City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

May 9, 2017

May 6th

Wizards of the Canyon Soundscape

7:00 a.m. The entrance to the canyon along Bonneville Drive is closed today for one of the many social 5K runs that occur during the summer. This adds an extra mile jogging along the drive to reach Guardhouse Gate. As I start, the sun line is just beginning to descend the snow capped peaks of the western Qquirrh Mountains and the small sliver of the southern tip of the Great Salt Lake reflects slate blue. The clear western sky shows the last vestiges of dark slate band of the Earth’s shadow retreating from the sun. Along the first stretch of road there are many sage brush bushes that provide cover to chukars. I stop to pick and crush a bracket of this pungent bush to remind myself of what Utah smells like during the heat of summer. About one-half mile from the gate and around a bend, the canyon explodes with the sounds of stream and birds. Although hidden, a male Lazuli bunting peaks from behind some red maple leaves, singing loudly. His colors are muted, since he perches in early morning shadow of the canyon’s east ridge. The sound of the stream is overwhelming, and this indicates the vernal season’s heat is melting the high snowpack. At the gate, the parking lot is full, and includes the enormous truck of the wild turkey bow hunter (May 4th). I must have just missed the race organizer’s closing of the road.

Along the road, the grasses are now twelve to eighteen inches thick, and the first quarter-mile is nearing full leaf out. Near mile 0.3, I look up through the trees to the step slope above, and there a young female mule deer idly grazes on the new grass. I stop to watch and after some minutes, she takes notice of me, stares back, and knowing that it is not hunting season and she is in no immediate danger, she slow walks and disappears into the Gambel’s oak forest. A bird loudly chirps from a nearby tree, and I catch a fleeting glance of black, white and red-brown from below. It is probably a Rufus-sided towhee (Pipilo maculatus). I count about forty or bird separate birds calling the forest thickets in the first mile.

I am not a morning person, most of my daily observations are in the afternoon, and the morning spring canyon is a new place. The warm morning light crawls down the western ridge of the canyon, and makes the thick grasses of spring bathed in an inviting green light. Although it is a pleasant high fifties along the road, one can feel the advancing daytime heat in the seventies approaching. Between mile 0.5 and 1.0, large overhanging trees in partial leaf-out form a series of green tubes through which the rising south-eastern sun penetrates. The lighted end of these tubes with the darkened green leafed foregrounds reminds me of the religious ceiling paintings of European cathedrals. I am overwhelmed by the beauty of it all.

In this half-lit morning reflected light, the canyon has a different character. I have misjudged the Starry solomon’s seal. In the afternoon, I have found two or three open out of an estimated 20,000 plants (May 4th). This morning, most are open, and I easily count 200 open blossoms in the solomon grove surrounding the seep below picnic site 5. The number of active birds is astounding, and a multiple of several times over my afternoon encounters.

At the entrance to Pleasant Valley, I run into the Tracey Aviary sponsored birding, a course directed by and led today by aviary biologists Bryant Olsen and Cooper Farr. I am happy to find the group; I have followed their Cornell birding logs in the canyon for some years; and in the spring, they regularly return to the canyon. Other seasons draw them to other habitats. Traveling down canyon, there seven group members including the leaders, and their five students are a diverse group that range from their thirties to eighties. They allow me to tag along as they proceed down the Pipeline Trail for the one mile walk back to the parking lot. Since I have been frustrated for some years in identifying the thicket hidden birds by sound, and I hope to gain some insight into the process by watching and learning. I quickly learn that I am in the presence of masters. Many birding skills quickly become apparent that explain the large number of birds that they record each week in the Cornell University E-bird log system (Cornell Ornithology Laboratory 2016).

First, birding in groups greatly increases detection. I first encountered this in amateur astronomy. Looking for detail in nature, which involves rare events, is more likely with more eyeballs that can cover the whole sky. In addition to the chance of making a sighting, the ability to perceive rare events also differs greatly by both the ability to perceive and by the knowledge to understand what one is seeing or hearing. The seven of the birders stare intently towards a sound coming from a clump of leaves, and one or two of the seven will first detect the bird, and then direct the others to it. Seven sets of eyes scanning the sky’s dome catch fleeting glances of bird movements in opposite directions, and this greatly increases the number of exclamations that one or another of some species has been seen.

Second, time explains the groups many sightings. As we descend the trail, younger runners and bikers wisk by at six to fifteen miles per hour. They traverse the mile of Pipeline trail in five to ten minutes. When I was younger, I has one of these. They smile as they pass, confident in their belief that in their superiority that their youthful ability to exercise makes them the most important denizens of the canyon. My slow jogging takes twenty minutes, but the birding group takes about one and one-half hours to walk this mile. Perception and time are inversely related. The slow see more; much more. Chance visual sightings reveal common sightings such as the cliff-soaring Red-tailed hawks. In this way, the group quickly seeings a Peregrine falcon resting on the top of the western massif at the entrance to Pleasant Valley and a brood of cliff dwelling Violet-green swallow (Tachycineta thalassina) living nearby in the crumbling deposits of Van Horn and Crittenden’s Triassic conglomerate No 2. sandstone. Are these the peregrine’s prey? Peregrines prey on many of the plentiful birds and mammals in the canyon, including mallads, swallows, Mourning doves, Northern flickers, starlings, American robins, Black-billed magpies, American crow, hummingbirds, owls, mice and Rock squirrels. Thoreau used the Peregrine’s historical name – the duck hawk – and Audubon memorialized this predator-prey relationship in a noted 1827 oil painting (Audubon 1827). The peregrines are in turn fed upon by larger birds of prey like Bald eagles and Red-tailed hawks. The birding group has great interest in following the falcon back to its nest, since these birds, although removed from the United States endangered species list in 1999, remain popular and are known to raise young near Pleasant Valley.

