Birds, the moon and the West Davis highway

Published: Sunday, May 26 2013 1:00 p.m. MDT

Maunsel Pearce, Nature Conservancy board member, and Rachel LeBlanc, a volunteer, conduct a bird survey in Davis County, Wednesday, May 22, 2013. The Nature Conservancy is conducting a bird count to get an assessment of migratory waterfowl that might be impacted by the proposed West Davis Corridor.

Ravell Call, Deseret News

LAYTON — It is here on a May morning that the grasses, trees and ponds are whipped to movement by the wind, and there is a smattering of silence.

The silence is a loud series of contradictions to its location in Davis County's largest city of 70,000 people, with high-speed commuter rail just four miles away and a six-lane interstate just beyond that.

As motorists hasten along I-15 and young mothers take a morning exercise walk pushing children in strollers, Rachel LeBlanc stands still in this pastoral place, her eyes scanning the reeds and grasses around the pond.

She's counting birds, noting species, and in the occasional quiet, there is a consonance of bird songs that erupts. It is followed by silence, and the songs begin again.

LeBlanc is one of roughly a dozen volunteers taking part in the first comprehensive bird survey at the Great Salt Lake Shorelands Preserve that will forge a scientific analysis of how many species frequent both the low-lying wetlands and the adjacent uplands, or drier areas, equally important to birds.

On this day, she spies a yellow-headed blackbird, pelicans and California gulls. It is where she has seen the Red Knot sandpiper, which can fly the equivalent of the distance from Earth to the moon and halfway back in its lifetime. This is where it occasionally seeks a timeout.

The preserve represents a decades-long prize achieved through a collaborative effort spearheaded by The Nature Conservancy in Utah. It is an ecological testimony to a land acquisition here and a land acquisition there, until ultimately 45 parcels were knitted together to become the more than 4,400 acres of land that traces the eastern shore of the Great Salt Lake.

It is, in fact, the largest protected, natural piece of land this side of the Great Salt Lake and is threatened — at least in some part — by the planned West Davis Corridor.

Whatever route the Utah Department of Transportation may ultimately settle on for the west Davis County highway that would stretch into Weber County, there will be impacts to the preserve.

The bird count, which started in April and continues through mid-September, will supply data and accompany The Nature Conservancy's comments during the environmental review process launched this month.

Chris Montague, director of the conservancy's conservation programs, is the first to say the organization is no expert on transportation planning and is not conducting the count to kill the highway. Its members don't plan to chain themselves to bulldozers.

"We want (transportation officials) to know exactly what they are impacting on our property so they can fully mitigate those impacts," Montague said.

Chris Brown, who manages the preserve and is over stewardship efforts for the group, said too often the emphasis is solely on protecting wetlands, while the adjacent uplands are ignored.

There are shoreline birds that can't fly when they are wet, he explained. They forage for spiders and other bugs in the dry grasses and reeds, where they may also nest. The vitality of wetlands is companion to the health of its accompanying uplands — all of which fit into the same system, Brown said.

"You take away the uplands, and it is like death by a thousand cuts," he said.

The preserve is part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, which is an annual stopover for millions of migratory birds. Brown likened the stop along the migratory fly-way as a roadside motel for weary travelers who need to rejuvenate before taking that last leg of a journey.

Although some migratory birds have the ability to fly while they sleep by shutting down half their brain, a long break on the trek from South America to the Arctic is necessary.

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