Find the Marker
The Juab County marker is in front of the Daughters of Utah Pioneers Museum at 4 S Main Street in Nephi. It highlights Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, roughly three hours west in Dugway.
Utah is for the birds. Not only does our state boast a broad diversity of avians that dwell here year round, but millions of birds pass through every year along their migratory routes. And while the Great Salt Lake is one of the most famous spots for traveling birds, our state is dotted with others – like Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in the West Desert.
While the western portion of Utah is often thought of as very dry and very harsh, there are wetlands that have come to be critical stops for migrating birds. The area established as Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in 1959 is one of these. That’s because birds have long used this place as a stopover along the Pacific Flyway – a major north-south route for birds that runs from Alaska to Patagonia.
The water that feeds the marshes here – about 10,000 of the refuge’s 17,992 acres – doesn’t come from the sky, but underground. Fish Springs is fed by underwater spring flows that are pushed up to the surface through underground pressure, seeping through cracks in the rock. That feeds the landscape with over 22,000 acre-feet of water a year (the amount of water that covers an acre to the depth of one foot). The occasional rains in areas around the refuge help to refill the underground water source.
That water set the stage for how Fish Springs got its name. When settlers started to use this drenched area as a desert stopping point, they noticed fish in the marsh waters that were more than six inches long. How did the fish get there, when there aren’t rivers and lakes that feed into the marshes? The most likely explanation is that the fish are the descendants of those that once swam in Lake Bonneville. As Lake Bonneville shrank, only pockets remained. Some parts, like the Great Salt Lake, became extremely salty and hostile to life, while others remained a source of freshwater refreshment.
While other western travelers have made good use of the water here – from the Pony Express to the Lincoln Highway – birds have truly come to rely on this swampy spot. Over 290 species of birds have been seen in the refuge, such as black-crowned night herons, white-faced ibis, snowy egrets, and American bitterns. Depending on what time of year you visit, you might momentarily forget that you’re in the middle of the desert given all the waterfowl and shorebirds strutting around! But even a trip in winter will give you plenty to see – horned larks are common birds that are often seen along the refuge’s roadsides.
Want to Go Farther?
Go on a hike in the refuge, and bring binoculars to look out for wildlife! Pick up a bird checklist at the refuge to keep track of the species you see.