A Winter Bittern And A New Observation Tower At Bear River MBR

A highly unusual winter bird and a new incarnation of a long-lost landmark made yesterday a good day at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge.

The secretive nature and generally inaccessible habitats of the American Bittern make it a difficult quarry for the bird photographer or birder any time of year but seeing one in northern Utah in mid-winter is quite uncommon and yesterday morning I saw two of them within just a few minutes. They should be on their winter range by now so I suspect climate change may have played a role since our winter so far has been unusually warm.


1/3200, f/7.1, ISO 500, Canon 7D Mark II, Canon EF 500mm f/4L IS II USM + EF 1.4 III Extender, not baited, set up or called in

The first bittern I saw flew off before I could get my lens on it but this one was more cooperative. At first I was a little disappointed because my view of the bird was partially blocked behind the horizontal reed at left but eventually it moved to my right and around the reed which gave me a clear look. The setting isn’t pretty and the bittern wasn’t particularly close but a mid-January sighting of this species made my day. I have to wonder how many other bitterns may be hanging around during this scary-warm winter.


And the refuge had yet another pleasant surprise in store for me yesterday morning.


Very recent visitors may have noticed a new construction project east of the maintenance building near the beginning of the auto-loop tour. I had my suspicions about what it might be but to confirm them I made a few phone calls to refuge personnel after I got home.



It will be a new observation tower designed to give visitors an overall view of some of the refuge, its diverse habitats and its birds. Following are some tidbits I found out about the tower:

  • it’s height will be midway between a tower and an observation deck (although the person I talked to referred to it as a tower). It will be as tall as current USFWS regulations allow for safety reasons but it will be tall enough to easily see over the vegetation and give viewers a good look at the grand scheme of things at the refuge (especially unit 1)
  • there will be a viewing scope installed at the top of the tower
  • the facility will be fully ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant
  • the tower is expected to be completed in about one month. The Grand Opening is scheduled for Saturday, March 10 (Swan Day)

Local old-timers may remember the vintage 100′ tall viewing tower at the refuge that was destroyed by the terribly destructive floods of 1983. I climbed that rickety old tower (built in the early 1930’s) many dozens of times with students from the Utah Museum of Natural History’s Junior Science Academy and believe me when I say I’ll never forget those ascents. Combine my moderate acrophobia with a rickety and swaying vertical tower and scores of young (3rd-8th grade) students who insisted on climbing the tower and then couldn’t resist trying to make it sway as much as possible as we approached the top and you have a combination that definitely got my attention. I remember weak knees, trying not to let the kids see me holding on tight and absolute relief when it was all over for the day.

But dang, what a view from the top!

I look forward to the new tower for a variety of reasons but especially because I won’t be responsible for 36 rambunctious kids tagging along behind me!




  • If you’re a Facebook user you can see a photo of the old tower we used to climb here
  • Some years after the floods Terry Tempest Williams accompanied us on several trips to the refuge. At the time she was curator of education (later naturalist in residence) at the museum. Soon she wrote what I consider one of her finest works, “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place” where she used the 1983 floods and the resulting dwindling populations of birds on the refuge to illustrate the importance of nature preservation, acceptance of change and the impacts of humans on the natural world. Those trips are wonderful memories for me. The refuge is a refuge for more than just birds…
  • In the first photo of the tower under construction you can see several horizontal “bathtub rings” on the mountains in the background. Those benches were gouged out of our mountains by wave action from prehistoric Lake Bonneville. The lake filled much of the Great Basin from 32,000 years ago until about 14,500 years ago.
  • Both species of swans, Tundra and Trumpeter, are present on the refuge right now. Yesterday they were far away but they were there.




Northern Harrier Throwing Up A ….. Pellet?

This series may be a little too clinical for some but if you enjoy learning about bird biology, raptors in particular, you’ll likely find it of interest.

  • Note: There’s a little more noise in these images than I like to see in my photos. I believe that’s because they were taken with an older camera and I didn’t take the time to mask and then sharpen the bird selectively.


1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

On May 30, 2016 in Box Elder County, Utah this Northern Harrier was unusually approachable and at first I didn’t know why. It was sitting on a fence post next to the road and unusual for harriers it didn’t fly off as I approached. I was so close I had to ditch my 500mm lens and use my “baby lens” attached to my older camera. I took a few shots before I got my first hint as to why it was so “sticky”.

We see that subtle hint in this photo where the bird has pulled its head down onto its neck which made the neck swell slightly more than usual.



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

When it began to retch I was almost positive it was about to throw a pellet, a behavior I’ve seen and photographed many times before in a variety of raptor and other bird species.



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

But after a bit of a struggle and more retching what came out wasn’t a typical compact and relatively dry pellet. Instead it was mostly runny and looked more like vomitus than a pellet.



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

It was long, wet and stringy and it eventually…



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

hung down to a length that was…



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

significantly longer than the entire body of the bird, including that very long tail.



1/5000, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 312 mm, not baited, set up or called in

Eventually the hawk apparently grew weary of waiting for the stringy mass to fall off its bill so it shook its head to rid itself of the unpleasant mess.

To my untrained eye this appeared to be a case of vomiting rather than throwing a pellet. Birds do vomit (more can be found here if you have the interest) and just as in humans it can be a sign of anything from simple digestive disruption and discomfort to serious illness. I’ve photographed vomiting in birds at least two times previously and interestingly in each case it was a Northern Harrier. I have no idea if that’s simply coincidence or not.

But I doubt if this bird was seriously ill because soon after it accomplished its mission of expelling its digestive contents…



1/2500, f/6.3, ISO 500, Canon 7D, Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM @ 248 mm, not baited, set up or called in

if flew off in apparent good health.

This is the only image in the series I’ve published previously. I posted it then because I was intrigued by that incredible curl of the right wing which I don’t think I’ve ever seen to this extreme in any bird before. Its shape actually reminds me a little of the hard red, white and green ribbon Christmas candy that some of us remember from when we were kids.

Birds can do amazing things when they need to.


Late addendum: Blog reader “Karen” may have solved the mystery as to why this harrier vomited. In her comment below she said “there is something that looks like a straight rod-like thing (highly technical term!) about the length of the bird’s head and in front of its right wing” and she wondered if that was the cause of the vomiting. So I looked at the high resolution version of the image and I think she may be right. To me it looks like it might be a feather shaft or a plant stem that the harrier had swallowed and couldn’t keep down.

Below is a highly cropped version of the image that shows more clearly what “karen” was talking about. Good eye, Karen!