birding

Over a hundred species of birds might be found in the Cutler Marsh. Here's an easy way to think about them:

Dabblers
Divers
Field Birds
Gulls
Raptors and Owls
Skulkers
Swallows
V Flyers
Waders
Colony Nesters
Everywhere Birds

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Dabblers
Over twenty species of ducks either nest in or migrate through Cutler Marsh. One sub-family of ducks is characterized by a distinctive feeding pattern - they dabble. That is to say, they rock forward to thrust their head below the water to grab plants or invertebrates, while their posterior bobs straight up in the air. Their down gives them warmth but so much floatation that they would have trouble diving below the surface. Common dabbler duck species that nest in the Cutler Marsh include Green-winged Teal, Mallard, Northern Pintail, Cinnamon Teal, Northern Shoveler, Gadwall, Redhead, American Widgeon.
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Divers
Some waterfowl will dive below the surface for plants and invertebrates, or to hunt fish. The diving ducks in Cutler Marsh include some of the most striking in plumage, the Bufflehead and Ruddy Duck (which also nests here), as well as more drab birds such as the Lesser Scaup. Other diving water birds are not technically ducks, such as the American Coot, which has only lobes of webbing on the side of its toes that folds back when it swings it feet forward and flares out for the powerful backward stroke. Other divers include the grebes, such as the Clark's and the Western Grebes that are very similar in appearance and have been known to interbreed.

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Field birds
Not all of Cutler's birds will be seen on the marsh itself. Some species make use of the wetlands and fields around the marsh, where they hunt for soft plants and insects. The Sandhill Crane is the largest of these, with some individuals over four feet high. The Cattle Egret is a small, white heron typically found feeding on invertebrates disturbed by the feet of cattle. If you look closely at those long-billed black or purplish-black birds with a glossy sheen feeding in standing water in nearby fields, you'll find the White-faced Ibis actually do have a white face. But you have to look VERY closely. Killdeer are another bird of the margins of Cutler Marsh. Ubiquitous in Cache Valley, they lay their eggs among the cobbles and gravel. Get too close, and they fly off a short distance feigning injury to distract you from finding the nest. Not to worry, even when you know just where the nest is, the eggs are so well camouflaged that they're almost impossible to find.

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Gulls
There are no "seagulls" really, but there ARE lots of species of gulls and terns in Utah. Four that are very common to the Cutler Marsh include Ring-billed and California Gulls with large white heads, and the smaller Franklin's Gull with a black head. Very similar in appearance to gulls are the terns, hovering above the water and diving down to snag a small fish. The most common species in Cutler Marsh is the Forster's Tern, but look carefully, because we do see Black Terns sometimes in migration, and their color is very distinctive.

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Raptors and Owls
The most common raptor of the marsh used to be called the Marsh Hawk, whose name has since been changed to the Northern Harrier. This bird flies low over the cattails with wings flapping slowly and occasionally gliding with wings set in a "V" and a white rump patch. Note its disk-like face, similar to that of an owl, which enables it to hear movements of its favorite prey, the meadow vole. On finding one, the harrier dives, unfeathered feet first, into the grasses. Watch it -- did it come up with anything? Other common soaring hawks (Buteos) include the Red-tailed Hawk year round, and the Swainson's Hawk in summer. In winter, we have Rough-legged Hawks, which migrate from far northern Canada looking for "warmer" weather! Is that hawk flying fast with stiff, powerful wing beats? Look closely, because it could be a Peregrine Falcon. We've been seeing more of these in the last few years. Our most common falcon, however, is seen year round, a small bird sometimes hovering above the fields looking for mice. It has a beautiful coloration and a bold, black moustache: look for the American Kestrel.

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Skulkers
Some of the birds in Cutler Marsh are difficult to see. They hide amongst the reeds and cattails, and in some cases, their plumage has evolved to look so much like their surroundings that even when they're "right there" you can't see them. Fortunately, we can hear them, especially in the breeding season of May-July. Listen in the late evenings for the "pump, pump, pump-a-lunk´" of the American Bittern. The Sora calls its own name and laughs: "sor-uh´ sor-uh´ sor-uh´ heeheeheehee". The Virginia Rail sounds like two stones clacking together (a nasal sounding cack, cack-cack, cack-cack). Another hard to see bird is actually a warbler, the Common Yellowthroat. Common, alright, but just try to see one! You can hear it, though, in the early mornings - a whistling "witchity, witchity, witchity".

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Swallows
Masters of the wind, swallows zip to and fro, and with huge gapes and small hair-like feathers around the mouth, they snag flying insects on the wing. Cache County has six species of swallows, but two are to be found nesting on the bridges in Cutler Marsh. The nests with no tops belong to the Barn Swallows. (Barn Swallows have pitchfork-like tails, and who needs a roof in a barn, anyway?) The gourd-like nests with openings out the bottoms are made by Cliff Swallows (look for a cream-colored patch on their foreheads "from where they bonk into cliffs" - just kidding, but it is a good way to remember).

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V Flyers
Some species fly in formations, each individual taking advantage of the draft behind the wings of the bird ahead. This is especially pronounced in the fall migration, but even in summer, you'll see large flocks of American White Pelican, White-faced Ibis, Canada Goose, and Sandhill Cranes. Look carefully, though, for mixed in with all those ho-hum common Canada Geese could be a white Snow Goose or Ross' Goose. "Anything can happen in migration."

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Waders
Marshes are "made for" wading birds. Great Blue Herons, and Snowy Egrets are looking for small fish. Note the yellow feet on the Snowy Egret, and if you watch quietly, you'll see it walking slowly, alert to movement and then suddenly stabbing the water to catch small fish lured to its yellow feet, which were wriggling in the mud like "bait". Other waders include shorebirds, which search down through the mud flats for different species of aquatic insects and invertebrates. Common to Cutler Marsh are the Black-necked Stilt, American Avocet, Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs in migration, and always, the drab-looking (until it raises its black-and-white wings, that is) Willet.

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Colony nesters
Special to Cutler Marsh are nesting colonies of several species. These birds nest together we suppose for safety. But who's to say that they don't share information on particularly fruitful hunting grounds? To the south, near Mendon Road, is a Great Blue Heron rookery, first documented in the 1940's in a master's thesis (Leatham, L. J. 1947. A study of a heron nesting colony. M.S. thesis, Utah State University, Logan, Utah) and recently found to contain over 70 nests. North of Valley View Highway and on the eastern edge of the marsh are colonies of White-faced Ibis, Franklin's Gulls, and both Snowy and Cattle Egrets. See the maps for locations of these rookeries, but please don't go near them from April 1 through late June, as they won't tolerate disturbance and might abandon the sites if they feel threatened.

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Everywhere birds
Some species are found throughout the marsh. Black-capped Chickadees, Marsh Wrens, Song Sparrows, and Red-winged Blackbirds are usually present year round. Summer time brings back the Yellow-headed Blackbird (what IS that yellow headed blackbird called?) and the Yellow Warbler.

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Don't just settle for these photos, though.  Get out there and see for yourself!

More information on birds & birding

More information on local birding spots

Canoeing in Cutler Marsh | Hiking in Cutler Marsh | Birding in Cutler Marsh
Dabblerbirds | Diverbirds | Gullbirds | Raptors | Skulkers | Swallows | Waders | Colony | Everywhere
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