Great Salt Lake Bird Festival 2023 preview | Arts & Entertainment | Salt Lake City Weekly

Great Salt Lake Bird Festival 2023 preview 

Experiencing birds and learning how to preserve the habitat for the future

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When an event is called the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, it's impossible to ignore the Great Salt Lake itself. And making it clear how important the health of the lake is to the local avian ecosystem is definitely a key part of that event.

"Right now, we've had a great spring, and there's more water in the lake than there's been in a long time," says Melissa Halvorsen, education & outreach coordinator for Hawkwatch and a presenter at this year's Great Salt Lake Bird Festival. "The temptation is going to be to look out there and say, 'We did it, we're fine.' But we've had drought for years, and one year isn't going to make up for it."

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival annually attracts birders from around the country and around the world, at a time of year when the area is teeming with migrating birds. "We're a site of hemispheric importance for birds," Halvorsen notes—and as such, it's crucial to preserve it, and to take the opportunity to teach visitors about what is needed.

The festival features several outings and field trips that sell out due to their popularity, but there are always opportunities for visitors of all ages—and all degrees of experience with birding—to learn and have a unique nature experience. Many of these experiences are free, notably on Saturday, May 20th's "Family Day," allowing for drop-ins and more casual visitors to enjoy the event.

It's important for the festival to provide that kind of positive experience, even as there's a tricky balance involved in also educating guests about challenges without being too much of a "downer." According to Max Malmquist, a member of the Bird Festival committee and engagement manager for the National Audubon Society's Saline Lakes Program, "[The festival] provides an opportunity to have kind of a balance, to celebrate the birds and this wet water year, but at the same time ensure that we're talking about the concerns and issues surrounding the lake."

Those issues include a variety of impacts resulting from the lake's shrinking size. Concentrating salinity levels affect the brine shrimp and brine flies that make up a huge part of the food chain for migratory birds. Additionally, heavy metals from the lakebed can be exposed, making their way into the food chain. And a reduced habitat size even exacerbates the "bird flu" that has devastated species of all kinds over the past two years.

"When you have a lake that's smaller, it concentrates those species closer together, which may help spread communicable diseases," Halvorsen says. "You're potentially pooling that vector for disease in smaller areas."

As the shrinking of the lake became local and indeed national news over the past year, legislative action accompanied the heavy snowpack, leading to some cause for optimism. "This really wet winter, how we've been framing it is, it's been a little breath of fresh air, giving us 18 months to two years to address declining lake levels," Malmquist says. "It gives us a little time to implement those tools, but we want to make sure we keep our feet on the pedal."

Those involved with the festival acknowledge that folks interested in coming out to a bird festival are likely already a choir that's being preached to about environmental awareness, yet there's still important information to communicate, even to those who already have a baseline concern for the health of ecosystems. "I've been doing informal education in this realm for 20 years, and the biggest shift I've seen is more knowledge in young people about the macro issues, and less knowledge of the local issues," Halvorsen said. "They're more aware of those things that are impacting the world, but less about the things in their own yards and communities. The way you start to help with that is to start at the micro level."

"The key to get people caring about something is giving them opportunities to go out and experience it," Malmquist adds. "You can't care about something until you experience it."

That experience can be a fascinating one for those who may be inexperienced with birding, as the various events and locations of the Great Salt Lake Bird Festival, according to Malmquist, can include as many as 250 bird species. On the most basic level, it's a chance to see something beautiful. And it's a chance to get information that makes it clear what still needs to be done to preserve that experience for future generations.

"The most unique thing about humans is, we make a lot of mistakes, but we're the only species in the world that tries to fix our mistakes—to go back in one generation, in our lifetime, to fix what we've broken," Halvorsen says. "As humans we have the capacity to choose compassion, not just for each other, but for other organisms. We can choose to care about something outside our own species. That local ecosystem is where we start."

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