Third, these are the wizards of the canyon’s bird soundscape. Raw knowledge, expertise, and practice allows the group to identify many birds by sound alone or first by sound and then by sight. A member will hear a call of interest, and all will stop intently listening while leaning in one direction; some cup hands around their ears. Someone will call out a name, there is a discussion, and then a final determination is made as to the species. Sometimes, this is accompanied by a pointing figure and the exclamation “There it is!”, and all binoculars are raised in unison. I humbly learn the calls of one or two common canyon residents, like the chirping of the Rufus-sided towhee, and can notice distinct obvious sounds, like the wing-beat of a passing Broad-tailed hummingbird (Selasphorus platycercus) and the obnoxious squawking of the Red-breasted nuthatch (Sitta canadensis). But the group’s ability to identify unseen colorful birds by sound alone is astounding. They hear a Green tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus), an Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata), and a Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana).

The group’s ability is distinguish between similar calls is uncanny. I have a particular interest in the rapid chirping call of the Rufous towhee. Later at home, I compare audio recordings and spectrographs of several species found along the trail that all include to my uneducated ears, subtle variations on a series of four to six rapid fire trill chirps, preceded or followed by two tones. The songs of the Rufous-sided towhee, the Green-tailed towhee, and Orange-crowned warbler, are all variations on a theme.

The group continues down the trail as the bright line of sunlight engulfs them. The celebrity bird of the afternoon are many Lazuli buntings. On the western brightly lit slopes, perching on a Gambel’s oak, several of these buntings are seen. They males are aflame in their cloaks of brilliant iridescent blue. Bryant notes that a bird’s coloring are the result of their feathers refracting sunlight. The explains why colorful birds have dulled colors in diffused light, but radiant colors in full sun. Near trail mile 0.5, a Black-chinned hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri) sits on a powerline and obligingly ignores the birders as they take photographs. In the last third of trail mile, the sun and temperature has risen, the birds are less active, and the group quickly exits back to the road. A mallard rests in the flood retention pond.

I point out the cliff nest site that I followed last spring near mile 1.0 (Dec. 9th, 40°48.227 N, 111°52.204 W), but only about one-half of the group can see the nest. I had previously thought it was built by Peregrine falcons or Cooper’s hawks, but Bryant notes I am mistaken. Peregrines and Cooper’s hawks do not build stick nests, he says, a point supported in literature (Utah Legacy Raptor 2011). A later search on the internet returns many photographs of peregrines nesting in nearly identical stick nests. A probably resolution of the difference is found elsewhere: peregrine falcons sometimes will take over the stick nests of other raptors like eagles (White et al 2002).

Comparing the group’s Cornell Ornithology Lab birding logs for the canyon since April 30th reveals the arrival of many small migratory song birds with the abrupt rise in temperatures and the arrival of the vernal season (April 29th and May 1st). Common canyon birds in their logs in April through May 6th include mallards, European starlings, American robins, House finches, Song sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-billed magpies, Mourning doves, Ravens, American crows, Red-tailed hawks, and Cooper’s hawks. New spring heat-seeking migrants that arrived just as the temperature switch tripped two or three days ago include the Peregrine falcons, Plumbeous vireo (Vireo plumbeus), Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus), Orange-crowned warbler, Yellow warbler, Virginia’s warbler, Chipping sparrow (Spizella passerina), Green-tailed towhee, the Western tanager (Piranga ludoviciana), Broad-tailed hummingbird (Archilochus alexandri), Black-chinned hummingbird, Lazuli bunting, the Lesser Goldfinch (Spinus psaltria). These new colorful arrivals have followed the north running heat wave from the southern states and Mexico for a thousand miles to this northern canyon, and now that they have arrived, their next tasks will be mating and beginning the construction of nests.

I ask a question about what some of the most common canyon birds eat. I am interested in not only the simple phenological list of what bird species arrives when (this is what Thoreau did), but also how the web of insects, plants, and birds link together. The aviary experts’ answers are general and unsatisfying. “Seeds” (there are none), “grass” (they have not developed grains), and “insects” (there are still few, given the newly higher temperatures). The same vague discussions are found in my various paper and internet birding guides. I have witnessed a few instances in which canyon birds actually eating something over an entire year. A scrub jay ate acorns in the fall (Oct. 6th); wild turkeys ate winter acorns (Dec. 29th); chickadees ate winter fruit; spring kingfishers fish along the ponds and stream, although I have never seen them catch anything (March 19, April 6, 11, and 18); in the mallards eat spring algae from the stream; hummingbirds and dragonflies feasted on summer gnats (August 1st and August 11th), and a few days later, cliff swallows gorged on the dragonflies (August 22nd). In the spring of 2015, two falcons ate a mouse. But what are they, in particular the new arrivals, eating now? After this morning with the soundscape wizards and a subsequent literature search, I am struck both about how much science knows about the birds and how little science knows about birds. All things cannot be known, and I suspect there is little grant money available to fully construct and quantify the ecological relationships of even close natural areas, since minerals, logs, and skiers only have economic value and iridescent sheen of the Lazuli buntings do not.

A lone mallard sleeps near the shore of the flood retention pond. Jogging out of the canyon, the social-cause, 5k fun-run has begun, and three or four-hundred joggers are going towards milepost 0.5, along the opposite western leg along Bonneville Drive. A loudspeaker blares out popular music. Groups of racing bicyclists stopped by the police to allow the race to pass joke about blindly coming around a curve into such a mass of humanity. Their focus on life is different from mine, and neither, as they go about their respective enjoyment of the canyon, will perceive the dazzling blue of the Lazuli buntings seen by the wizards of the canyon soundscape.

