City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

September 29, 2016

September 29th

Filed under: Cricket, Northern flicker, People, Sounds, Stream — canopus56 @ 8:53 pm

The Sounds of Solitude

Noon at mile 0.5. Stream bubbles with random plonks and trickles. Crickets make a relaxing, rhythmic pulsation. Wind ebbs and flows through the trees, and it dislodges leaves that silently fall to the road. Wind whistles through spokes as a bicycle whizzes by. Crackling noises as leave are underfoot. Voices of couples walking and talking makes its own musical rhythm. Muffled footsteps of runners. A sole Northern flicker (Colaptes auratus) makes a plaintive cry seeking its mate. Joy ensues, and I seek out clumps of leaves just to listen to their crackling sounds as I sluff through them.

One of the most enjoyable experiences when jogging or walking in the canyon is the sounds. My favorite sounds come from the stream combined with the rhythmic pulse of the crickets. Today, both are loud because the stream is running higher from recent rain and the crickets now dominate canyon insect life. These sounds form a relaxing, meditative white noise. These sounds make jogging in the canyon a form of moving zen meditation.

The purpose of zen and other forms of mediation is discrimination, i.e. – the discrimination of the mind from the world, thus, freeing consciousness to fully appreciate the world as it is and not as the mind distorts it. Some choose to consider this as a religious and others as a psychological practice. However it is viewed, the experience of walking and jogging in the canyon is about quieting the mind and enjoying the natural surroundings. It is not about note-taking, observing, and writing about it.

At the portion of the road between mile 1.7 and 2.0, the stream makes the best noise. Here, the stream is immediately next to the road and is fast moving, but it has cut deep into a ravine that is in perpetual shadow. The plonk sound of water as it travels from pool to pool is particularly crisp and deep as it echos of the stream’s walls. At the coldest of winter and for just one week, this is the only part of the stream in the entire canyon that completely freezes over.

Paul Simon in his classic folk song the “Sounds of Silence” reminds us to occasionally be still and to look inward. The canyon produces sounds of solitude that also remind me to be still.


September 28, 2016

September 28th

Filed under: Insects, Meadow Mile 1.3, People, Places, Pleasant Valley, Sunflower, Uncategorized, Wasp — canopus56 @ 8:00 pm

Iridescent Wasps

2:00 p.m. The last of the sunflowers in Pleasant Valley are giving out, and a just a few remain at the natural gas check-value in Pleasant Valley at mile 1.3 across from picnic site 11. I check them for pollinators. One is surrounded by a swarm of about 10 micro wasps. They are less than one-quarter of an inch long and are steely dark blue green. Their thoraxes and heads are iridescent, and their wings are brown-black. They are definitely not flys, as they have discernible stingers. They are not the same micro-wasps seen back on August 9th. Those had yellow banding on their thoraxes while these are completely black. I am unable to identify these wasps, nor have I seen them before in the canyon.

In the canyon on this warm fall afternoon, there are two groups, lead by graduate teaching assistants, of university biology seniors studying plant systematics (University of Utah BIO 5435). They carefully go through each plant along the roadside and discuss its scientific name. These are the real current and future experts on classifying life in the canyon.

Late in the evening, another storm front moves in, and a cold rain falls.

September 27th

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Insects, Picnic site 9, Uncategorized, wasps — canopus56 @ 1:21 am

Some Hornets Tell a Bald-Faced Lie

2:00 p.m. Identifying insects is tough for an amateur. I always struggle with it. There are so many types of species and so many varieties of each insect, and for bees and wasps, each species may also look different depending on their role as queen, solider, or worker. No one book or online database can cover them all, and this makes classifying an insect seen in the canyon a difficult and time-consuming task. As an example, there is a wasp nest at mile 1.2, picnic site 9 (see September 16th) and, it is populated by a jet-black wasp with a yellow-tipped abdomen (see August 20th). Hornets are wasps that live in large social communities, that is in nests. The nest at picnic site 9 appears to have been built by Bald-faced Hornets (Vespula maculata). After standing in front of the nest with my monocular fixed on the nest entrance for a few minutes, I am able to see the characteristic white face markings of its inhabitants that classify this as a nest of Bald-faced hornets.

I still am unsure if these are the same wasps that I saw on August 20th. Those had yellow tips, but were jet-black and did not have the characteristic white markings found on the face of the Bald-faced Hornet. Were those earlier wasps just an immature phase of or a special worker class of the Bald-faced Hornet, or were they a completely different wasp specie? There are jet-black wasps such as cricket hunter wasps, and the meadow at mile 1.3 is full of crickets. But cricket hunting wasps generally are solitary, build underground nests, and do not have yellow tips. For now, I just continue to describe those earlier jet-black wasps with yellow tips as “unidentified”.

