Great Salt Lake, a Key Link for Migrating Shorebirds

An approach for safeguarding shorebird populations

Shorebirds are antsy, at least when I see them during the spring and summer migration periods along the seemingly barren mudflats of Great Salt Lake, Utah.  These birds never stop moving, constantly stitching the ground, probing for food.  And it isn’t just a couple of shorebirds, it is thousands or tens of thousands of shorebirds tightly packed together as if they were whispering to one another about how good the food is.  When one bird gets overly nervous about a sound or a falcon’s silhouette passing nearby, they all get nervous and take to the air, en masse, hoping to survive another day along their lengthy migratory journey.

Great Salt Lake is just one stopover location for shorebirds along their annual route from their wintering grounds in the south to their breeding grounds in the north and back again.  These stopover points are resting locations where shorebirds can replenish their fat reserves and continue, often non-stop, to the next distant stopover location.

The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN) recognizes the importance of not just protecting breeding and wintering habitat for shorebirds.  To help maintain shorebird populations it is also critical to protect these isolated, stopover locations to ensure that these birds gain enough weight to get to their next stop and, repeating the process several times, to their wintering or breeding grounds.

To achieve these goals, WHSRN, in cooperation with local nominating partners in North and South America, has designated 87 sites in 13 countries as important to shorebirds.  In 1991, Great Salt Lake became included in the network as a site of ‘hemispheric importance, meaning over 500,000 shorebirds or 30% of a geographic population visit each year during migration or, alternately, come to the lake to breed.  One species alone, the Wilson’s Phalarope, qualifies Great Salt Lake as a hemispheric site during their peak concentrations in July.  However, knowing which areas are of great importance to shorebirds is only part of the effort to protect and maintain their populations.

Over the course of two days in March 2012, a group of 20 individual stakeholders, including myself, participated in a comprehensive assessment of Great Salt Lake to address the status of local factors affecting shorebirds.  The assessment covered past, current, and future activities vital to Great Salt Lake shorebirds and addressed the importance of each factor through a detailed ranking system.   The focus of the assessment concentrated on three main components:  management effectiveness, threats, and conservation actions.

The site assessment helps local area managers and stakeholders identify key areas to focus on in an era of increasingly limited resources to solve problems.  Site assessments done periodically through time and at other WHSRN sites help detail successes, as well as, failures that need additional response.  Ultimately, we hope these efforts will maintain stable shorebird populations along their migratory path.

-by John Neill, Avian biologist with the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Program and Treasurer of Linking Communities, Wetlands and Migratory Birds.

© 2014 Utah Linking Communities.

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