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

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.

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

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  1. marthalynn says:

    This is incredible! What an experience. I’m not even an avid birder and I’m excited about this. I’d love to go on a Saturday and get a tour!

  2. I love owls too! Ever since I watch the animated movie “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole”. Never been in Utah, but I’m sure it has some killer landscapes and I’ve always wanted to visit Salt Lake city, I hope to visit soon! Thanks for your tips for beginners, it shows that you’re passionate about bird watching =)

  3. I have not been there before but I do think my family would love this. Great tips for birding. My kids are always interested in seeing birds so we really need to go birding one day. It would be a fun family outing.

  4. Wow! What amazing animals! So much beauty.

  5. I know very little about birds but my kids would love to visit a place like this. That barn owl is gorgeous. And those train engines are gorgeous.

  6. What a wonderful experience. I know so little about birds, but all these birds are gorgeous. It’s so nice when the chirping of the birds wakes you up in the morning. You feel so close to nature.

  7. I love that you included tips for beginners because this looks like a lot of fun but it has always intimidated me! I would love to get a shot of each of these birds and keep them all in an album to show everyone. If I could see one of those owls it would blow my mind, they are gorgeous!

  8. Oh wow! Owls are truly my favorite. Seeing a barn owl in this gorgeous setting would be a dream! I love all of your gorgeous photos. Utah is one of my favorite states, but I haven’t ventured too far out of SLC. This is totally inspiring to head out and see all of this gorgeousness!

  9. All I can say is beautiful photos. I am not a bird watcher either, but If I saw these I would. The Barn owl is beautiful. What a neat experience.

  10. While I’ve never been to Utah, my husband has many times. Like you, he’s commented again and again what a beautiful part of the country it is. I’m so excited to tell him about The Bear River Bird Refuge. He’s a huge bird lover and know he’ll make it a destination on his next road trip west! ps: Your photos are incredible. I especially loved the swans and the wise looking barn owl x

  11. David Elliott says:

    Utah is so beautiful. I can definitely understand what you would call it God’s country. I really need to make it back there sometime soon. Show my daughter some of the amazing places they have there. That’s cool they have the bit about train history there. I know there is a place in Sacramento that has a train museum and I absolutely loved going there.

  12. Linda Manns Linneman says:

    These pictures are so awesome. I love watching the birds. I do believe that God created all this beauty. Thank you so much for sharing this. I really enjoyed it

  13. Shirley Martinez says:

    I’ve never been, but wow these pictures are stunning. I love to learn about the different species of animals and getting to see them truly close up would be amazing. Thank you for sharing about the Elder County .

  14. Looks so beautiful! I love bird watching and wildlife photography Thanks for this lovely post I really enjoyed reading it.

  15. Don’t forget Maddox, when visiting Box Elder county. YummmmmOO!!

  16. I used to live in Salt Lake and I have hiked around Brigham City. It’s beautiful country indeed. Ed keeps threatening to go work for Orbital but I don’t think I could live that close to Alta and not go skiing (I taught skiing in Alta before the knees went). Birding is a cool way to see beautiful animals and follow the changes of the season with migratory birds and mating calls. Some of those birders take it very seriously.

    1. @Jenn, Utah is absolutely amazing, really God’s country and eventhough I spent two months there, I want to do a lot more exploring. Oh those birders, we ran until some really dedicated folks and couldn’t help but giggle!

  17. What a great post! I am setting out on the first of many RV trips today. I’m not a birder, but you never know… thanks for sharing some beginner’s tips. I’m going to check out Box Elder’s link and see whether I need to plan a route there, too.

    1. @Juliann, good luck on your trip! I was not into birds until the RV trip, we visited some great parks with beautiful birds and I became a fan!

  18. I’ve seen some really interesting birds in Florida by it never occurred to me that birding could be a fun hobby! It looks like Utah has some amazing birds to see year-round, yet another reason for me to go back and see more! I only got a taste with Zion and have to return asap 🙂

    1. @Jen, oh my goodness, I saw so MANY amazing birds in Florida when I was there last October and November, there are so may beautiful ones, like the rosebill ibis!

  19. So many beautiful birds! I’m not sure I’m patience enough for birding though…

    1. @Allison, I hear you on the patience thing, that’s why I like to go to park that I have an overwhelming quantity of them, then I’m guaranteed to see some!

  20. Yeaaaaa someone please explain why that bird is named the white-faced ibis when I don’t see any white, haha!

  21. I love birds and really enjoy the challenge of photographing them — great article! This is a place I’d really like to visit — they have a broad range of species represented. I’ve always wanted to see a Trumpeter Swan — we don’t get them down here in the south.

    1. @Ann, until last year before I was traveling by RV I never really had much of an appreciation for birds, but after visiting some amazing parks and states, they are incredible!

  22. Alyce Poalillo says:

    This is amazing and wish I could spend more time birding. The lens is tremendous and nothing like what I have here in Vermont.

  23. Kimberly R says:

    Thanks for sharing, I love bird watching!

  24. kathy downey says:

    Those photo’s are amazing!I love birds!

  25. Calvin F. says:

    Tons of cool birds 😀