Utah provides a diverse range of habitats that makes it an important destination for birders. You can observe lots of different bird species in a single visit as the state includes many environments from hot deserts to conifer forests. There are lots of birding hotspots in Utah due to being the home to some of the most impressive national parks in the US. If you wish to explore the millions of acres of natural habitats of Utah in the search for birds, make sure you don’t miss the following highlight species.
Before embarking on a new birding trip, you should remember to grab some essential equipment to improve your experience. Here are our top recommendations:
- Folding Pocket Guide
Even as an experienced birder, it’s safe to say that you will often run into unfamiliar or hard-to-recognize bird species. Field guides can be practical in that regard but light travelers can appreciate more a folding pocket guide. This practical pamphlet for Utah birds shows you all the essential species in the state in a beautifully illustrated format for convenient identification.
- Camera Backpack
Most birdwatching enthusiasts make use of high-performance cameras to capture great shots of the observed birds. When traveling in tough environmental conditions, it’s very important to ensure adequate protection for your delicate DSLR and all the associated accessories. Instead of a regular unreliable model, consider getting a waterproof backpack with an integrated hard shell cover designed for efficient camera storage and durable protection.
- Handheld GPS
The GPS feature on your smartphone can suffice for most casual birding adventures. If you plan on exploring some more remote areas for extended periods of time, it’s worth investing in a dedicated handheld GPS like the Garmin eTrex 22x. With the help of this kind of device, you can avoid getting lost and also benefit from a long-lasting battery life for your peace of mind.
1. White-Faced Ibis
With an elegant dark red plumage and metallic green wings, the white-faced ibis is quite a sight to behold. This shorebird has a fairly important presence in the state of Utah. Your best bet for finding it is near the Great Salt Lake. Various marshy regions in northern Utah can act as good habitats for the white-faced ibis. The bird can be easily confused with the glossy ibis that looks very similar except for the lack of a white border in the eye area.
2. Snow Goose
Snow geese are very abundant throughout North America. You can find large flocks of these noisy birds visiting Utah during the winter migration period. While the majority of snow geese feature a completely white plumage with some black patches, there’s a rare blue morph that’s worth searching for. It can be identified quite easily as the sooty gray appearance of this goose will stand out in a sea of white birds. Adult blue morph snow geese generally have white feathers only on their heads.
3. Snowy Plover
The barren grounds and lakeshores of Utah can provide the ideal living conditions for the snowy plover. This bird is experiencing a decline in its population in recent years. It can be more challenging to find it unless you thoroughly explore beach and marsh environments. The Great Salt Lake in Utah is one good place to start as it’s one important breeding ground for the snowy plover. This bird is small with a sandy appearance that gives it good camouflaging abilities. You can recognize a breeding adult by its black markings on the head and neck.
4. Golden Eagle
Birders looking for spectacular raptors shouldn’t miss the golden eagle. This majestic bird resides permanently in many parts of Utah. You can admire its gleaming feathers and agile profile as well as the strong talons and beak used to hunt mammal prey. Golden eagles are solitary raptors and aren’t very easy to see despite being widespread in the western US. The reason for that is the bird’s preference for large, open locations that are often more remote. Get a powerful pair of binoculars to see soaring golden eagles in their full glory.
One fascinating bird to watch in Utah, the chukar accommodated very well in rocky canyons and scrub deserts of western US. It’s a native bird from Asia that has been introduced successfully so now it’s a year-round resident in dry country. Chukars are game birds with a fairly exotic look considering the bold stripes on the sides of their bodies. Adults feature a round head marked with a dark band in the eye area. It contrasts quite strongly with the red bill. Due to these characteristics, chukars are quite distinctive. Keep in mind that this is a very wary bird so it can be hard to get a good look from a small distance.
