where, when, and what to find

Fish Springs NWR

posted by Tim Avery at
on Monday, March 17, 2014 

Fish Springs NWR photo by Seldom Seen Steven

Fish Springs NWR is an oasis in the desert--surrounded by hundreds of miles of barren land.  Fish Springs started as a Pony Express and Overland Stage station, and got its name from the fish that populated the springs, which were reported to be over 6 inches in length. The fish are left over from ancient Lake Bonneville which receded about 14,000 years ago. Several natural springs feed the wetlands, which are the main feature of the 28.11 square miles refuge.  The housing areas, visitor center, and refuge headquarters have numerous deciduous trees making for a migrant trap for songbirds.  The land surrounding the marsh is mixed shrubsteppe and arid desert.

If it wasn't for its remote location Fish Springs would probably get a lot more visitors than it currently does.  At the least its about a 3 hours drive from Salt Lake City, across open desert with no gas stations, services, or human assistance of any kind.  But at the refuge your are in one of Utah's premier birding locations.  Aside from the waterfowl that migrate through in spring and fall, numerous ducks over winter on the open water from the warm springs.  More TRUMPETER SWAN have been recorded here than anywhere else in the state.  EURASIAN WIGEON, WHITE-WINGED and BLACK SCOTER have all been recorded here in the middle of the desert. Any waterbird having traversed the vast desert to this point will fall into here to survive--which is why multiple PACIFIC LOON have been seen and even a YELLOW-BILLED LOON was reported once. AMERICAN BITTERN are a year round resident of the marsh.  This is one of the best places in Utah to see this secretive species. Surprisingly rare waders don;t show up here that often, but in August 2007 a REDDISH EGRET was present for a couple weeks.  RED-SHOULDERED HAWK has been recorded from time to time, possibly indicating nesting somewhere nearby in the vast desert. Shorebirds find this haven a life saver in an otherwise inhospitable region for them--more than 30 species have been recorded here including some mega rarities for Utah like: PACIFIC GOLDEN-PLOVER, HUDSONIAN GODWIT, RUDDY TURNSTONE, and WHITE-RUMPED SANDPIPER.  The refuge interestingly is the only place in Utah where all 3 JAEGER species have been recorded.  It also has had a few rare gulls and terns including Utah's first ever BLACK-LEGGED KITTIWAKE in the 70's, and SABINE'S GULL during fall migrations.  Both COMMON and LEAST TERN have been seen on the refuge grounds to round out the rare waterbirds for the area.

The list of rarities goes on and on--WHITE-WINGED DOVE spending weeks here, sightings of YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO, RED-BREASTED SAPSUCKER, and LEAST FLYCATCHER.  BLACK PHOEBE, VERMILION FLYCATCHER, and SCISSOR-TAILED FLYCATCHER have all shown up here, hundred of miles form where they normally occur.  PACIFIC WREN, VARIED THRUSH, and BROWN THRASHER have all been recorded in the trap--while McCOWN'S, LAPLAND, and CHESTNUT-COLLARED LONGSPUR have all been seen during the early winter on the refuge.  Mist netting, and ardent birders have recorded more than 20 species of Warbler here including a lot of eastern vagrants like: OVENBIRD, MAGNOLIA, CHESTNUT-SIDED, and BLACK-THROATED BLUE WARBLERS.  There is even a record for LUCY'S WARBLER--way north of its normal range.  Both SUMMER and SCARLET TANAGER have been recorded around the housing area.  One of the most famous bird sightings here was Utah's first PAINTED BUNTING--a male bird that stayed for several weeks during the summer of 2007.  BALTIMORE ORIOLE, INDIGO BUNTING, and ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK round out the notable mentions for the non-waterbirds.  As you can see the bird list here is just lain impressive.  AT around 300 species in such an isolated location it truly is a Utah birding hot spot!

There are several ways to get to Fish Springs, but unless you've been before getting lost in the desert is a real possibility on some of the shorter less marked routes.  The best way to make it to Fish Springs form Salt Lake City is to take I-80 westbound to exit 99.  Take the exit merging onto Hwy 36 for 3.8 miles.  Take the slight left to stay on Hwy 36 for 36.3 miles.  Turn right on to Pony Express Road and go 12.6 miles.  Continue onto Simpson Springs Road for 12.4 miles.  Continue on Pony Express Routes/Simpson Springs-Callao Road for 31.2 miles.  Continue onto Pony Express--Overland Stage Tail for 10.6 miles. Take a right on the Auto Tour Route and you are now on the Auto Tour Loop.

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