You know you’ve marveled at their iconic Southwestern beauty as you’ve traveled to that weekend camping trip in the Uintas. Or perhaps you’ve stopped along the Old Lincoln Highway to read the roadside signs describing Mormon emigration to Utah or westward expansion and the Pony Express trail.
But there’s another reason to visit the red cliffs of Echo and stay awhile; it’s to see the cliff nesters.
The most obvious to motorists zooming by at highway speeds are turkey vultures with huge wing spans sailing in updrafts along the rock face. While they might make you muse, “There’s something dead up there”, vultures deserve our respect as essential cleaner-uppers of road kills and winter-killed deer.
True to their aerial nature, they lay their eggs on bare rock of elevated sheltered caves and sandstone potholes, and sometimes perch on precipices to sun themselves with wings spread. They begin to sail as the day warms, using heated air columns that sweep upward while carrying the delicious aromas of carrion-emitted gases of decomposition.
But the cliffs are not predominantly a place for the end of life. Life bubbles and swarms in the form of hundreds or thousands of swallows and swifts. Barn and cliff swallows build mud nests dollop by dollop under overhangs, while violet-green swallows nest in natural crevices in the stone face.
To thoroughly appreciate these birds, exit the interstate, pull into one of the many pullouts along the old highway, leave your car and listen. The sweet bubbling sounds of violet-green swallows dominate, while all the swallows swirl to catch aerial insects and access their nest sites.
Listen closely to hear the robust, metallic twitter of the white-throated swift, icon of rugged cliffs of the intermountain west. Watch to see them circling higher than the swallows on sickle-shaped wings, black and white bodies flashing in the sun. These aerialists are so strongly adapted to flight that they gather many insects in extended sorties and deliver the boluses to young, rather than deliver fewer insects more frequently.
Other, more terrestrial small birds are closely associated with cliffs, but harder to see. Rock wrens, known for their vocal mimicry, trill and buzz and whistle from rocky outcrops. Canyon wrens, russet as the rocks that house them, sing their flute-like, clear liquid trill that that spills and bubbles and echoes down the vertical cliff faces and pours into your ears.
Canyon wrens are so strongly adapted to foraging in rocky crevices that their decurved bills and skulls are more flattened than in other birds, which facilitates their snatching insects and spiders from narrow spaces.
There are still others. Common ravens play and dally in the updrafts and croak their grating call from bulky stick nests. Rock pigeons sail to ledges dripping with dried white excrement, sashaying in the air stream with wings set in a deep ‘V.’
Three top-of-the-food-chain raptors loaf on the cusp of the highest cliffs and miss nothing: A peregrine falcon, likely thriving on other aerial cliff nesters by snatching them out of the air during high speed dives; a golden eagle, probably thriving on ground squirrels, jackrabbits and yellow-bellied marmots from the cliffs or nearby Henefer-Echo Wildlife Management Area; and a red-tailed hawk, stick nest stuffed into a sandstone pothole and parent twisting away from the bobbing white heads within to survey ant-like cars, semis and trains that hurry below on I-80.
A pair of American kestrels, the smallest falcon species in North America, executes an aerial show by exchanging a small rodent male-to-female, with the female subsequently landing on an outcrop and tearing apart the morsel.
Other species not associated with rocky cliffs thrive in the oak scrub and on power lines at the base: Lazuli buntings, spotted towhees and western kingbirds.
A couple of species are probably nesting on ledges or in potholes not visible to lowly terrestrial observers: Great horned owls and prairie falcons. The owls simply need an elevated surface to nest, and a sheltered ledge will serve as well as the more commonly usurped red-tailed hawk nest in a cottonwood. Prairie falcons may use either a bare sheltered ledge or a commandeered raven nest anywhere.
The profusion of avian life is often overlooked due to Echo Canyon’s role as a major transportation corridor. But the spot deserves your attention from the quieter Old Lincoln Highway, which runs parallel to the interstate. So go. Go to see the red cliffs for their geologic beauty, their spiritual significance or for their national history. Just don’t forget your binoculars.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.