6. American Dipper
Adventuring close to rivers and streams in Utah can be a good idea as a birder. You might be able to spot various species like the American dipper. This is a chunky bird that can be considered unique on the continent as it’s an aquatic songbird. American dippers can be found year-round in Utah where they hunt for food in the water. The bird lacks flashy coloration but it’s worth seeking to get a good look at its energetic foraging behavior.
7. Ferruginous Hawk
A regal-looking bird of prey with a rich rusty and white plumage, the ferruginous hawk can be encountered primarily in southwestern and northeastern parts of Utah where it resides permanently. In the rest of the state, the ferruginous hawk spreads during the breeding season in the summer. These powerful raptors hunt in prairies, deserts, and various open grasslands. Spotting a ferruginous hawk can be quite easy considering the pale look of the bird that stands out when it’s soaring or perching. The distinctive silhouette can help eliminate the confusion with other hawks.
8. Greater Sage-Grouse
The greater sage-grouse is a stunning attraction for birders visiting Utah. It puts an impressive performance during the mating season when males fan their pointy tails and inflate bulbous air sacs. The sagebrush plains in the western US offer the only suitable living habitat for this game bird. Unless you visit a lek that’s open to the public, it’s extremely difficult to observe the greater sage-grouse’s beautiful display. Outside the breeding season, adult birds look like speckled chubby grouses. Males are a bit more distinctive with a white breast and yellow eyebrow patch.
9. Northern Pygmy-Owl
While there are lots of interesting owl species to see in Utah, they’re usually all harder to see than the northern pygmy-owl. It’s easy to see why considering how this bird can be active during the day as well. This is a small owl with a particular appetite for songbirds. It usually lives in mountainous forests where it sits patiently to surprise prey. Some typical characteristics of a northern pygmy-owl include the smoothly rounded heads and long tails. It resides year-round in Utah and can be found more effectively by listening for its high-pitched toots.
10. Clark’s Nutcracker
Another bird that you can encounter during mountainous forest expeditions, the Clark’s nutcracker is a tough corvid that sometimes visits campsites. This bird prefers higher elevations in the summer so it’s recommended to search for it in the winter when it moves to lower altitudes. Recognizing the Clark’s nutcracker can be done quite easily by checking for a dagger-like bill and gray plumage with black wings. The outer tail feathers are white so that’s a distinctive detail that can be observed during the bird’s flight.
11. Red-Naped Sapsucker
Red-naped sapsuckers are industrious bark foragers that are often heard before they’re seen. The bird is known for its harsh cry and typical stuttered drumming sounds made in the search for sugary sap. This woodpecker is very active in the initial stages of its breeding season. Utah is a good place to see them if you visit the state in the summer. Seek red-naped sapsuckers in aspen and pine forests. Pay attention to sap wells that could indicate the presence of the woodpecker. It can be differentiated from other sapsucker species by its bright red patch on the head.
12. Mountain Bluebird
With a sparkling cerulean appearance, the mountain bluebird adds a colorful touch to the mountain meadows of Utah in the summer. Only the male bird has the distinctive sky-blue plumage while the females show a gray-brown look with slight tinges of blue. Assuming you’re looking through the right open woodland habitats, finding a mountain bluebird is a simple task. This is because these birds are not afraid of humans and tend to perch in multiple conspicuous places. Utah residents should consider investing in a nest box. Mountain bluebirds are known to use them frequently.
13. Wilson’s Phalarope
Here’s a beautiful shorebird that can be spotted in Utah. The Wilson’s phalarope relies on salty lakes when it comes to its breeding grounds. Large flocks show up in northern parts of the state during the summer as they’re attracted to marshes and shallow wetlands. As opposed to other bird species, the female is more colorful compared to the male. Breeding Wilson’s phalaropes show off warm orange and rusty plumage tones. Their legs are quite long while the bills resemble the look of a needle.