* * * *

Iridescence in birds is caused by both pigments and the refracting structure of their feathers (Doucet and Meadows 2009; Rajchard 2009), and many birds also perceive light, including the iridescent refraction, in the ultra-violet spectrum (id). The view that humans see of birds is not what they see of each other. The blue feathers of birds, like the Lazuli bunting, may be hint that a bird can see ultra-violet light (see Doucet and Meadows, S118). Falcons use the ultra-violet reflection of mole and mouse urine to determine the density of their mammalian prey in fields (Rajchard). Fruit seeking birds like crows better see mature fruits because the ripe fruit better reflect ultra-violet light (id). Blue tits switch to the ultra-violet spectrum to see insects against non-contrasting backgrounds (id). The iridescent patches also help birds to distinguish their sexes, just as human birders do, but in some birds, the ultra-violet spectrum of their iridescent patches enhance the sex difference of their pigments seen in the human visual spectrum (id). Another study suggests that in the ultra-violet spectrum, some birds find it easier to distinguish eggs (id). Iridescence can also be an indicator of fitness to breed. Male birds lose iridescence as they age and when they are sick (Doucet and Meadows, S120-S121).

The iridescent patches of birds involve a trade-off. Iridescent patches, like those of the front-chin of the Broad-tailed Hummingbird and the side-neck of the Black-chinned hummingbird seen today, may be more visible to their predators, but they are also more visible to their potential mates (Doucet and Meadows). To reduce the predation cost of these patches, some patches are directional. A bird living in a diffusely, dark lit forest can perch in a ray of sunlight and send a narrow beam “flash” to other members of its own species and to potential mates (id). Predators circling above will not see this visual chatter. Conversely, the bright Lazuli bunting simply shines like a beacon. What do the hawks and falcons circling above see of these beautiful song birds in the shorter-bands of light that we human birders are unaware of?

* * * *

On May 6th, 1899, work to replace the City Creek water main with a larger diameter pipe was underway (Salt Lake Herald), although a suit seeking an injunction against the construction had been filed. On May 6th, 1888, Z. Jacobs canvassed citizens for suggestions on how to increase the city’s water supply, including Fire Chief Ottinger (Salt Lake Herald). Jacobs argued against building a dam in City Creek Canyon, since failure of the dam would destroy the downtown (id).

April 11, 2017

April 10th

Time Limit

1:30 p.m. The canyon’s ridgeline retains a slight covering of snow, but it is heavier on Black Mountain and Scott’s Hill. The highest mountains on the Wasatch Front Range received two feet of new snow, but the gauge station at Louis Meadows has only a small uptick of one-inch in equivalent water precipitation, and this suggests at most two or three inches fell in upper City Creek Canyon. Some trees respond by covering the road with small broken twigs with leaves. Freezing overnight temperatures retain this snow, but the cool day is overwhelmed by the new bright sunlight of spring. Sunrise begins at six a.m. and sunset arrives at eight p.m., but it is the new height of the noon sun that gives spring its force. It is still unsuccessful at pushing back on winter’s control, but the tide turns in its favor. The noon-time light is simply so much more brighter than on vernal equinox almost three weeks ago. It almost hurts the eyes, and the intense light reminds that summer will eventually arrive. Under this light, what I had supposed was the over-wintering yellow fruit of the canyon’s ubiquitous poison ivy patches burst in small flowers. A single cultivar of purple grape hyacinth (Muscari armeniacum), which is common in the city, blossoms along the first mile road.

Yesterday, there was a large predator scat pile on the road. Predator wildlife scat is easily distinguished from the feces of domestic dogs that also frequent the road because predator scat is full of the fur of its mouse and squirrel prey. Predator scat also ends in a narrow tip, unlike the rounded ends of domestic dog scat. Given the size of the pile, it may have been deposited by a mountain lion. But today, as I leave the car at Guardhouse Gate parking lot, on the heavily traveled canyon road between Bonneville Drive and the lot, a coyote expertly bonds down a steep slope, crosses the stream, and bolts into the thicket on the far east side of the stream. Come to think of it, I have not seen two rock squirrels, first viewed in the parking lot about a week ago, for some days. From thickets on the side of the road, Black-billed magpies and other song birds are heard.

The coyote, rock squirrels, mice, and I share a common bond of all mammals as a result of our common genetic heritage. Our time in the canyon and on the Earth is limited by a pre-programmed number of heart beats: about one billion for most mammals and uniquely about 3 billion for humans. Like the canyon’s coyote, my time in the canyon a mortal limit. I only have at most 700,000,000 heart beats left to live and to see the canyon.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on April 10th, 1841, he remarks “How much virtue is there in simply seeing?” On April 10th, 1853, he notes that saxifrage is blooming.

* * * *

The hearts of mammals regardless of size beat between 1.29 and 0.17 billion times (mean: 0.73 +- 0.56) over their life (Levine 1997, Cook 2006). For humans, lifetime heart beats average about 3 billion (Cook). But adjusting for heart rate, body mass, and longevity, over a lifetime, the heart of a 2 gram mouse delivers the same amount of total oxygen per unit of mass as that of 100,000,000 gram blue whale (id). As the mass of mammals increase, their heart rate decreases and their longevity increases. The 2 gram mouse’s heart beats 500 times per minute, but the mouse only lives one year. A loin’s heart beats at about 50 times per minute, but it can live for sixty years. This well-defined log-linear relationship between resting heart rate and longevity varies systematically from the small (mouse, hamster, and rat) to the large mammals (horse, lion, and elephant), except for humans (id). Plotting the log of resting heart rate or metabolic energy per kilogram of mass against longevity for various mammals gives a nearly straight line (Atanasov 2007, Cook 2006), but the 3 billion beats of the human heart for 80 years of life sits as a distant outlier from the other mammals (Cook 2007). The 2 billion extra beats allotted humans, like our brains, sets us apart from other mammals. But for both humans and other mammals, the above suggests that at cellular level, there is a genetically pre-programmed length to all mammalian life.

