SALT LAKE CITY — Researchers from Utah and Argentina are teaming up to study one of the most impressive bird migrations on Earth.
Argentine biologist Marcela Castellino and Weber State University professor John Cavitt are seeking to unravel the mysteries of a 5,000-mile, nonstop flight that a tiny shorebird makes every year between Utah’s Great Salt Lake and similar inland saline lakes in Argentina.
The scientists are focusing on Wilson’s phalaropes at a time when some 500,000 of them are fueling up and getting ready to take off from Utah’s Great Salt Lake for their principal wintering grounds in Argentina.
The birds are consuming large amounts of brine shrimp and brine flies at the Great Salt Lake, but scientists said the problem is they don’t know which parts of the lake are important to phalaropes. They’re also unsure why they’re continually taking off and landing, and where they go after sunset.
“We don’t know a lot about their behavior once they’re here,” Cavitt said.
The 500,000 or so phalaropes that visit the Great Salt Lake every year represent over a third of the global population of the species, he said.
Because they’re so dependent on lakes in different hemispheres, bird lovers worry they’re vulnerable.
“They use both places. So if we don’t conserve, if we only take care of one of these places, the species (will) not survive,” Castellino said.
Scientists theorize the birds visit saltier parts of the Great Salt Lake to feed and visit the mouth of tributaries such as the Jordan and Weber rivers for water.
“So we really have to be careful about how the Great Salt Lake is managed for the protection of such large proportions of the global population,” Cavitt said.
The phalaropes are expected to begin departing for Argentina any day. They also stop at the Great Salt Lake on their spring migration to nesting grounds as far north as Canada.
The international study is a partnership of Weber State and the National Audubon Society. It’s primarily funded by Moab philanthropist Jennifer Speers.