14. Tundra Swan
Utah birders will be delighted to observe these elegant swans. As you can expect from the name, this bird prefers tundra habitats and nests in Arctic regions. The wintering range of the tundra swan extends to northern Utah. Birds travel in large flocks and can be recognized easily by the characteristic whistling sound produced by their wings. Identifying a tundra swan visually can be done by checking for elegant white plumage and a black bill. Some birds show a small yellow patch in the bill area.
15. Black Rosy-Finch
A rare discovery in the northern mountains of Utah, the colorful black rosy-finch is sought by many birders visiting the state. This alpine finch has a dark brown appearance overall with some prominent tinges of rosy pink on its wings. The yellow bill becomes black in the breeding season while the bird’s brown plumage turns to a darker black. You’re not very likely to find this bird during its breeding season considering how it nests in inaccessible cliffs and crevices. Your best bet is to go looking for the black rosy-finch in the winter when it makes its way to lower altitudes.
16. Green-Tailed Towhee
Aptly named considering the deep olive tail and wing edges, the green-tailed towhee is a typical summer guest in Utah. Together with the reddish crown, the bird’s green-yellow accents make its gray body stand out. This towhee species spends most of its time in shrubby mountainsides and sagebrush plains. It’s often foraging under dense vegetation so it can take some extra effort to find it. Green-tailed towhees are secretive birds so it could pay off to listen closely for the male’s ascending mew call.
17. Violet-Green Swallow
Violet-green swallows are quite widespread in Utah where they prefer mountain canyon habitats. As their name suggests, these birds offer a mix of violet and green plumage colors that are handy for visual identification. The violet-green swallow is an aerial insectivore that’s best observed during the summer. It winters in Mexico and Central America. It’s recommended to search for this bird along rivers or lakes as well as any other area with abundant flying insects. You will be rewarded by many acrobatic stunts performed by the swallow.
18. Juniper Titmouse
Although it’s a fairly plain gray bird, the juniper titmouse has an interesting scratchy chatter that adds some life to the preferred pinyon-juniper woodland environment. Birders shouldn’t overlook this bird as it can show off some impressive behavior patterns. It will sometimes dangle upside down from branches and perform other skillful acrobatics. Juniper titmice are not hard to spot considering how they forage conspicuously. These birds can be encountered year-round in Utah but it’s recommended to look for them in late spring to improve the odds of finding it.
19. Prairie Falcon
Visiting Utah represents a smart decision if you’re focusing on seeing the powerful raptors of the West. This state is home to the prairie falcon that glides above wide grasslands looking for animal prey. The bird is a permanent resident in Utah and can be usually found in the open spaces lacking any trees. This falcon species is quite large and features dark feathers in the “armpit” zones. It’s otherwise pretty indistinguishable from other similarly looking falcons. Considering how prairie falcons don’t stay perched a lot, you’ll most likely see the bird during flying when it glides close to the ground.
20. California Gull
Even though it’s named after another state, the California gull is the official state bird of Utah. This gull’s year-round range extends to parts of the state with lakes and marshes, mostly the northern regions. You can find this bird species together with other gulls when it’s far from the colony. California gulls visit Utah during migration and can be encountered in urban areas as well. Whereas breeding adults have a white head, nonbreeding birds show a streaked appearance. Both types feature yellow legs and a red tinge on their bills.
21. Broad-Tailed Hummingbird
Very widespread in the summer period, the broad-tailed hummingbird boasts a rose-magenta throat that makes it an eye-catching appearance anywhere. This hummingbird breeds in high mountain meadows. It can be difficult to spot in its natural environment but you can rely on the metallic trills to guide you to its more precise location. Broad-tailed hummingbirds visit feeders within its range. It can be a spectacular sight to see an adult male bird performing dives to attract a female. You can usually follow this hummingbird more effectively without the binoculars.