It would wrong to conclude that human life can be extended by not exercising because the hearts of people who do not exercise will beat less. The relationship between a lower resting heart rate, general good health, and increasing longevity is well-known (Cook). For a person who does not exercise and has a resting heart rate of 90 beats per minute, their heart will beat about 3.8 billion times over eighty years. For a person who exercises for two hours per day at 110 beats per minute and who has a resting heart rate of 70, their heart will beat 3.1 billion times over eighty years, or about 80 percent of the effort of the non-exercising person. For high functioning athletes with resting heart rates of 50 beats per minute, their hearts will beat about 2.3 billion times in eighty years, or about 60 percent of the effort of the non-exercising person. For unknown reasons, ultra-fit humans, who have the lowest amount of body fat and the lowest body mass indices (BMI), have higher mortality rates similar to the obese and higher than the ordinarily fit of persons of normal weight (Lorenzini 2014). Lorenzini’s review should be read cautiously. Higher mortality of abnormally low-weight persons may be a cofounding artifact of terminally-ill patients losing weight as they expire. But the implications of exercise for not developing debilitating health problems after age 50 are self-evident, since the health of other organs depend on a healthy blood circulation provided by the heart. Among older men, exercise has a protective effect against developing cardio-vascular disease and thus, reduced general circulation and increased mortality (Kodama). This cardiac protective effect is known to be dose dependent amongst men with Type 2 diabetes (Church). More exercise provides more protection. This is only one physical benefit of several types of benefits from being actively connected to nature and the canyon.

* * * *

On April 10th, 2007, the AAA as part of its Great Battery Roundup program, pledges a $2 donation for City Creek Canyon Rehabilitation for every automobile battery delivered to the club (Salt Lake Tribune). On April 10th, 1927, Frank Robinson, a student from Coalville, won the annual marathon up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 10th, 1916, L.D.S. Church members held a running race up City Creek Canyon. Non-Mormons, called “gentiles” by the Mormons, held a separate race along the East Bench (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 10, 1911, Water Commissioner Frank Matthews announced that dogs will not longer be allowed in City Creek Canyon unless they are kept on a leash because dogs have been swimming in the water supply (Salt Lake Telegram, Salt Lake Tribune, April 11, 1911). On April 6th, 1906, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that “streams of people” went up City Creek for recreation by horse carriage, on foot, and by bicycle (Salt Lake Tribune). On April 10th, 1898, the Utah Forestry Association and the City made plans for the experimental planting 300 ash trees in moist areas of City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune).

April 6, 2017

April 5th

Filed under: Black-billed magpie, Mallard — canopus56 @ 8:14 pm

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – Part II – Preserving the Future

1:30 p.m. The insects try to rise again in response to a string of warm days, but the plants, both slumbering and those in early bloom, remain in stasis. There are ten to twelve small butterflies on the road. A pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) hide in the stream near the gate parking lot. Although I am screened by a thicket of understory branches, the alert male spots me watching him through a monocular, and he paddles to a hidden alcove under some exposed River birch roots. It is usual for one pair of mallards or ducks to nest and raise a brood in the stream. The stream is well-stocked with both moss and watercress. Near mile 0.3, a Black-billed magpie lands on branch such five feet from the road and at eye level. As I jog past, he remains nonplused at my presence, and this gives me an opportunity to appreciate the detail of its black, blue, white and green plumage. Its feathers, that are grouped in distinct regions, are immaculately clean even after the winter season, and this magpie looks more like a statute then living being.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on April 5th, 1854, he notes a white-bellied swallow, hawks, sparrows, and a butterfly. On April 5th, 1855, he sees a hen hawk, snipes, crows, robins, blackbirds, sparrows, and a white-bellied swallow.

* * * *

The 1986 City Creek Master Plan declared that the canyon should be managed such that undeveloped areas “should be maintained in their natural state . . .” (Salt Lake City Corp. 1986). In a 1992 open space plan, Salt Lake City managers and its residents envisaged a future in which City Creek Canyon, the Jordan River, and all other major parks that are associated with canyon mouths would be interconnected by bikeways like the Bonneville Shoreline Trail (Salt Lake City Corporation 1992). This is revived and updated version of missed opportunity of Rear Admiral Jason Henry Selwyn’s 1893 Emerald Parkway vision for Salt Lake (Jan. 21st). A second grand boulevard parkway system was implemented by the City in the early 1900s via a driving tour from Eagle Gate, up City Creek, and along 11th Avenue (then called Wasatch Boulevard), to Fort Douglas and then down 13th East to 13th South (Salt Lake Telegram, May 23, 1914; Salt Lake Herald June 28, 1905). The vision of the 1992 plan updates the grand boulevard idea with urban trail exercise amenities and modern ideas of eco-system island integrity by both connecting urban natural areas and purchasing valley winter forage wildlife refuges (id). In 2006, the Chamber of Commerce proposed a similar interconnected system (Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 29, 2006). The City’s 2006 acquisition of the Bonneville Shoreline Preserve near the Davis County line is an example of a winter wildlife refuge (Salt Lake City Corporation 2010b). Supporting land acquisition continues, e.g. 300 acres were purchased in and near City Creek in 2016 (Salt Lake Tribune, July 29, 2016).

In 2015 and 2016 on the county level, competing development and environmental preservation land use interests in the canyons have been worked through by a local county-level solution, a mountain stakeholder blue-ribbon commission. This resulted in a informal compromise document, the Wasatch Mountain Accord, that was signed by Utah’s Governor Gary Herbert, County Mayor Ben McAdams, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, major Salt Lake valley ski resorts, and local environmental groups including Carl Fisher of Save Our Canyons and Joan DeGorgio of the Nature Conservancy (Mountain Accord; Mountain Accord Final Report). The signatory list of the Accord reads like a “who’s who” of persons involved in both development and preservation issues in the Salt Lake valleys for the past thirty years. Utah Federal Representative Chaffetz introduced congressional legislation to implement some of the goals of the Accord (Deseret News, July 11, 2016), which include in exchange for title to 2,000 acres of federal land in the canyon, limiting ski resorts to their current boundaries. The Accord establishes planning goals to:

• Redesignate forest lands in the Salt Lake valley canyons as a National Conservation and Recreation Area;

• Preserve land, protect watersheds, and water resources;

• Improve and connect a regional trail system; and,

• Preserve back-country terrain; while,

• Improving transportation to existing ski resorts; and,

• Promoting sustainable tourism growth in the canyons.

