You never know what you'll see or discover if you simply hop in the car for a ride — for a day-trip or for just part of a day — into the natural world all around us, perhaps in hopes of seeing an eagle, an osprey or a moose.
A case in point, from an actual Facebook exchange:
My friend Lois: "When Beaux and I wander we see strange things … A condo for blue herons and their babies in the heart of SLC." And there they were in her posted photographs, showing a power-line-like tower festooned with nests — " and starring perhaps a dozen blue herons of various sizes.
My Facebook comment: Love it! It IS a condo! Somewhere by the Great Salt Lake?
Lois' reply: Nope. Right next to the landfill off California Avenue.
Go to the compost gate and look south. It's a really beautiful little wetland area. And there are babies in those nests. We're going to try to see them from the other side this week.
A few days later I followed Lois' instructions — I had never been to this Salt Lake area landfill before, so California Avenue seemed to go on and on. And then, there it was. I let Lois know of my experience, via Facebook, of course.
Me: Lois — Thanks for the directions to the Lo-&-Beaux Heron Tower! It is amazing. And the spot is, well, a revelation — and kind of a dump. Literally. You didn't mention the, um, odor. Quite the discovery!
Her reply: Loving that you went there. It was a surprise — and proves that nothing nasty lacks a silver lining.
Bob Walters chuckles when he hears our story.
"What's the word: 'aromatic'? It is what it is," he says.
Walters heads the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' Watchable Wildlife Program and worked with the Salt Lake City landfill, which chipped in with some heavy equipment to create the ponds there, near 6000 West, as part of the Lee Kay Center and Wildlife Conservation Area.
The idea was to give visitors — even folks on a run to the dump — a place to pause, take in the wildlife and birds, perhaps train hunting dogs at the location (the latter hasn't really worked out). The result is a little flyway oasis with a short one-way loop road, managed by the landfill, complete with informational signage.
Maybe it didn't turn out to be all it could be, Walters says, but the birds — herons, pelicans, gulls, yellow-headed blackbirds and more — and birdwatchers like it.
All of it is part of giving people "an opportunity to see something a little different," he says.
And that's his job. Walters coordinates the DWR's "wildlife viewing days."
Division personnel, including Walters, help visitors at various spots around the state catch a glimpse of such creatures as the tundra swans in migration (near Delta in March), mountain goats (in central Utah's Tushar Mountains) and ospreys (at Rockport Reservoir).
Upcoming are viewing days for kokanee salmon (Sept. 18 at Sheep Creek near Manila, Daggett County) and an autumn watch for raptors above Orem (Sept. 25).
The DWR announces such events through the media, and opportunities also can be found on the Utah Wildlife Calendar on the Web at wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/calendar.html, a list that also includes hunting dates for various species.
Besides checking out the DWR calendar, Walters has a few tips for those considering a day-trip drive, especially in search of "watchable wildlife":
Remember, "water is always an attractant for most creatures,"?he says. Whether it's the Great Salt Lake or a canyon stream, that's something to keep in mind.
Take your time. "Spend more rather than less time at an activity," he says. It will probably be worth it.
There are lots of places in Utah to go, and one way to find them is to visit the Division of Wildlife Resources bookstore, 1594 W. North Temple in Salt Lake City.
In particular he suggests a couple of publications.
One is the state-published "Access to Wildlife Lands in Utah," a guide to DWR-administered fish and wildlife habitat in five regions of the state.
The guide, which costs $9.95, lists more than 100 destinations, from management areas and preserves to hatcheries and fishing access points. It includes basic maps and pointers for each site, such as "The Lay of the Land" and "Things to Do and See."
More inspiration can be found in a three-part set of birding trail maps, published by the National Audubon Society and other sponsors, covering the Great Salt Lake, southwest Utah and eastern Utah. Each map sells for $2 at the bookstore.
Keep them in the car. They could come in handy.
"Say you've been to Wendover and, having lost all your money, decided to leave Dodge," Walters says.
Well, "Access to Wildlife Lands" can point you to some sightseeing in the Timpie Springs Wildlife Management Area, off I-80's Dugway/Rowley exit, — 1,440 acres of emergent marshes, mud flats, salt grass and open water environments — ideal for birdwatching, hunting and simply walking.
Meanwhile, the "Great Salt Lake Birding Trails" map and guide might encourage you to linger on the south shore, a "shallow, food rich environment" that attracts birds in tremendous numbers, "especially in the late summer and early fall."