22. Western Tanager
With a flamelike look, the western tanager is a common sight in Utah if you visit conifer forests in the summer. The bird prefers more open woods but it doesn’t sit in particularly conspicuous locations. Finding it will often require more effort than a simple visual search. The tanager spends a lot of time in the dense canopy so it’s recommended to listen for its short, burry song and characteristic call notes for a precise discovery. Keep in mind that only males show the distinctive red head while females have a slightly darker yellow appearance.
23. Sage Thrasher
A summer trip to Utah gives birders a great opportunity to find many interesting species. Exploring sagebrush steppe areas can reward you with the sight of a sage thrasher. As opposed to other thrasher species, this bird is very small. It vaguely resembles the look of a mockingbird but there are a few striking differences. Most notably, the sage thrasher has various spots on its body and its plumage is browner. Males are fairly industrious singers and produce call notes that are very similar to red-winged blackbirds.
24. Gambel’s Quail
Shrubby or thorny habitats in Utah are great to explore if you wish to see the Gambel’s quail. This bird is adapted for the desert regions in the south of the state. It can be easily confused with the California quail but the Gambel’s species shows a black belly patch that can help separate them. This game bird forages on the ground. Both males and females have a plump appearance and a bobbing black knot of feathers but the male bird stands out more with its cinnamon-brown crown.
25. Plumbeous Vireo
The plumbeous vireo is a summer guest in Utah. It’s a mostly gray bird known for its pleasant song. You can spot a plumbeous vireo in dry pine forests quite easily. Proper identification of the bird can be done by looking for a thick bill and the white border of the eye. The upper parts of the plumbeous vireo are gray while the underparts show off white feathers. The specific gray tone of this bird earned it the name “plumbeous” that’s derived from the Latin word for lead.
26. Steller’s Jay
Steller’s jays are very widespread in the state of Utah so you can easily admire their colorful plumage and jaunty crest. Birders can usually discover this bird in evergreen forests in mountainous regions but the Steller’s jay can often visit human-populated areas, including backyards or campsites. These birds prefer spending most of their time in the high canopy of trees. It’s recommended to listen for the harsh calls of the jay to detect it more effectively in dense forests. Steller’s jays have graceful flying patterns and stand out visually due to the blue lower body that contrasts with the dark charcoal crest.
27. Clark’s Grebe
Not a particularly common sight, the Clark’s grebe lives in freshwater marshes where it shows an elegant black-and-white plumage. This bird can be found in Utah only during the summer period when it visits marshy lakes for breeding. The Clark’s grebe is quite an attractive find for any birder. Some of the most distinctive qualities are the sinuous neck, black crown, and vibrant orange bill. One reason why this can be considered a highly-sought bird is its elaborate courtship display that reminds of ballet performances.
28. Canyon Wren
Despite its size, the small canyon wren boasts sweet and powerful singing with multiple whistle-like sounds. True to its name, this bird lives in rocky habitats and other dry areas. Canyon wrens are very agile birds, always searching for insects in crevices or on the ground. In terms of visual appearance, this wren can be identified by its rusty brown overall plumage. The long tail shows a cinnamon hue while the wings are patterned with barring. The stocky-chested bird is a permanent resident of Utah.
29. Virginia Rail
Here’s another bird that can be seen in the marshes of Utah. The Virginia rail blends very effectively among dense vegetation but you can discover its location by simply listening for distinctive loud calls. This bird has a reddish bill and a gray cheek. You can recognize it by noting the chickenlike profile and the way it tends to walk with a cocked tail. Virginia rails are fairly widespread in Utah in the summer but the impenetrable habitat and secretive nature of the birds can still make it tough for birders to spot.
30. Mountain Chickadee
Exploring the evergreen forests of Utah can offer the best opportunity to encounter a mountain chickadee. This is a tiny bird with a long tail and a black cap. A bold white stripe marks the head of the chickadee in the eyebrow area. Mixed flocks of small birds can often contain this species. The mountain chickadee has a characteristic call that will help with the identification. It’s a fairly easy bird to find but keep in mind that it prefers higher elevation areas.