September 26, 2016

September 26th

Just a Short Walk

4:00 p.m. Just a short walk between the Guardhouse gate at mile 0.0 and along the first quarter mile, individual variation in leaf turning within tree species can be seen. Today, in the parking lot at Guardhouse gate are several large horsechestnut trees, and as noted on September 23, their leaves are turning brown at the edges. But a short distance away at picnic site 1, there is another large chestnut tree that experienced the same cold weather, but it remains completely green. Similarly, just past the gatehouse, there is a large, apex narrow leaf cottonwood tree, but 200 yards up canyon, there are two immature cottonwood trees that have completely turned a bright yellow. Within the first 50 yards of the gatehouse, there is a Box Elder tree that has almost completely turned and one that has only begun to turn.

There is some type of ordered distribution to this seeming randomness. I pull out my field note pad, and I am tempted to record a list of road positions, type tree, and percent of leaves turned. I have made such lists in the past for birds and animals in the canyon. But I remind myself that I am here for solitude and not to start another project, and the notebook is put away.

Along the first mile, gnats have returned, but at a lower density, and so their predators, the dragonflies, have also returned. But the dragonfly population is now counted by the tens and not by the hundreds as before the cold overnight weather. The waterskimmers are completely gone from their pool at picnic site 5.

September 25th

Filed under: Box Elder Tree, Gambel's Oak, picnic site 2, Uncategorized — canopus56 @ 7:05 pm

Leaves Redux

5:30 p.m. The cold has clarified which trees will turn next: Box Elder trees and the River birches. The Gambel’s oaks have slowed their leaf turning, now that the canyon is warm again. The leaves of both the Box Elder trees and the river birches turn in a similar fashion: instead of entire clumps turning at once, green and yellow leaves are distributed randomly and uniformly about the branches. As noted on September 23rd, this gives these trees a pale-light green hue. River or water birch is a common tree along the stream bottom; its grey-silver trunks grow in clumps. An exemplar water birch is found at picnic site 2, and its silver trunks are covered with short, tan horizontal lines that are perpendicular to each trunk. It looks like an organic version of Morris code. What are the birches trying to telegraph us?

September 24, 2016

September 24th


4:00 p.m. In the afternoon, the storm moves on, the clouds become broken, the air warms, and where the broken clouds create windows, beams of sunlight illuminates individual trees into beacons of color. Which part of the canyon and which tree is featured changes constantly. After an hour, the broken clouds end, the sky clears, and the canyon is bathed in the soft sunlight of Fall. The The ground dwelling crickets seem unaffected by the storm, but only the hardiest individuals of each type of flying insect is out, and this makes it a day of ones. I see exactly one of the entire cast of flying insect characters that are common to the canyon: one gnat, one dragonfly, one red-rumped central bumble bee, one white cabbage butterfly, and one jet black wasp with yellow-tipped tail. Five hundred feet above, a lone raptor that is to far to away to identify soars. As a finish my jog, the lowest part of the canyon is much warmer, and more gnats have returned. It will take a few days of warm weather for the flying insects to fully recover.

Because of the fall colors and because the canyon will be closed to public automobile traffic for six months in another week, city residents have turned out for automobile touring. I stop counting after the fiftieth car has passed. This annual automobile closure restricts the canyon only to pedestrians, bicyclists, and an occasional hunter, and during its winter sleep, the closure allows the canyon to recover.

September 23, 2016

September 23rd

Contrasts in Color

5:30 p.m. Yesterday’s storm and cold continues through most of today, and it still rains during this afternoon’s jog. The storm is driven by a low pressure system that has stopped directly over Salt Lake City and the canyon. The clouds that soaked me last night have had time to travel around the circular storm track, and I feel same clouds that soaked me last night have returned for another try.

Some trees respond immediately to the rain and cold. River or water birches (Betula accidentalis H.) turn a bright yellow almost overnight. At the guardhouse gate at mile 0.0, the horsechestnut trees begin to turn. Their leaves become brown around the fringes and the color works towards the center of each leaf. The Gambel’s oaks have begun to turn in response to the cold. When they turn, the leaves go directly to a shriveled tan color.

