Lost in the Phragmites

A Day at the Layton Wetlands Preserve

Layton Wetlands We hold our hands out for balance, walking one foot in front of the other across planks laid out on the marsh. Phragmite, a seven-foot tall grass, reaches over us, and we use our arms to break trail. Someone ahead stops and points out a peregrine falcon overhead. With little warning the phrigmate clears, and we face an open salt-ringed field ahead with a small shallow marsh in the middle. One hundred birds are swimming, poking and skimming in the water.

American avocets, eared grebes, American white pelicans, white-faced ibis, cinnamon teal and snowy plover crowd together suddenly as the peregrine hawk glides overhead. Breezes on this glum day bring the smell of salt and muck; thin clouds overhead match spring moodiness. Joel Peterson, our guide on this Saturday, the first day of the second annual Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, points out a marsh wren.

A hundred yards or so ahead lies the open water of the Great Salt Lake. Where the lake itself actually begins is debatable. Joel says we are in fact now in the lake, although we are certainly not very wet. With such a shallow shoreline, water and land struggle against each other here for a quarter-mile or more before one pull forces out the other.

The birds visible in our scopes - we think of them as ours. But Mexicans think of them as theirs, and so do Canadians. These are the great migrators, birds who winter in San Blas, Mexico (a nice place) on the Pacific shoreline near Puerto Vallarta and who summer in the pothole lake region of Saskatchewan and Manitoba (boring). Funneled by the Rocky Mountains and the deserts of the Great Basin, millions of the birds each spring and fall make an elongated pit stop here, amongst the shallow fresh-water-meets-salt-water marshes of the Great Salt Lake. Feeding on brine flies and other tiny organisms, the birds fatten up for the second half of the journey. And as they do, bird watchers (they often call themselves 'twitchers') come from all over to see the spectacle.


Layton Wetlands'We don't really do a whole lot of what you would call 'managing' out here,' says Peterson, manager of Layton Wetlands Preserve, a 3,500 acre expanse along the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake about 30 miles north of Salt Lake City. The preserve, which is owned and run by The Nature Conservancy, protects freshwater streams and emerging grass and marshlands that border the lake. 'It's all pretty hands off. A lot of what we do is try to let the land heal.'

The Nature Conservancy bought this property back in the middle 1980s. Then, after years of abnormally snowy winters, cool cloudy summers and above-average rainfall, the lake had risen to over 4,211 feet above sea level - or about 11 feet above its historic mean. Unlike other lakes, which resemble a cup, the Great Salt Lake is more like a dish. Just a little bit of water causes the lake's boundaries to stretch far towards the horizon. In 1984, with the lake surpassing historic highs, floodwaters covered small islands, parts of Interstate 80 and Union Pacific railroad tracks, and threatened homes and farmland here in the low-lying parts of Davis and Weber counties.

Naturally, in those panic times, The Nature Conservancy got a pretty sweet deal.

But the rising lake did not just threaten the things humans have (perhaps unwisely) built along the shore. Salty waters also covered wetlands and marshes, areas such as what was to become the Layton Wetlands Preserve. The birds stopped coming.

Compass readings

Layton Wetlands'I go to the lake for a compass reading,' wrote Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, 'to orient myself once again in the midst of change. Each trip is unique. The lake is different. I am different. But the gulls are always here, ordinary - black, white, and gray.' Her mother, struck with cancer, fought death as the lake fought, too. As marshes disappeared and so did birds, Williams' mother fought, won and lost against the cancer.

Today, with the lake at 4,204 feet, receding waters have uncovered the islands, highways and wetlands. And the birds have returned.

American avocets were the first to return this year, Peterson said, coming in early April. They were soon joined by a rush of birds of all sizes, colors and characters. The Layton Wetlands Preserve stretches along the lake's east coast and is linked with other state parks, private duck clubs, Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area and the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, the first of its kind in America today still one of the country's greatest.

A man with a humongous spotting scope lets us spy on the birds' secret world. Melissa (a friend) and I look through to see a phalanx of birds animatedly strutting in the shallow water. Some of them look oddly nervous, I think. Mostly unfamiliar with the species, I listened with mild awe as twitchers (the more I think about it, it's kind of an apt description for these folks) reel off names: snowy plover, willet, long-billed curlew, Wilson's phalarope, Cinnamon teal, double-crested cormorant. Peterson calls into the phragmites. A slew of birds yell back. Wind rustles over the salt flat and the snowy Wasatch looms to the east. Just a few miles east is crowded Interstate 15, strangled by construction gridlock when we crossed it. No signs of that from here.

The Great Salt Lake is not such as easy place to love. Even when it is not trying to kill you with its rising waters it is thinking up other equally devious ways to influence your life - big storms, an obstacle to travel, a management nightmare, and the ever-unpopular 'lake stench.' But here, close to the ground with birds scattering overhead at the approach of another falcon, you can forget about those distractions and focus on the present. And that's a good thing.

Layton Wetlands Preserve:

Great Salt LakeFrom Layton, take Gentile Street west into the country. Past Bluff Road, Gentile becomes dirt. The entrance to the preserve is about a half-mile further on the left. Foot traffic only. From the road, the wetlands are about a half-mile to the south

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