Birds, the Moon and the West Davis Highway

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  • May 26, 2013

May 26, 2013

Deseret News

By Amy Joi O’Donoghue

LAYTON — It is here on a May morning that the grasses, trees and ponds are whipped to movement by the wind, and there is a smattering of silence.

The silence is a loud series of contradictions to its location in Davis County’s largest city of 70,000 people, with high-speed commuter rail just four miles away and a six-lane interstate just beyond that.

As motorists hasten along I-15 and young mothers take a morning exercise walk pushing children in strollers, Rachel LeBlanc stands still in this pastoral place, her eyes scanning the reeds and grasses around the pond.

She’s counting birds, noting species, and in the occasional quiet, there is a consonance of bird songs that erupts. It is followed by silence, and the songs begin again.

LeBlanc is one of roughly a dozen volunteers taking part in the first comprehensive bird survey at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve that will forge a scientific analysis of how many species frequent both the low-lying wetlands and the adjacent uplands, or drier areas, equally important to birds.

On this day, she spies a yellow-headed blackbird, pelicans and California gulls. It is where she has seen the Red Knot sandpiper, which can fly the equivalent of the distance from Earth to the moon and halfway back in its lifetime. This is where it occasionally seeks a timeout.

The preserve represents a decades-long prize achieved through a collaborative effort spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy in Utah. It is an ecological testimony to a land acquisition here and a land acquisition there, until ultimately 45 parcels were knitted together to become the more than 4,400 acres of land that traces the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake.

It is, in fact, the largest protected, natural piece of land this side of the Great Salt Lake and is threatened — at least in some part — by the planned West Davis Corridor.

Whatever route the Utah Department of Transportation may ultimately settle on for the west Davis County highway that would stretch into Weber County, there will be impacts to the preserve.

The bird count, which started in April and continues through mid-September, will supply data and accompany The Nature Conservancy’s comments during the environmental review process launched this month.

Chris Montague, director of the conservancy’s conservation programs, is the first to say the organization is no expert on transportation planning and is not conducting the count to kill the highway. Its members don’t plan to chain themselves to bulldozers.

“We want (transportation officials) to know exactly what they are impacting on our property so they can fully mitigate those impacts,” Montague said.

Chris Brown, who manages the preserve and is over stewardship efforts for the group, said too often the emphasis is solely on protecting wetlands, while the adjacent uplands are ignored.

There are shoreline birds that can’t fly when they are wet, he explained. They forage for spiders and other bugs in the dry grasses and reeds, where they may also nest. The vitality of wetlands is companion to the health of its accompanying uplands — all of which fit into the same system, Brown said.

“You take away the uplands, and it is like death by a thousand cuts,” he said.

The preserve is part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which is an annual stopover for millions of migratory birds. Brown likened the stop along the migratory fly-way as a roadside motel for weary travelers who need to rejuvenate before taking that last leg of a journey.

Although some migratory birds have the ability to fly while they sleep by shutting down half their brain, a long break on the trek from South America to the Arctic is necessary.

“Some birds double their weight while they are here,” Brown said, adding that a corn field is in danger of being lost because of the highway.

“We planted it for the sandhill cranes, but is a big cafe for a lot of birds,” he said.

Brown worries about the inevitable impacts that will come from not only the freeway, but the noise, light, vibrations and pollution. All will have some carryover effect to the winged guests and entrenched feathered residents.

Both Brown and Montague want the transportation agency to accept their survey late this summer and use all available information to make sound decisions on reducing those impacts.

Examples could include protecting areas not in the preserve, restoring areas that need help or purchasing much-needed water for The Nature Conservancy. Water is a major component in the organization’s conservation efforts, and at this preserve, five man-made ponds provide liquid respite for their guests.

During this count at a pond and adjacent area being done by LeBlanc, the Herriman resident documents two adult Canadian geese and 22 young chicks. It is unusual for this species to have that many young, so LeBlanc muses it is a communal group.

“Those two are taking care of all the young for the others,” she said. “They’re baby-sitting.”

To witness such stories in nature is part of what propelled LeBlanc to get into birding and to volunteer for this survey, she said.

LeBlanc doesn’t mind that it means standing and intense scrutiny for hours at a time, listening with a trained ear and using cameras to capture the image of a rare bird that stops in.

“I love birds,” she said. “I’ve been doing birding for decades.”

The volunteers are paired up and set loose at six randomly picked sites that are a quarter mile in radius. They commit to spend four to five hours a week through late summer to document the species that come to the preserve.

They pick the morning hours and methodically take notes.

With cows and quiet as companions, LeBlanc said she looks forward to her volunteer work with The Nature Conservancy.

“These days we are so stressed out and spread so thin, it is nice to come out and be in nature and spiritually connect,” she said.

As farm fields inevitably give way to homes and other development in the coming decades, LeBlanc and her companions at The Nature Conservancy feel the preserve will be the last big chunk of open space that remains in Davis County.

And that, they say, should matter on some level.

“As a society, we have to make a decision,” she said. “Do we leave some of these areas alone? Once this is paved over, it will never go away.”

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