The rain and diffused overcast light emphasizes the brightest color leaves, and the canyon is a study in color contrasts. The deepest red comes from western poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) and a chokecherry tree hidden behind a clump of Gambel’s oaks at picnic site 10. At that location, a sole Box Elder tree has also half turned, and with one-half green and one-half yellow leaves, the tree stands out with a bright light green hue. The brightest red-orange comes from a few select maples. A light blue and light purple are found in a few remaining roadside weeds, including some tansyasters. The brightest yellows come from two immature narrow leaf cottonwood trees and clumps of dried milkweed stalks. Most larger cottonwoods have not yet begun to turn.

It rains continuously through the night and into the half of the next day.


September 22nd, Fall

Filed under: Bicyclist, Light, Meadow Mile 1.3, People, Pleasant Valley, Runners, Smells, Weather — canopus56 @ 10:31 am

I am Happy that I am Happy Jogging in the Dark

7:30 p.m. First day of Fall. It’s been raining on and off for most of the day and evening in the Canyon, the storm clouds are formed solid layer about 1,500 feet above the valley floor. This just touches the ridge lines on either side of the canyon at the meadow at Mile 1.3, and beneath the cloud bottoms, a light dusting of snow can be seen on Little Twin Peaks.

This is a typical storm for the last week of September. After a dry summer, a low cloud layer backs up against Wasatch Front mountains , and great bolts of lightening travel horizontally between clouds. Generally, the lightning is silent but occasionally, the flash is followed by loud “crack”. It is not uncommon for these storms to begin in the evening and to last all night. Lightning in the early hours of the morning often wakes the city up or when lightening hits an electrical line, it plunges portions of the city Into darkness for a few hours.

These early fall storms are a harbinger of the winter to come. In a wet year, these storms can last up to 10 days. In a wet year, these heavy early storms blanket the high Wasatch mountains with snow, and young hard-core backcountry skiers, eager to prove their manhood by putting themselves against nature, race to the highest peaks in order to claim the informal prize of laying “first tracks” in this season’s snow. But in a drought year, and this is a drought year, these storms last one or two days, and then are followed by a couple of days of sunshine. By the first week of October, the storms end, and the weather again becomes warm. But around the first day of November, an early winter grips northern Utah. Then over two or three-days, temperatures will drop 30 degrees, and overnight sub-freezing temperatures will be the norm until next March.

Tonight it has become dark, and while I jog through the storm protected by my rain poncho, after a lightning flash, a very heavy downfall ensues. The air is tinged with a sharp clean scent of winter. Under the running poncho, I am dry but my shoes are wet. Although dark, the road is still well lit. The city lights reflect off below clouds, and the road is covered in a mirror like surface of rain. This surface reflects the light coming off the bottom of the clouds, and so seeing is not difficult. This is a special form of light known to most Salt Lake City residents: light reflected off the streets at night during and just after a storm where the air is thick with moisture. The effect is caught in the Salt Lake Cityscapes of a local artist, Kathryn Horne. The sound of raindrops hitting my poncho and the ebb and flow of the wind through the trees makes for a meditative and relaxing jog, notwithstanding the cold and wet. Last night at this same spot in Pleasant Valley of the canyon, crickets roared in unison with a loud song, but with tonight’s pounding rain, all insect and animal life huddle in silence under the woodland canopy.

Lest you think that I’m crazy, I am not alone. Another runner zips by. He in his seventies and although he is more than ten years my senior, he still runs two or three times faster than I can ever hope to ever jog. A mountain biker also passes. At the mouth of the canyon, three runners stand next to their cars, who are dressed in light running clothes, talk to one another as if the downpour does not exist. Their clothes are drenched, but they are grinning.

I mean the following with no sense of animus or superiority over my fellow members of our modern consumer society, but I am happy that I am happy jogging in the dark and in the rain. Although I am dry under my poncho, my shoes are wet. I am happy that I am happy not doing what I would otherwise be doing: sitting in the steel white light of a computer or television screen watching the just released season of new entertainment shows. A marketing t-shirt currently popular among young people expresses a similar sentiment: “Just shut up and run.”

It is 11 o’clock p.m. when I finally get around to a dinner of hot stew, and it is still raining heavily outside. The earlier wet run and the continuing rain makes the stew taste all that much better. Tonight, fierce Winter made its first assault on gentle Summer, and for a time it seemed like Winter would overwhelm Summer’s defenses. But just and kind Autumn intervenes, she raises her sword, and she deters Winter for another month. But Winter will return and will prevail. By jogging in the dark, I will be ready for his return already adapted for the cold and with a strong , welcoming heart.