And speaking of the Great Salt Lake, Walters has a specific spot to visit that he believes is shamefully under-appreciated, and it might be his No. 1 destination recommendation for those who live along the metropolitan Wasatch Front. His tip:
If you've never been there, drop by the Farmington Bay Wildlife Management Area. "That's close to the cities and has been recently improved with a learning center," he says.
The Farmington Bay facilities are accessible by going west toward the Great Salt Lake on Farmington's Glover Lane (which does not have its own I-15 exit; you can get to Glover via the east frontage roads). Part of the 17,000-acre levee system is open to vehicles. There are dikes to walk, birdwatch and hunt upon. It features a popular "eagle watch" day in the late winter each year.
And while Farmington Bay would probably be Walters' first suggestion, among the hundreds of possibilities, another he highly recommends is the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, run not by the state but by the federal government.
Utah, of course, has five national parks, multiple national monuments, national recreation areas, national forests and vast territories administered by the Bureau of Land Management.
It also has three wildlife refuges overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service: Bear River Migratory Bird refuge, west of Brigham City; Ouray National Wildlife refuge, south of Vernal along the Green River; and Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, on the old Pony Express trail southeast of Wendover.
Two others are so close to the state line that Utah can perhaps lay partial claim to them: Browns Park National Wildlife Refuge is also situated along the Green River, but it's in extreme northwest Colorado; and Bear Lake National Wildlife Refuge is at the north end of that beautiful border-crossing lake, in southeastern Idaho.
It might be a stretch to consider the Ouray, Fish Springs, Bear Lake and especially Browns Park refuges "day trips," but it can be done —?I can attest to that — and at the right times of year, well worth the jaunt.
By contrast, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is exceedingly accessible — it has a new visitor and learning center just west of I-15 off Brigham City — Forest Street exit, and about 12 miles west of there is a passenger-car-friendly dike loop that is a major stopping and nesting point for ducks, swans, avocets, owls and scores of other birds.
Fanning out across the Bear River delta, the dikes and resulting lagoons "provide one of the greatest migratory bird refuges in the world," naturalist Edwin Way Teale wrote in 1956. "Our Million Duck Day" is what he titled a Utah chapter in his travelogue, "Autumn Across America."
There's one catch right now, though: the road to the outlying refuge is under reconstruction this summer. Most of the man-made infrastructure of the refuge was damaged or destroyed as a result of flooding in the early 1980s and since, and work continues to make it better than ever.
Despite the work under way, notes Kathi Stopher, the refuge's visitor services manager, there are three tours each week through August — each led by an expert — that provide access to the loop.
The tours are on Wednesdays, Thursdays (both 9 a.m. to noon) and Saturdays (10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.). Advance registration is required, so call about a week ahead (435-723-5887).
The migrations of spring and autumn may be peak times at Bear River, but in summer there are still shorebirds, songbirds and waterfowl to see, she says.
That said, most the James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center off I-15 is open and easy to visit — and it's a magnet for students — from preschool to college, around 10,000 students and teachers annually, Stopher says.
Most come from Utah's Box Elder and Cache counties, but the center was built with the Wasatch Front in mind: The site is within a one-hour drive of most communities. Even out-of-state academies, from Idaho to New Hampshire, bring students to the center each year.
"We love doing it and having them learn how to be better stewards of this ecosystem."
The center, which opened in 2006, sits on a wetland itself, with trails and tours. Its museum-like hall is "filled with interactive exhibits about the flyway, the Bear River and ecosystems," she says, "the 'flyway' being the extensive Pacific and Central migratory routes, both of which the Great Salt Lake, and especially the refuge, is an integral part.
The lake and its adjacent wetlands and plant life offer an oasis for birds, millions of them, notably those in need of food and rest on vast migrations that can stretch from south of the border to the Arctic.
None of the birds and animals at Utah's and other nearby refuges and wildlife management areas live by the wristwatch. They live day to day, season to season and year to year.
Humans, by contrast, have gotten into a hurry-up syndrome in many ways, their days governed by shortened attention spans and the demands of their cell phones and computers, by schedules and Twitter tweets.
Modern Americans, Walters notes, live in a minute-to-minute, sound-bite, gadget-filled world. The disadvantage to living like this is many of us are not taking the time to see the world around us.
"If you just lingered a few minutes, you'd be surprised what you' see," he says.
And Utah has plenty of day-trip get-aways to do just that.