Birders Flock to Great Salt Lake for Annual Birding Festival

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Colorful kayaks dot the waters of Bountiful Pond, nestled against the far edge of Farmington Bay’s wetlands on the eastern shores of Great Salt Lake. The paddlers are quiet, their paddles still, all eyes on a group of American Avocets and Black-necked Stilts. The kayakers sit in revered silence and watch the birds, some with binoculars, before moving across the pond to observe other birds like pelicans, songbirds, and waterfowl. After two hours of this mindful birding experience, the group returns to the shores.

While looking at the group of shorebirds, a participant lowers their binoculars and quietly exclaims, “The Avocet’s legs are blue! I’ve seen Avocets many times before, but I’ve never noticed that they have blue legs!”

Moments like this—unfettered opportunity for people to experience birding in a unique way and connect with each other, the birds, and the nature they’re in—are the purpose of bird festivals across the world. And the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is a premiere example.


It was a busy May at Great Salt Lake—spring runoff contributed to the lake’s levels helping reach a seven-year high, the brief window of spring migration moved hundreds of thousands of shorebirds through the lakescape, pelicans returned to Gunnison Island and are nesting on Hat Island for the first time in more than 80 years, and birders from across the state, even the nation, flocked to its shores to celebrate together at the 26th Annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival.

A celebration of Great Salt Lake, its ecosystem, wetland habitats, and of course, the millions of birds that depend on those habitats, the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival is an opportunity for people to come together through their love of birds and learn from the experts of Great Salt Lake.

“The festival gives such a unique opportunity for folks who don’t normally have the chance to interact with these professionals to learn about Great Salt Lake, its birds, and the conservation issues that the lake and the birds are facing,” said Max Malmquist, Engagement Manager for Audubon’s Saline Lakes Program.

Max has volunteered on the festival’s planning committee for the past five years. Alongside Max, more than 100 other volunteers help make the event possible. They include field trip guides, Division of Wildlife Resources Biologists, and the staff at Discover Davis, the tourism department for Davis County, who organize the festival each year with the help of the committee.

Historically, the festival has garnered attendance from a local crowd, with birders from across the Salt Lake Valley returning year after year. Over the past five years however, and perhaps as a result of the 2020 pandemic leading more people to seek outdoor hobbies in conjunction with the growing awareness of the challenges facing Great Salt Lake, the festival has seen growing interest and attendance.

“With the growing interest in birds, the lake, and the festival, we’ve really tried to grow to meet that expanding need and interest. The past few years we’ve widened our scope and advertised the festival and Great Salt Lake to broader audiences around the country, and even the world,” Max explained.

This year attendees joined from more than 20 different states, from Maine to Florida to every state in the West, in addition to Australia, Canada, and Colombia.

“What really makes this festival incredible, what draws in folks from across the country, is you can see bird congregations on Great Salt Lake that you can’t see anywhere else on Earth,” said Max, noting that despite there being plenty of other bird festivals much closer to some attendees, they come to Great Salt Lake because of the unique opportunities it provides.


From shorebirds like Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes, Black-necked Stilts, and American Avocets, to waterbirds like Eared Grebes, Great Salt Lake is a birder’s paradise. It’s the largest saline lake in the Western Hemisphere and provides habitat for tens of millions of birds. Yet, while many come for the birds, it’s the community of birders and interface with the experts that keep attendees coming back year after year and drawing new attendees in.

There were 65 field trips this year including 22 new ones, providing a range of experiences across Great Salt Lake’s Watershed and beyond.

From the Antelope Island Owl Prowl where attendees searched for Great Horned, Barn, Burrowing, Long-eared, and Short-eared Owls, to searching for Sandhill Cranes in the high-altitude wet meadows, marshes, and riparian areas of Swaner Ecocenter, and Birding by E-bike along the Jordan River Parkway, expert birders to beginner birders all had the chance to get out and learn about birds.

Identifying and spotting birds isn’t the only focus of these fieldtrips. Many aim to let people experience Great Salt Lake’s different habitats and ecosystems while engaging with lake experts through behind-the-gate opportunities in places like waterfowl management areas they would otherwise not be able to access.

Aly Denittis, Senior Land Management Coordinator for Audubon’s Gillmor Sanctuary, and first-time volunteer on the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival’s Planning Committee, co-led a Mindful Birding by Kayak fieldtrip on Bountiful Pond where beyond birding, they also got to talk about habitats, how birds use them in different ways, and why they’re important.

“We had a wonderful mix of people with a range of birding and kayaking experience participate. There were those who had been coming to the festival for years, those who it was their first time, and even those who had never been in a kayak let alone on waters of Great Salt Lake and its wetlands,” Aly said.


“It’s experiences like this that help people fall in love with birds and the habitats they depend on, giving them space to really start thinking about conservation and how to protect these species and places.”

The precarious state of Great Salt Lake gained national attention in 2022, as it balanced on the precipice of ecological disaster, making many people, especially birders, aware and concerned of the challenges facing the lake. Guided experiences at this year’s festival such as kayaking or the Great Salt Lake Ecosystem Boat Tour helped connect people to this endangered ecosystem in a profound way, helping to build a new cohort of advocates for Great Salt Lake that extends beyond local communities in Utah.

While the explicit purpose of birding festivals is to celebrate birds and birding, and foster the next generation of birders, it also serves to build advocacy for precarious ecosystems like Great Salt Lake.

“One of the reasons I’m involved with the bird festival is I love doing whatever I can to provide opportunities for young people to learn about and experience birds,” Max said as he explained the benefit of the family day that the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival provides—a day of free educational activities for families with kids of all ages to come and learn about the lake and its birds.

“Maybe only 2 or 3 out of every 100 kids who experience the festival will come to love birds and bird conservation, but my hope is that the festival will provide the spark which will fuel the next generation of people who will love birds and the habitats they depend on.”

And in an age of technology and disconnect, inspiring the next generation of birders couldn’t be more important as birds connect people not only to nature and wildlife, but people to people as well—a theme that pulsed through Diego Calderón-Franco’s keynote address at this year’s festival.

A professional bird guide and conservationist from Colombia, Diego spent an evening regaling the crowd with his story of being kidnapped by FARC (The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) to years later, exploring, healing, and birding through areas previously forbidden with the very people who kept him captive for 88 days.

While Colombia and Great Salt Lake only share a few migrating species, the themes of connection and inspiration throughout his talk rang familiar to the audience and festival attendees.


(Check out The Birders Show YouTube Series, co-hosted by Diego, for an upcoming episode on the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival.)

As the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival came to its close, joy and positivity spread through attendees. Aly captured this sentiment as she reflected on her experience this year, “you don’t have to know anything about birds or birding to be able to come and enjoy a bird festival and learn. There’s something for everyone.”

Missed this year’s Great Salt Lake Bird Festival? Check out other upcoming bird festivals across the country:

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