There was a time I did this safari to shoot just the bald eagles at Farmington Bay WMA along the Great Salt Lake in Utah. But the last couple of years have provided me with better opportunities to shoot wildlife at nearby locations like Antelope Island State Park and at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Farmington Bay is still the big draw due to the raptors and bald eagles, but warmer temps have scattered them somewhat. This years trip was no exception. Dave Collins traveled with me, and we later met up with Jim Haley for some of this safari.
We worked the northern harriers, bald eagles, short-eared owls, and American kestrels at every opportunity. While the fish kill this year was in a good location, it seemed only the gulls took a real interest in picking off the fish. Shirt sleeve temps meant little ice on the ponds and that dispersed the eagles.
The flocks of California Gulls, mixed with Western Gulls and possibly others, really had their way with the fish. The flocks would rise off the pond together, only to settle seconds later again – wrestling with the largest of fish. Time and again they fought over a fish, none of them being able to actually swallow it, and then the fish would sink to the bottom. Ducks, mergansers, western grebes, ring-necked pheasants, marsh wrens and others made themselves at home among the raptors and owls.
Once the mornings slowed down in Farmington we drove north to Layton to access Antelope Island State Park. On this safari Antelope Island was to prove our jewel in the rough, providing us with dozens of great photographs and wildlife encounters.
There was one bird in particular that provided us with a number of photo opportunities, the resident American Kestrel falcon that hung out at the Bridger Bay Campground. At this time of year, with the cold northern winds and storms coming down from Canada, the campground is usually empty. This year there was a single creepy looking old guy driving a van dripping engine oil like a sieve taking up one spot. After a dozen passes around the campground the guy only seemed more creepy.
Now, back to the falcon. This male kestrel was active in hunting and perching on different vantage points to watch the ground where mice trails were numerous. While we were chasing him we saw a large black-tailed jackrabbit that really put us to the test before we were able to get good images of him. The kestrel must have only been hunting voles in the grass, as the local blackbirds and sparrows perched not far from him and seemed to ignore him. But he was a good hunter and gave us a great shot of him with a mouse.
We drove through the campgrounds and empty day use areas chasing birds before finally heading south on the island towards the Garr Ranch. This part of the island is home to coyotes, mule deer, pronghorn antelope, bison, and numerous raptors and owls. At one point we spotted six mule deer bucks in the high sagebrush and headed out to photograph them. The paused long enough for a couple of images before ditching us. We shot coyotes and antelope, and oddly, porcupines along the road to Garr Ranch.
The Garr Ranch, which dates back into the mid 1800’s, is known for the nesting pair of Great Horned Owls that regularly spend spring there. After some hiking around some we found them on the backside of the ranch, resting in some cottonwood trees. As Dave and Jim shot the owl I returned to my vehicle to get my flash. The owl was about thirty five feet away, but the flash did well enough to fill the shadows some.
From now on the Farmington Bay Eagle Safari is going to become the Great Salt Lake Raptor Safari every February. In years with cold temps and lots of snow it will be more of an eagle/raptor/owl safari – in years when its warmer its mostly a raptor/coyote/birds safari. No matter, wildlife photography is always a chase – and in the end its capturing great wild images that matter. BRP