Ogden Bay – Perched high on the branches of dead cottonwood trees, a pair of bald eagles survey the snow and ice covered marshes of the Great Salt Lake here, watching for signs of weakness.
A red fox sneaks through the reeds, but the birds of prey pay little attention.
A ring-necked pheasant explodes out of the brush and their heads turn toward the flutter of feathers, recognizing a missed opportunity. Waves of starlings overhead mean nothing.
In the nearby Weber River, which spills into the lake, a mallard with a broken wing struggles to fly. It won’t last long.
For here on the western end of Ogden Bay it is not the eagles who dare, but the small animals and the birds who share the same turf during winter.
Each year bald eagles fly from just south of the Arctic Circle to dine on rabbits, ducks, pheasants and small mammals in the Great Basin. The eagles also gorge themselves on the carp when ponds around the Great Salt Lake begin to thaw in early March.
Division of Wildlife Resources biologist Don Paul has participated in the National Wildlife Federation’s annual mid-winter bald eagle survey since 1980. Driving and walking along the man-made dikes, he counts birds, reports prey availability and looks at winter vegetation.
Once compiled, the information is sent to the Raptor Research and Technical Assistance Center at Boise State University in Idaho, where biologists gather information from all over the North America. By putting together long-range data, they learn more about eagle population, prey bases and trends.
Even experts like Paul can’t pinpoint the exact number of eagles wintering on the Great Salt Lake because the birds reside when they can find food.
“I’ve counted up to 130 birds at Ogden Bay and seen in excess of 200 birds at Salt Creek,” send the veteran biologist. It’s all driven by food.