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Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

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Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Melissa Mayntz

The Bottom Line

While at first glance a visit to the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge may seem unassuming, the further birders travel along the auto tour route the more impressive the birding becomes. The loop may be small compared to the refuge's size, but dozens of species can be easily seen. During migration and breeding seasons, the fantastic flocks are an unbelievable sight that can awe even the most experienced birder, and the refuge's outstanding reputation as a birding hotspot is well deserved.


  • Convenient location close to I-15.
  • Superb education center for refuge orientation, updated bird lists and maps.
  • Wide range of species in a small tour area provides highly productive birding.


  • Majority of refuge closed to public access.


  • Name: Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
  • Location: Northern Utah, west of Brigham City
  • Size: 74,000 acres (116 square miles)
  • Hours: Daylight only (Education center hours vary)
  • Fees: N/A
  • Suggested Birding Time: 3-6 hours (Education center not included)

Guide Review - Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge

Where the Bear River meets the Great Salt Lake in northern Utah, birders will find one of the hottest birding spots in the western United States – Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. The 74,000-acre refuge covers the largest freshwater marsh area of the Great Salt Lake and is at the convergence of the Pacific and Central migration flyways, making it a vital stopover for migrating birds that forage in the shallow water, mudflats, marshes and adjacent grasslands.

Established in 1928, the refuge was initially dedicated only to waterfowl preservation, but the habitat diversity soon demonstrated its importance for all migratory birds. Spring, summer and fall – May through September – are the refuge's best birding seasons, when those migrating birds are congregating in tremendous flocks. The refuge hosts a wide range of winter residents as well, however, and birders in every season can appreciate the changing diversity of the local avifauna.

When visiting Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, an initial stop at the James V. Hansen Wildlife Education Center is highly recommended. The center's superb exhibits provide an orientation and introduction to the refuge's history, ecology and birds, and visiting birders can pick up refuge checklists and maps. A small birding trail is also available through the wetland at the center, giving birders a good start to birding on the refuge.

The main body of the refuge is closed to public access to serve its purpose as undisturbed bird habitat, but a 12-mile auto tour loop near the center of the refuge features wide, level gravel roads that travel through different types of habitat and provide exceptional bird watching opportunities. Multiple parking areas with interpretive signs are found along the route, and restrooms and a picnic pavilion are available at the entry point of the auto tour loop.

Birders planning an extensive visit to the refuge should be equipped with sunscreen and insect repellant, as well as plenty of water and snacks if desired. During spring and summer, small non-biting midges can be pesky but are not harmful. Spotting scopes can be useful, though birding binoculars are adequate for much of the tour loop and at the education center.

More than 200 bird species have been recorded at Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and depending on the season visiting birders can expect to see immense flocks of tundra swans, American avocets, black-necked stilts, American white pelicans, white-faced ibises, Wilson's phalaropes and many different types of ducks and other waterfowl. Other birds frequently found on the refuge include snowy plovers, black terns, short-eared owls, sage thrashers and Brewer's sparrows.

With diverse birds every season, the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge is an ideal birding hotspot to see many western birds and seasonal migrants. With an excellent education center and a well maintained auto tour loop, this refuge is highly recommended for both novice and experienced birders to enjoy.

As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary services for review purposes. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.
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