September 22, 2016

September 21st

Filed under: Astronomy, Box Elder Tree, Cottonwood tree, Maple tree, Plants, River birch, Seasons, Tree — canopus56 @ 2:24 pm

Summer Ends and Fall Begins When?

6:00 p.m. Last day of astronomical summer. It is a dry, cool, wonderful end-of-summer day. Spurred on by the change of seasons, this evening, the lower canyon is full of strolling couples enjoying the annual display of colorful Fall leaves. On August 31st, I concluded that the canyon had peak plant productivity, and on September 13th, I noted that the maximum of the annual turning of leave colors had been reached. Today, almost all of the maples have completely turned, and on a gross level, the annual display is well past its maximum. But there will be another peak of leaves changing color in the future because the date of peak leaf-change is not monolithic.

The time when tree leaves change color varies between different tree types and within the same species, between differing trees based on their location. Soil and water availability varies the times at which the tree’s internal genetics turns the celluar switches on that tell an individual tree to go to sleep for six months. The primary tree of the lower canyon’s woodland is Gambel’s oak, and those oaks are still green and leafy. The cottonwood trees also still have their leaves, and their branches hang heavy with ripe catkins of the cottonwoods’ helicopter-like seeds. Amongst the Gambel’s oaks, most of their leaves show signs of heat stress: the borders of the leaves were turned brown and curled by the summer Sun, but the interior of the leaves are a healthy green. In the first third of a mile, a few individual Gambel’s oaks have turned red-orange. At mile 1.7, a small group has also turned color. Otherwise, these oaks are still green. River birches in the first third of a mile are still a leafy green, but above that point, the leafs of all river birches have turned.

There will be another peak in the changing of the leaves: the one that occurs when the Gambel’s oak and cottonwood trees change color.

Although it is astronomically the last day of summer, when fall starts has, like civil twilight, has a commonplace definition. When Fall starts is commonly determined from when the leaves of most trees have changed color. While jogging here on August 27th, as I passed a strolling couple, the woman said, “I love the canyon during the Fall,” although on that date astronomical fall was more than three weeks away, and on that date most of the leaves has changed color.

The astronomical division of Summer and Fall is not useful local indicator. This is because there is a lag between the date of solstices and equinoxes and the time of maximum and average temperatures that varies by latitude. For example, at the equator, the date of maximum temperature and the date of the summer solstice coincide, but at this Salt Lake City canyon at 40 North latitude, the date of maximum temperatures was in August, about three or four weeks after the date of maximum sunlight on the July 22nd summer solstice. Similarly, the effects of astronomical Fall that begins tomorrow will not be fully felt into mid-October, and the stretch of coldest over-night lows does not happen until early January, a couple of weeks after the winter solstice.

When do we perceive that summer ends and fall begin? Is it when most leaves have changed last week? Is it when the Earth reaches a particular point in its annual orbit at the end of today? Is it when the last predominate tree, like our Gambel’s oaks, change color, in in two more weeks?

September 21, 2016

September 20th

Filed under: Astronomy, Colors, Light, Seasons, Twilight — canopus56 @ 3:10 am


7:45 p.m. It is dusk. Twilight is becoming shorter as compared to its longest duration in the summer. In our scientific age, these things have precise astronomical definitions. Civil twilight is the time between when the upper limb of the Sun first disappears below the horizon and when the Sun is 6 degrees below the horizon. Astronomical twilight is when the Sun’s disk falls below 12 degrees of the horizon. But such things also have older commonplace and more human definitions. Civil twilight is the time after sunset that one can comfortably read a book. Astronomical twilight is when the Sun’s rays reflecting off the upper atmosphere no longer obscure stars. After that time, the maximum number of stars are visible to the naked eye until the next morning. In Salt Lake City at the vernal equinox in March, the duration of civil twilight is about 28 minutes. At the summer solstice it increases to about 34 minutes. At the autumnal equinox which occurs on September 22nd, twilight again shortens to 27 minutes and then increases to 33 minutes at the winter solstice. But our perception of the change in the duration of twilight is overwhelmed by the more rapid and larger change in the length of days as the seasons change. Between the summer and winter solstices, the length of the days varies by 8 hours, and changes by 3 or 4 minutes per day.

Our lighted cities make us insensitive to the length of civil twilight because we no longer sit reading at dusk, and we do not go through a ritual that governed the lives of people for the previous 5,000 years: lighting a candle as it becomes too dark to read. In the canyon, one can reconnect with these changes in light. Tonight in the canyon, the twilight sky turns from blue to subtle shades of purple, blue gray and slate gray. Between civil and astronomical twilight the canyon grows quiet.

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