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Birding in Box Elder County – Adventures in Birding at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

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Birding in Box Elder County - Photography at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Photo Credit: Wayne Watson / USFWS

Disclosure: This is a sponsored post brought to you by Box Elder County. As always, all opinions are my own.

One of the most surprising things about my year-long road trip in an RV was discovering just how cool birds are. Through our experiences in New Mexico, Florida, Wyoming, and Utah, I was exposed to some magnificent creatures. The morning when I stood at sunrise and listened to the symphony of vocalizations – calls, songs, and whistles – was one of my fondest memories.

Over the past year, when I wrote about Utah I often mentioned that I think it’s God’s country. Not being the religious sort that is saying a lot. It is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and even after spending two months there discovering state, county, and national parks, it was not nearly enough! If Utah hasn’t been on your radar, I strongly urge you to plan a trip there as soon as possible!

While we spent a lot of time in Southern Utah, we also did some exploring up north. One of the spots we stayed in was Tremonton. One evening as we were grilling outside, I saw a flock of birds fly by and remarked how beautiful they were. Our neighbor, who was also preparing dinner, chimed in that they were likely from the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. I quickly noted that down and filed it away.

So when the fine folks of Box Elder County reached about promoting their little corner of the world, including the bird refuge, I knew it was a no brainer!

Box Elder County

Box Elder County - Golden Spike National Historic Site

Photo credit: Scott Catron

Box Elder County (an hour north of Salt Lake City) is not only the home of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge but also other great family-friendly sites like:

The Golden Spike National Historic Site – I’m a huge fan of train history, so I had a blast at the very spot where the transcontinental railroad, East and West, met.

The Eli Anderson Historic Wagon and Buggy Collection – get a little pioneer history at the largest private collection in the West!

The Orbital ATK Rocket Garden – for your little scientist. Check out the outdoor display of space and military ballistics and rockets.

Utah’s Official Fruitway – don’t miss the opportunity to fill up on apples, cantaloupes, plums, sweet and tart cherries, raspberries, apricots, blackberries, peaches and more throughout the Highway 89 fruit stands. There’s pie too!

Sounds pretty awesome right? It is, but I’m here to talk about birding in Box Elder County.

Birding for Beginners

Bear River Bird Refuge covers nearly 80,000 acres of land and throughout the various migratory seasons is home to over 250 species of birds. This magical spot holds a special place in the heart of birders at all levels, but its 12.1-mile car loop trail is absolutely perfect for beginners.

Depending on your depth of interest the auto tour can take anywhere from 1.5 hours to half the day. The loop features a lake and is used for birding and scenic driving. The tour is open from sunrise to sunset and is accessible year-round. Get tips before driving by downloading the Audio Auto Tour from the refuge’s website. There are also guided trips by rangers or naturalists on Saturdays throughout the summer.

I wanted to share just a few of the birds you can see while visiting Bear River.

White-Faced Ibis

Birding in Box Elder County - Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge - White-faced Ibis

Photo credit: Len Blumin

I can’t for the life of me figure out why this bird is called white-faced when it is a dark bird! It’s a wading bird with a long, down-curved bill. In reality, if you have a good pair of binoculars, you’ll see that it has a thin band of white feathers around its red face, but you have to look hard!

American White Pelicans

Birding in Box Elder County - Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge - White Pelicans

Photo credit: Manjith Kainickara

There are 55,000 American White Pelicans that nest in this region and it’s the third-largest pelican colonies in North America. They feed daily on fresh fish at the refuge. It’s one of the largest birds on the continent and has a 9-foot wingspan.

Northern Pintails

Birding in Box Elder County - Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge - Northern Pintails

Photo credit: J. Kelly, USFWS

I think it was the Northern Pintail duck that I saw that evening last year. They have beautiful markings on their long graceful necks and both the males and females are striking. I personally think it’s one of the best looking ducks out there!

Western Grebe

How can you not love that face?! These guys are quite dramatic when it comes to romance. During courtship, one bird will rush across the water with their necks extended to greet the other. When their babies are born they immediately climb on their parents back and continue to do so even when they’re a little bit too big for it, like the one in the photo above trying to hop on!


Avocets are tall wading birds with distinct marks on its back. There are four species of these birds, but the American avocet is what you’ll find at the refuge. It uses its long upturned bill to wade through shallow water and catch a meal.

There are many, many, many more species of birds to see at the Bear River Bird Refuge including Long-billed Curlew, Western Sandpiper, Marbled Godwit, Bald Eagle, a large variety of gulls, Red Knot, Common Tern, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Snow Goose.

Winter Birding in Box Elder County

Since the auto loop is open year-round there’s a great opportunity to see extraordinarily beautiful species of birds in the winter. P.S. there are a lot fewer people! Here are some of the winter superstars.

Barn owl

Okay sure, you can see a barn owl in other seasons, but how beautiful is this guy or gal against a white snowy background? I’m fascinated by owls! This species doesn’t hoot but rather screeches which I think could be a little nerve-wracking, but their sheer beauty makes up for it.

Horned Lark

During the winter, the horned lark crawls, runs, and walks on the ground in search of seeds. They have a cute yellow face, black mask, and tiny black horns that wave in the breeze. They are a songbird known for their high, tinkling song.

Trumpeter Swans

There are 40,000 swans in the refuge during routine waterbird in November, so it’s highly unlikely you’ll miss seeing these beautiful creatures. It the largest of the swan species with a wingspan of 10-feet.

Although visiting the Crystal Hot Springs is great at any time of year, there is no better way to warm up after a winter birding adventure! Afterward, swing by the Maddox Ranch House for its famous Turkey or Shrimp Steak and you’ve had yourself quite a day!

Birding Kit for Kids

Birding is fun for people of all ages and expertise, but particularly for kids. Just deck them out with their own pint-sized equipment and they will have a ball as they visit the Bear River Bird Refuge. Here are my recommendations.

Birding Kit for Kids

1. BESPIN High-Resolution Kids Binoculars
2. National Geographic Kids Bird Guide of North America
3. The Young Birder’s Guide to Birds of North America
4. Beginning Birdwatcher’s Book: With 48 Stickers
5. Bird Log Kids

As you can see, Utah’s Box Elder County has so much to offer when it comes to family vacation adventures. The birding alone will blow your socks off. I, for one, cannot wait to get back to this region to partake in my newfound love of being an avian voyeur!

How about you? Have you been to Box Elder County? Do you enjoy birding? Have I piqued your interest? Do tell!

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