By the Accord, the Salt Lake valley has been following the preservation path of other highly urbanized cities with large adjacent tracks of U.S. Forest lands. Following the lead of Frederick Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace plans from the late nineteenth century, those cities have consolidated U.S. Forests lands in national conservation recreation areas (Nevada’s Lake Mead National Recreation Area, San Francisco’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Cleveland’s Cuyahogua National Recreation Area, and Boston Harbor’s National Recreation Area) or national monuments (Los Angles’ San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014). In Utah, the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area also provides precedent. In a 1987 public comment, I suggested that the long-term fate of the Wasatch Tri-Canyon Area was to be converted into a National Conservation and Recreation Area, and the Accord’s objective is heartening result.

* * * *

On April 5th, 2009, Salt Lake City plans to hold a public meeting on its proposal to clear firebreaks along City Creek Road. On April 5th, 1995, the Steiner Corporation, the State Trails Fund and the City match grants to raise $140,000 to begin construction of the Bonneville Shoreline Trail between the University of Utah, City Creek and radio towers behind Ensign Peak in July 1996 (Salt Lake Tribune). On April 5, 1925, runners are preparing for an annual competition run up City Creek (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 5, 1906, City Street Superintendent J. T. Raleigh describes preparations for anticipated spring flooding downtown (Intermountain Republican). On April 5th, 1903, John H. Miller described his life in the Salt Lake Valley from the 1860s. His jobs included harvesting trees from City Creek, making adobe blocks at Popperton, and working on the Church Farm (Salt Lake Tribune). Miller gives a detailed account of lumbering in City Creek. On April 5, 1876, 40 tons of explosives stored at Arsenal Hill (now Capitol Hill), exploded, killed four people, and threw debris into City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune, October 20, 1996 and April 13, 1997; Deseret News, April 13, 1997).

March 2, 2017

March 2nd


2:00 p.m. Temperatures rise into the fifties. The snow and rain of the last few days has lost its hold on the city and in the canyon. A few inches of lingering snow covers the shaded canyon bottoms, but warm pre-spring sunlight dominates the air. At mile 1.1., the road is covered with mule deer scat. As the road warms during the day, deer herds like to congregate on the road at night in order to take advantage of the road’s radiant heat. Insects now respond more vigorously to spring’s new attempt to return. The Black-capped chickadee flock now centers on picnic site six, and a few Black-billed magpies venture higher up canyon. Between Guardhouse Gate and mile 1.1, I count fifty-one small stoneflies, whereas on previous warm days, only one or two could be found. The warmth draws the University’s bicycling team outside, and in close colorful group, they speed by up canyon.

Small trash is pervasive along the lower canyon road. Each day while jogging along the first two miles, I stoop to pick up three or four pieces of discarded paper, energy drink pack tops, hair bands, cigarette butts, sanitary wipes, bottle caps, plastic bottles, gloves, hats, ear rings, and similar ephemera of modern life. I am not a saint. I do this to selfishly preserve the natural aesthetic of my daily excursion, and also as exercise. I have become older and bending over and picking up items is a way to maintain flexibility. I estimate that over three years that I have picked up three or four 40 gallon bags of trash. I am far from the first to do this; keeping the canyon clean is a community effort. In 1997, Tony Cannon, a descendant of Mormon pioneers who logged 22,715 miles running in City Creek, was known for always leaving the canyon with armloads of trash (Salt Lake Tribune, April 23, 1997, May 12, 1998). Things have improved. Since the lower canyon is kept clean on a daily basis, the volume of discarded trash has declined noticeably. If occasional users find a more pristine canyon, they seem to be less inclined to deface it. One can only imagine what layers of plastic have been incorporated into the soil and thus the future geologic layers on either side of the road.

The current geologic epoch is called the Holocene, and it began about 11,000 years ago. Some researchers have proposed that a new geologic epoch be declared: the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is informally defined as epoch in which human impact on the environment, in terms of species extinction, modification of the chemistry of the biosphere, and pollution, has become so pronounced that its effects will be seen in stratigraphic layers by future geologists (Waters et al). In August 2016, the Working Group on the Anthropocene of the International Union of Geological Sciences recommended to the full congress that it officially adopt this epoch name (Carrington), but the congress has yet to vote on the matter.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 2nd, 1855, he notes that when viewed from a distance, young shoots at the tops of maple trees are red tinged. Compare Dec. 11th here. On March 2nd, 1856, he observes that birches have dropped their seeds in a high density. On March 2, 1858, he sees a large flock of buntings. On March 2, 1859 during a winter of heavy snow, he describes the bluebird’s song as the first premature harbinger of spring. On March 2, 1860, he notes the ground is without snow.

On March 2nd, 1910, with a crew of 150, Moran Construction began installation of a 5 foot conduit to carry City Creek underground through the business district (Salt Lake Tribune).

February 15, 2017

February 15th

Filed under: Black-billed magpie, Geology, Pollution — canopus56 @ 7:05 pm

Pleistocene Dream

External Link to Image

Source: Photograph of Utah Museum of Natural History Panorama by Frank De Courten. Reproduced in: Hintze, Geologic History of Utah, p. 188.

3:00 p.m.

