Flooding along the county road leading to Bear River Refuge has been a curse and a blessing this year. Sometimes the deluge has closed the road. But when the road is open, birding is the finest I’ve seen with the extra perks of new pavement, many pull-offs and several parking areas adjacent to prime marsh habitats.
The fun begins just west of the interstate before even passing the visitor’s center. White-faced ibis, marsh opportunists, graze in flooded areas that have been dry for the last few years. Cliff and barn swallows course low over the saturated marsh grasses while gathering insects. A mallard pair, alert, stretches their necks and heads like periscopes above the grass. Common ravens survey the scene and croak from power pole perches where their unkempt stick nests punctuate the crossbars.
The marsh surrounding the refuge visitor center hosts a trio of cinnamon teal — two drakes and a hen. The drakes compete for the lady in a head-bobbing and beak-clicking extravaganza; how does she choose between attractive head-bobbers and beak-clickers?
A flight of Franklin’s gulls passes overhead on the road west, black heads startling and white wing spots flashing. They’re likely headed to a muddy area where they can hunt insects while strolling, and then return to colony nest sites in verdant bulrush where hungry young await.
A common yellowthroat, our only warbler that nests in reeds, calls, “Witchety, witchety, witchety” from the marsh at the Corinne cutoff road. A Swainson’s hawk calls plaintively and weakly from its nest at the old temporary visitor center building.
Many killdeer and spotted sandpipers run along the road and settle in the gravel shoulder just west of the private homes. High water levels have likely pushed these birds away from dry edges of marsh habitats to the road. Especially the killdeer may have clutches of camouflaged eggs in the gravel next to the pavement. One killdeer does a fluttering distraction display on the ground, perhaps to divert attention from a hidden nest or young.
A secretive marsh bird often heard and less often seen calls from the marsh, “Dih-dit!” It’s a Virginia rail, which inspires another skulker, a sora, to call, “Dur-ee! Dur-ee! Dur-ee!”, and then burst into a vigorous whinny just as a black-crowned night-heron flaps over the road.
Pristine white waders stalk in deep water next to the driveway that leads to a new information kiosk. A great egret that stands over three feet tall dwarfs three elegant plumed snowy egrets. The four birds move silently through the swaying grasses looking like something out of Africa.
Farther west still, Forster’s terns flutter on angel wings over puddles that will be dry by fall. They are not of angelic voice, however, and their rasping calls mix with the distant, hollow gar-ooing of sandhill cranes.
Signs of delayed spring breeding mix with surprising signs of fall migration. Black-necked stilts and American avocets nest in flooded grass, their nests like mini volcanic cinder cones surrounded by moats. Wilson’s phalaropes are beginning to amass, especially the females. This shorebird is among the earliest to migrate. Females abandon the males to nest duties and congregate in the lake ecosystem beginning in late June. Two marbled godwits also forage in the grass. This species passes through the refuge in big numbers in spring and fall to and from northern prairie nesting areas. The presence of two godwits now likely means they’re failed breeders, or the vanguard of migrants that will soon appear in large numbers on their way south.
A large tan egg is on the road, perhaps dropped there by a California gull or raven that plundered a duck’s nest.
A few dry grassland birds make the best of the flooding. Ring-necked pheasants congregate on grassy islands while horned larks and savannah sparrows sing from the barbed wire fence or land on low brush. Long-billed curlews still call, “Cur-lee!” across the expanses and don’t hesitate to launch intercept sorties to chase marauding ravens. But most of the entertainment this year is from birds that thrive on the flooding.
There’s still competition even with the expanded habitat. Two dark birds, one large and plump, the other small and long-beaked, run out onto the new pavement. A cranky American coot has taken exception with a Virginia rail and chases it out of foxtail barley along the road. The rail looks out of place standing on asphalt in the open. The coot makes another run at the rail, which does a little looping flight and dives back into the reeds.
All is well again in the marsh.
Kristin Purdy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.