Connecting the Arctic to the Great Salt Lake

It may seem unlikely to see parallels in the far different regions of the Great Salt Lake Desert and the Arctic Tundra of Alaska, but they exist! On a recent trip to Northern Utah, the flat grasslands, small ponds, and jutting foothills reminded me of the Arctic plain as you cross over the mountains of Brooks Range. As I observed my surroundings I realized the connection was more than appearance; the newly-arrived winged from the Arctic plain were relying on the resources of this kindred land, the Great Salt Lake. Migrating birds, many from the Arctic, stretched from horizon to horizon creating a direct link between the two regions. My time in the Arctic had shown me the importance of that region for birds, and I realized immediately that I was standing in another critical area.

Around the Great Salt lake are large grasslands and marshes abutted against mountainous foothills.

A Tale of Two Habitats

The Great Salt Lake

The Great Salt Lake of northern Utah is an oasis in the desert. It was my first time there and what I found swept me off my feet. To imagine what it looks like simply conjure in your mind a cliche image of an emerald oasis in the desert. You might see in your mind grasses and trees growing in close proximity to water features which provide the life blood of everything in the area. Did you see any birds or animals using the water? If not, add them into your image – they are certainly there!

The Salt Lake is an oasis for migrating birds. They dot it shallow waters for as far as the eye can see!

As its name implies the Great Salt Lake is very salty – 3-5 times more salty than the ocean. Its concentrated salts make the shallow waters uninhabitable for almost all life. However, Brine Shrimp (ever heard of “sea monkies”?) and sand fleas have adapted to the salty (hyper-saline) conditions. Since they are the only creatures in the lake they have no competition and can multiply rapidly. I took a few handfuls of the muddy water to peer into it and saw thousands of brine shrimp in only a the small cup of water in my hand. Although small – up to 1cm – their abundance makes them readily available protein for birds and life around the lake.

This image of the Great Salt Lake is from NASA. it shows off the minerals in the lake (red color) and the surrounding desert. ( https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/utahs-great-salt-lake)

The Arctic

As you roll your vehicle up mountainous terrain and eventually over Atigun Pass in the Brooks Range of Alaska, you emerge onto hundreds of miles of lakes and tundra. Welcome to the Arctic Plain spanning for over 20 million acres. This land is known for its abundance in the summer and desolation in the winter. Wind and winter cold trim any shrubs or trees that try to grow resulting in the short crop of the Tundra. Each year millions of birds return to the Arctic to breed and raise young in its grasslands and lakes.

Pretend that the you don’t see snow in the image above. Do you think you can see a bit of Utah’s landscape in the mountains and tundra at the foothills of the Brooks Range?

Similar and Different

The two grassland landscapes described above are created by different forces and in different parts of the world. However, each is 100% necessary for the survival of many birds. In fact, the numbers are nearly unfathomable. Up to 50% (12 million) of North America’s shorebirds breed in Alaska. Over 1.4 million shorebirds use the Great Salt Lake for breeding and migration. Of course there are millions of other species and types of birds that use each as well. To put that in perspective imagine the 8 million people living in New York City spent half their life in the city and moved to Florida each year for the winter. Mass migration is an amazing thing!

Flying thousands of miles is no small feat and it takes a lot of energy. Migratory stopovers are used by birds traveling both north and south because they can provide the resources needed for food and shelter during their travels. After peering into the murky waters of the Great Salt Lake to see the life within, it was not hard to see why they were at this globally-important migratory stopover. The abundant food I saw in the water was translatable to the wealth I saw in the Arctic. On the Tundra, massive insect swarms and lakes filled with larvae provide young chicks is critical for their growth. The Great Salt Lake and the Arctic each plays their part in the cycle and life of the birds : are you starting to see some similarities in their function and habitat?

Migrants in Common

Birds connect the world, creating a network between many places. Like a computer network, the birds transfer nutrients and create a relationship between things. We “share” birds with other regions of the world. The bird feeding in your yard during the summer is another country’s yard bird in the winter. You should check out this incredible resource from National Geographic showing off the migrating paths of birds. It is normal for migrating birds to seek similar habitats as they move south and north so it is not surprising for shorebirds, ducks, and songbirds from the Arctic to be found in similar habit along the Great Salt Lake.

This Red-necked Phalarope was photographed in Barrow, Alaska during the breeding season. In the winter they are much more drab.
Red-necked Phalaropes gather by the 10s of thousands in the Great Salt Lake to feed on Brine Shrimp. In the winter they appear much more drab than their summer colors above!

You don’t have to be a birder to be astounded by the abundance of birds using the Great Salt Lake. They stretch from horizon to horizon like and are as thick as the seeds on your everything-bagel. As many as Western 190,000 Sandpiper, 59,000 Long-billed Dowitcher, and 240,000 Red-necked Phalarope use the lake. If they were not hidden by the grass and expanse of the Tundra, you would see even more in the Arctic Plain.

A flock of shorebirds lands along the Great Salt Lake. These birds are heading south after breeding in the Arctic!

Conservation Needs

Birds throughout the world are under threat from changes to the earth from humans. If you want to preserve birds for your yards and future children, it is so,so, so critical to protect their habitat where they are vulnerable. The Great Salt Lake is experiencing change which is may easily affect the brine shrimp and hence birds. Changes in salinity due to drought and mineral farming as well as pollution and water diversion are all linked to brine shrimp populations. In the Arctic rising temperatures are melting permafrost and oil drilling is impacting shorebird habitat. Failing to address these issues can only lead one direction for many species of birds : decline and ultimately extinction.

An American Avocet feets on Brine Shrimp from the Great Salt Lake.

This story of connection is only one of many in the world. There is a multitude of important stopover and breeding areas for birds and throughout each continent birds are experiencing threats on the breeding grounds and migratory areas. I encourage you to look for and see the connections in the world and explore their importance.

I hate to only talk about the gloomiest parts of the status of birds but it is important to acknowledge the reality. There are stories of decline and also some stories of hope. To help educate yourself on the issues at hand and support land conservation groups such as Audubon or the Nature Conservancy. We can all be a part of the solution!

One thought on “Connecting the Arctic to the Great Salt Lake”

  1. Ion , as always the phots are stunning and the writing enlightening Thank you again for your work and for sharing what you learn . We are in Maui on vacation & traveled to the Haleakala Crater. It too is a stunning glimpse at the magnitude of God’s handiwork & power. We are truly blessed to be alive in our world and you are so right to point out our responsibility to protect our environment

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