Today, I hike not in the canyon, but to Ensign Peak, which is on the ridge between City Creek Canyon and Warms Springs on the valley floor. It overlooks the lower City Creek gorge and the grounds of the Utah State Capitol building. I am there to see how the Gambel’s oak forest on one flank of the peak recovered from a wildfire last summer (August 6th). The burned oak covers only about 100 by 100 feet and is disproportionate to the amount of smoke that I saw seen last autumn. The fire’s effect was to clean out accumulated leaf litter and brush under the oaks, thus opening the floor beneath the five foot tall scrub oaks to sunlight. Although their bases are blackened by the fire, the trees appear unharmed. Along the trail to the peak, there are the constant call of Black-billed magpies. The small valleys between Ensign Peak and the City Creek ridgeline is a refugee and breeding area for the magpies. They are not hunted here, and one allows me walk within twenty-five feet (rock throwing range), before it flies off. Reaching the peak about five-hundred feet above the valley floor, the inversion layer is well-developed and distinct. On the peak, my elevation is equal to the top of the smog bank. Later, via the internet, I look at photographs of the major cities of the world: New York City, Brasilia, London, Berlin, Moscow, Islamabad, New Dehli, Bejing, Hong Kong, Tokyo, etc. All are covered in thick layers of automobile pollution and seventy-four percent of the population of developed countries live in such cities. We are in the the Anthropocene, an informally defined but not officially recognized geologic epoch, in which humans have modified the planetary environment. Sometimes I dream what City Creek Canyon would have looked like 12,000 years ago before the end of the Pleistocene Epoch and the start of the current Holocene Era, when the first humans arrived.

I imagine that ancient humans looked down into the valley from this ancient peak and that they looked down into upper City Creek from shallow caves in the canyon’s walls near mile 1.0. The old Utah Museum of Natural History on President’s Circle of the University of Utah used to have a panorama of the imagined view from Capitol Hill looking northward during the Pleistocene (De Courten in Hintze at 188). The panorama is clearly shows Mt. Olympus, Big Cottonwood Twin Peaks and Lone Peak in the background, and the foreground is the current upper Avenues at the 11th Avenue Provo Shoreline. Some elements in the panorama are familiar extinct animals, e.g. the Wooly Mammoth and the Saber-toothed tiger. Other elements are familiar sights today: the coyote, the hawk, the Sage grouse, and the Sego lily. Missing from the panorama is lower City Creek Canyon below Bonneville Drive. That part of the canyon would not be carved out until the level of ancient Lake Bonneville precipitously dropped from its Provo Level Shoreline at 11th Avenue to its current elevation between 11,000 and 9,000 years ago. Also missing from the museum’s Pleistocene panorama are humans. Prior to 2016, the earliest evidence of human habitation in northern Utah was 9,000 years ago at Danger Cave, Tooele County, Utah (Jennings). The cave overlooked ancient shorelines of Lake Bonneville. Therefore, the omission of humans from the museum’s panorama was reasonable at the time of its painting. Twelve thousand years ago, the Clovis culture had arrived in North America and its marker, Clovis arrowhead points, have been found to the north of Salt Lake City in Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, to the south in New Mexico, and to the west in Texas, but there were no Clovis culture sites in Utah. In 2005, Utah’s first Clovis Point was found outside of Kanab, Utah (Havnes), and in July 2016, a Clovis culture fishing camp was found in Tooele County (Shaw). If the old panorama is repainted at the new museum, humans reasonably can be added in. Perhaps my Pleistocene dream did actually occur.

January 26, 2017

January 26th

Filed under: Black-billed magpie, Gambel's Oak, Sounds, Unidentified, Weather — canopus56 @ 10:35 pm

The White Tube Frozen

4:00 p.m. Throughout the morning, a light snow falls and this refreshes the snow on the trees in the canyon. It remains in the twenties during the night and into the day, and as a result, the snow that has accumulated on branches remains. The White Tube (Nov. 24th and 25th) has continued since last January 21st (“Snow Storm”) through today. In this regard, the January White Tube differs from its November counterpart. In November, the snow quickly melted raining water and slush droplets on the road’s walkers and runners. Now, the White Tube is frozen in time; nothing melts.

The canyon is extraordinarily quiet; there is no city rumble intruding into the canyon. There are only a few other walkers, runners and bicyclists. I find myself stopping every third-of-a-mile and just to listen to sounds. Every golden note from the stream is relatively loud and crisp. Where the road runs immediately adjacent to the stream and its spill-ponds, I stop and I am entranced by stream-song.

High on the south-east ridge at the entrance to Pleasant Valley, a group of Black-billed magpies have congregated in a Gambel’s oak copse. Although they are distant, their distinct profile with their long tails gives them away. Over this ridgeline copse, the silhouette of a large raptor appears. It is too far to identify, but the black shape suggests it is an eagle. It is traversing the canyon to the western ridge using continuous strong flaps to gain altitude. In contrast during the summer, great thermals effortlessly carrying the soaring raptors from ridge to ridge. A lone Northern flicker is heard in the woods. Unseen under the snowpack, squirrels and Rocky mountain deer mice lead hidden lives.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 26th, 1853, he observes that some snow drifts in regular spaced bands.

A letter to the editor of the Salt Lake Herald proposes two alternatives to the City Engineer’s proposal to spend $400,000 to buy up water rights in Big Cottonwood Canyon. First, was to build a reservoir in City Creek Canyon.

December 22, 2016

December 22nd

Filed under: Birds, Black-billed magpie, Microbes, Mountain Chickadee, Northern flicker, Robin — canopus56 @ 2:04 pm

Trophic Levels

11:00 a.m. It is cold and overcast again, but it has not rained or snowed for several days. The snow has condensed and lost two-thirds of its original volume. Between picnic sites 2 and 3, birds have congregated on flat lands near mile 0.3. A chorus of magpies, a flicker, a robin, and chickadees all call back and forth to one another. At mile 1.3, only magpie calls are heard.

