveling was interrupted, however, when Dad pulled the car to a halt. This is why:

Exactly how much bison was heading toward us I couldn't estimate, but I can tell you that there was no zoom used on this photo. The buffalo was heading toward the road with every intention of crossing it, and a collision, even with a vehicle as massive as our Suburban, would probably have done little except to inconvenience it. In a few unhurried steps, it was coming across the pavement right in front of us:

And with that, the afternoon seemed to have reached a high point. It was getting late, and we had to be at our hotel soon if we wanted to be ready for all our airport-wrangling the next day. It was time to say farewell to the unexpected beauties of Antelope Island and the Great Salt Lake.

It was also time to say goodbye to the white peaks of the Rockies, to stunning scenery and high-quality beer and some of the best birding I'd ever had. I'd totaled 102 species for the trip, and my life list now stood at 410 species, with lifers acquired in 35 states. Idaho had yielded the Lazuli Bunting, Green-tailed Towhee, and Virginia's Warbler, and later Swainson's Hawk, Eared Grebe, White-faced Ibis, and Franklin's Gull; Wyoming had given me Violet-green Swallow, Clark's Nutcracker, "Pink-sided" Junco, Black Rosy-finch, Broad-tailed Hummingbird, and Barrow's Goldeneye; Montana produced California Gull, Western Tanager, American Dipper, MacGillivray's Warbler, and Western Wood-pewee. I'd even picked up an additional Utah lifer in the Burrowing Owl. All in all, it was probably the most productive birding trip I've ever taken, and I owe it all to my parents for taking me to such amazing places..

When I give thanks, however, it's not just to my folks, and not just for this trip. Over the last decade, Dad and I driven thousands of miles together--over 2000 on this trip alone--and during our extended absences from home, Mom and Kelly have been enormously patient with us. Kelly has been put in the position of sole caregiver for our sons and our dog repeatedly, and can't thank her enough for that. I'm glad that Mom has joined us for some of our travels as well, and I especially appreciate her willingness to step in as my backup photographer, such as here at Running Eagle Falls.

DSC01086.JPGI always like to close with a shot of Dad and me, since he's been the driving force behind these trips. The roads we've driven and the things we've seen on them are all the more precious to me because of his company and his generosity. I'm very luck to have him as a father, and to have him behind the wheel.

DSC00751.JPGIt's Dad's voice that I always imagine saying, "Begin to exit here."

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on July 6, 2013 12:27 PM.

The High Country, Part 10 was the previous entry in this blog.

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