New book documents bird species of Glen Canyon

American avocets in flight.

A new book published by Glen Canyon Conservancy documents every species of bird known to occur in the Lake Powell and Glen Canyon region, while also aiming to get more people interested in birding in the area, according to the authors.

The second edition of “Birds of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Utah and Arizona Region: An Annotated Checklist,” released over the summer, was a collaborative effort written by Roy Morris, John R. Spence, Lonnie H. Pilkington, Gerry D. Nealon and Charles T. La Rue.

The book includes information on bird species abundance, distribution, ecology, dates of occurrence, residency, breeding status and noteworthy records. In all, 341 species have been reported in what is now Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GCNRA) since the first surveys were conducted in the region during the 1930s.  

The introduction includes an area description and historical review, and notes changes in abundance and distribution of bird species due to global warming and ongoing drought.

Chapter 1 describes habitats within the region, from riparian to blackbrush, while Chapter 3 describes survey and monitoring methods. Chapters 3 and 4 constitute the core of the checklist, with brief accounts of each species. Chapter 5 consists of bar charts showing the relative abundance of each species month by month.

Lead author Roy Morris, who spent seven seasons working at GCNRA, said the new book is an update of a bird checklist published in the Monographs of the Western North American Naturalist in 2011. 

“I wanted to update the information,” Morris told the Lake Powell Chronicle. “Since that previous checklist, we’ve gotten 25 additional bird species records, among other rare occurrences.” 

Research for the book consisted of going through survey records dating back to Rainbow Bridge and San Juan expeditions in the 1930s, as well as news articles on topics such as banding and monitoring peregrine falcons.

“We had a juvenile peregrine falcon that was born and banded at Glen Canyon, and it ended up in Japan. There was an article about it that we found in our records. That’s in the book,” Morris said.

Also new since the 2011 publication has been the introduction of eBird, a huge online database hosted at Cornell University where the public can report bird observations based on location.

“So, I went through a lot of the eBird records and sorted through those and added those where necessary,” Morris said.

The 2011 checklist was published by John Spence, who came to Glen Canyon in 1992 and retired just last year. Before his departure, he tasked Morris with preparing the recently published second edition.  

“The new edition we expanded with a lot of Roy’s and Gerry Nealon’s great photos, and we put in the seasonal bar charts: when the birds are here, how common they might be, what months they’ve been around,” Spence said.

The surveys used as source material involved an enormous amount of field work, including winter waterfowl surveys conducted each year since 1991 from Glen Canyon Dam to Lees Ferry. Spence also hired Charles LaRue, another one of the book’s coauthors, to do a bird inventory of the entire park over a three-year period. 

Spence stressed that the checklist is a long-term effort with numerous collaborators, and that it’s built on the observations of several hundred people over the past 30 to 40 years.

“So, we have all these different databases that we needed to put together and we got probably over 100 species added to the park checklist since 1992 when I showed up,” he said, adding that surveys done since the dam’s construction in the 1960s have built on a very limited database of birds. 

Despite the lack of data prior to the dam, it’s clear that the presence of Lake Powell has greatly expanded the number of migratory species that come to the region.  

“A lot of those new species, interestingly enough, are water birds. They’re birds that are discovering or have discovered Lake Powell. It’s unique. It’s a large reservoir in the middle of the desert, and you get all these water birds,” Spence said.

However, Morris said it was difficult to determine the overall effect of the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on regional bird populations, since so few surveys had been done before the 1960s. 

“There’s definitely been an increase in the occurrence of water-going species, but we also don’t have a lot to go off of, what was here prior to the dam,” he said. 

Morris said the new edition of “Birds of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area” is geared toward a wider range of readers than the 2011 edition. While it will be useful to hardcore birders who enjoy finding new records and other information, he also hopes it will raise interest in the region among those new to birding. 

“Glen Canyon is a very good stopover point for not only the birds but for folks travelling the national parks,” he said. “It was a great experience to share what I knew about the location and where they might have a good chance of seeing the condors that nest at Navajo Bridge or some rare species that I might have seen in town in Page or Wahweap or Lonely Dell at Lees Ferry.”

Coauthor Lonnie Pilkington, who served as natural resources program manager at GCNRA from 2010 to 2019 and now works at Grand Canyon National Park, said the region is already gaining more traction among birders. He said the new checklist is best used in conjunction with a picture guide to help identify bird species. 

“One thing that I really enjoyed about being in Page and being involved in birding is there’s a number of really good hotspots that are easily accessible,” he said. 

Some people might be surprised to learn that one of the hotspots that birders have known about for years is the Page Wastewater Treatment Plant. 

“We’re fortunate that the folks that run the Wastewater Treatment Plant allow birders to come in and bird the area. They’re receptive to that, so that’s kind of a cool thing right there in town that you can hit real quick,” Pilkington said. 

“That’s one really neat thing about birding, is you can go birding anywhere. Birds occur in all sorts of different habitats, even residential areas. It’s something you can do right out of your front door. For somebody that’s just getting started, that’s definitely a plus.” 

Pilkington also highlighted the importance of engaging young people in birdwatching and nature exploration through events like the Christmas Bird Count for Kids at Lees Ferry. 

“The events were well received, and initiatives like these enable our youth to explore and learn in an amazing outdoor classroom right outside their front door. I hope this publication and events like Christmas Bird Counts allow bird watching to gain traction in Page and surrounding areas,” he said.

Spence said he hopes the new edition of “Birds of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area” gets more people interested in general birding in the region.

“Lake Powell and Page and Lee’s Ferry are very well known among certain birders. Bird tour companies come here occasionally,” he said.

“Their favorite spots are the Page Sewage Treatment Pond and Lees Ferry. Lees Ferry is the best birding spot in all of Northern Arizona. It’s because of the river and Lonely Dell with the planted trees and everything. It’s a lush oasis that just attracts all sorts of birds.”

“Birds of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area” can be purchased at the Glen Canyon Conservancy’s flagship store at 12 N. Lake Powell Boulevard in Page, as well as at other conservancy locations. 

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