Stripped of its distracting summer green and autumnal yellows, the canyon at winter rest is simplified, and its ecological layers are more easily seen. The first level consists of microscopic animals and prokaryotes above the surface, including as lichens and mosses (Dec. 6th), unseen microbes in the soil, and unseen microbes extending four kilometers below the surface (Baker 2016, Li-Hung Lin et al 2013) and within mammals and birds (Whittman 1999) represent a slightly less than the volume of biomass of visible plants above ground. In the second level, the productivity of plants dominates the visual landscape, in particular by Gambel’s oaks (August 30, August 31st). At the surface, the annual productivity is held in the layer of leaves underneath the snow, and that layer is primed with bacteria and fungi ready to turn the fallen leaves back into nutrients. In a third level, insects are probably the next most numerous and visible group in terms of size of zoomass, including gnats (August 11th, November 9th) and their predators, dragonflies (August 11th, August 29th). Finally, the small number of bird’s nests (Dec. 10th), deer (Oct. 23rd) and elk (Dec. 13th) seen in the canyon today attest to the small ratio of the mass of mammals and birds to the total mass of other living things in and beneath the canyon. That ratio may be as little as 1:1000 (Hartley 2010), but approximately 18 percent of plant biomass is consumed by animals each year (id.)

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 22nd, 1859, he observes watercress in the bottom of a stream. He notes empty chestnut burrs at the base of a tree where squirrels have collected, opened and removed the nut inside.

On December 22nd, 1883, Avenues’ homeowners held a mass meeting to oppose a plan by the newly incorporated Camp Douglas Railway Company to build a railroad from Red Butte Canyon for the purpose of hauling mined sandstone. The railroad was proposed to run along 4th Avenue, down into City Creek Canyon, and then to a railroad depot (Salt Lake Herald). At that time, the resident’s domestic water was not pumped into homes, but was drawn from public ditches that ran in front of their homes. They were concerned that the railroad would pollute their aqueduct water, endanger the foundations of their homes, be too noisy, present a traffic hazard for residents who then traveled mostly by foot, and was simply too large for the road’s width.

December 21, 2016

December 20th

The Canyon at Rest

12:00 pm and 5:00 p.m. It is the last day of Fall, and tomorrow the tilt of the Earth keeps the canyon furthest from the life giving Sun for the longest part of the day. Nature in the canyon is in a deep sleep. The trees are still; all natural sounds are silent. The air is warmer today, but not enough that snow and ice on the trees melts. Sun warmed ice melded with tree branches expands slightly and then breaks away. Instead of raining droplets as with the last storm, today trees rain tiny chunks of ice. There are two places in the lower shaded canyon where the stream freezes over. The first is the perpetually shaded bend between picnic sites 7 and 8. There the stream is completely frozen over for several hundred feet; the stream is milky white and stone-like. The second is between the up canyon end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.8 to milepost 2.0. There the stream is eighty percent frozen over. At Bonneville Drive, about twenty percent of the surface of the flood retention ponds is frozen. At mile 1.3, where animal tracks make impressions that are kept partially in shadow, half-inch hoarfrost crystals sublimate, but then evaporate in the warmer late afternoon air. Although the canyon looks dead, the irrepressible force of life continues.

Lichens and mosses respond to the wet cold and grow both on the trees and on rocks in the stream. Digging some leaves up from underneath the snow, some show signs of the beginning of bacterial decay, but mostly the leaf litter and the microbes are dormant, waiting for spring’s explosion. At the surface, data by Whitman, Coleman and Wiebe at the University of Georgia suggests that there are about 3.5 x 10^15 microbes per square meter in woodlands and shrublands and about microbes 5.7 x 10^13 in each square meter of deciduous forests (Whitman 1998, Table 2). In 1995, Richter and Markewitz estimated that there were about 1.1 x 10^12 bacteria and fungal microbes in each gram of soil at the surface (Fig. 3a), and their density decreases to about 4.1 x 10^7 at 8 meters beneath the surface. In 2014, Raynaud and Nunan found an average of 8.9 x 10^9 microbes in the top 0.6 meters of each gram of agricultural field soil (Table 1).

But life does not stop there. Whitman et al also estimated that between 10 meters to 3,000 meters below the surface, there were on the order of 10^6 prokaryotes per cubic centimeter. They made an order of magnitude estimate that in a cubic centimeter column going from the surface down to 4 kilometers, there are a total of about 2.2 x 10^30 prokaryotes (id., 6579). But life exists even further down in the subsurface column beneath the canyon’s surface. In 2006, Li-Hung Lin, et al. discovered Archean microbes living at 2.8 kilometers beneath the Earth’s surface in a South African gold mile, and those microbes were genetically related to Archean microbes living the Yellowstone Hot Springs a few hundred miles north of the canyon. These subsurface microbes may comprise a substantial fraction of biomass in the canyon. Whitman et al estimated a wide first-order ratio of the mass of subsurface prokaryote carbon to plant surface carbon at 60% to 100% (id., at 6580).

I stand at the surface in the canyon, I and am part of this scene. In 2013, Bianconi et al estimated the number of cells in the human body at 37 trillion. In a 2016, Sender, Fuchs and Milo at the Weiztmann Institute for Science in Israel, revised estimates of the total number of cells in the human body and the number of microbes that inhabit each of us. They found that along with the approximately 3.8 x 10^13 (38 trillion) human cells in a 70 kilogram person, another 3.0 x 10^13 foreign microbes live (cooperatively but sometimes uncooperatively) within us or about 44% of the total (3.0/(3.0+3.8)). Because of the exponential power of these estimates, the 10^13 cells, both human and parasitic cell in me, are a minuscule portion of of 10^30 prokaryotes that are in just one 4 kilometer deep column of soil that is one centimeter square. Subtracting my 10^13 cells, there are still 9.999999…. x 10^29 prokaryotes under each square centimeter of subsurface. I measure the bottom of one of my shoes and find conservatively guess there are about 450 square centimeters in the soles of my feet.

Around and above me, even the air above the road contains some levels of bacteria, fungi, and pollen as part of the daily PM10 daily air particle count. In 2009, Wiedinmyer and colleagues counted on average 3.5 particles of DNA containing material per cubic centimeter of air collected from a mountain summit in the Rocky Mountains (Table 1) or about 3.5 million particles per cubic meter of air. Whitman et al estimated that there were about 1.8 x 10^21 microbes in each cubic meter of air from the surface up to 3 kilometers (id., 6580 reporting 5 x 10^19 per cfu). This continues into the high upper atmosphere. In 2013, DeLeon-Rodriguez and her colleagues at the University of Georgia and NASA found 5,100 cells per cubic meter in samples taken from air 10 kilometers above the surface of the Caribbean ocean.

Microbes also dominate the stream’s bedrock. In that aquatic environment, deep blue-green algae grows in thick mats, and at the stream’s edges, large mats of watercress thrive in the freezing water. Although no trout are seen in the lower canyon stream; they move upstream and a group of about fifteen congregate just below an old water head gate at mile 2.8. At the stream’s edge, horsetails are still green, and this indicates that photosynthesis is still occurring despite the cold.

At the retention ponds, a male-female pair of mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) rest. The female is in the sleep position with her head laying on her back. The males feeds on the algae on the pond’s bottom. At picnic site 2, there is a small unidentified sparrow that is not a European sparrow. Further up the canyon, near picnic site 3, there is a Belted kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)! No avid birder will probably believe this, since this kingfisher is far out of its winter range, and I am unable to take a photograph of it. I first had a fleeting view of this bird on December 7th at the south end of the circle where the Pleasant Valley reservoir once stood. Then it was too far away to see clearly. Today, I am able to watch it for several minutes at the top of a snag about 100 feet away. Then the bird sees me, spooks, and flies down canyon to another snag, and again I am able to catch up and watch it closely for another few minutes. At picnic site 4, I am greeted by a flock of mountain chickadees, and they sit in several trees calling back to each other. Below picnic site 5, a flock of six Black-hooded juncos feed and preen themselves on a red osier dogwood bush. The coldest winter makes some birds more tolerant of humans, and I am able to stand directly next to the bush and about four feet from juncos. They grab a piece of snow-ice from clumps of shriveled white berries that still cling to the tree. They eat part of the ice and then dip the rest into their feathers to clean themselves. Then they try to eat the sour fruit of the dogwood (see Nov. 6th), but most of the fruit seems to drop to the ground and not into their beaks. I again see an unidentified raptor that patrols the lower canyon just before twilight. At mile 1.3, a magpie can be heard in the distance. A series of tracks in the snow tell of two birds that had landed on two adjacent rocks that stick up out of the snow. They then hopped across the snow for about 20 feet.

At mile 1.0, high on the western ridgeline, a single anterless elk digs through the snow to green grass underneath. And, in the early morning hours as I am returning home on other business, two mule deer that are refugees from the canyon are grazing a few hundred feet from my urban front door. As for humans in the canyon, there is myself and about twenty other walkers, runners, and bicyclists.

In short, the canyon is asleep, but life cannot be stopped. Life can be attenuated from its peak productivity (August 31st), and today, like sunlight, life in the canyon is at its nadir.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 20th, 1851, he observes a high-flying hawk that is patrolling for prey. He lists the colors of the winter landscape: red, white, green, and brown. On December 20, 1854, he feels that the winter sun has more relative warmth on his skin than the summer sun.

November 26, 2016

November 26th

The White Tube is Gone

3:30 p.m. In the city, it again reaches into the fifties, and in the canyon at mile 1.1, the white tube (Nov. 24th) has melted, and the trees are again brown. With less water from snow fed water drops, the lichen on tree trunks have lost their bright green luster and are again becoming a dull orange-brown. It is a holiday weekend, and during the two hours on the lower two miles of the road that I am traverse, I count 91 unique persons.

The canyon is still cold and brisk at mile 1.1, but as I exit into the Pleasant Valley meadow at mile 1.2, the temperature rises by fifteen degrees. The air is quite warm. This is the breeze catching the air heated by sun-soaking grass on the north-west slope. Earlier in the day, this warm air must have penetrated to the narrows at mile 1.1 and melted the white tube. It being warmer, the deer are not driven into the lower canyon and are not seen at the usual winter grazing places high on the canyon ridgeline.

The Sun begins to fall behind the south-east ridge as I reach the second meadow at mile 2.1, and there I hear my first bird of the day: a distant chickadee. Going down canyon at the Pleasant Valley meadow at mile 1.3, the Sun, which is now much more southerly than a month ago, sets behind the south-eastern ridge instead of the north-western ridge. Here, the second bird, a lone Black-billed magpie patrols this open space.

Because the Sun is setting more southerly and behind the south-east ridge, as it sets, the road is in shade, but a shaft of light runs up the canyon and illuminates the north-western canyon wall and half of the meadow. Suddenly, a flock of fifty birds follows this shaft of light up the canyon and lands on the Gambel’s oaks higher up the canyon wall and about four hundred feet away. They are too far to identify, even through my monocular, but they have dark colored wings and white underbellies. The Sun is at its lowest, and the brown meadows and hillside are bathed in a yellow luminescent glow. After resting for a couple of minutes, the flock of fifty alights in unison, and slowly ascend to about one-hundred and fifty feet above the canyon the floor. As their wings flap, their lighter underbellies are exposed, and the yellow sunlight brightly reflects off the belly down. As they fly, the fifty birds flash like yellow beacons against the darkening blue sky, but are far more pleasing than any man-made object. The flock rallies and returns to their flight up-canyon and some unknown destination. As this first flock leaves, a second flock of fifteen stragglers arrives from down-canyon, and this second flock repeats the process. They land in the same oaks; rest; and after two or three minutes, resume their up canyon flight. It is special time.

As I about to exit the canyon at mile 0.1, I turn and look up canyon. All is darkness and grey, and there is no hint of, but only a remembrance of, rising birds bathed in a yellow glow.

It is now 7:30 p.m., and another winter storm front is approaching the valley.

November 21, 2016

November 21st

The Oaks put on Green Coats

Noon. It has been raining overnight and this morning, but the air remains warm. Usually, I associate moss on the trees with thick mats that adhere to the north sides of pines in the upper canyon beyond milepost 5.0. During the summer, except for stream side, there is not enough moisture in the air to support either moss or lichens. But the lower canyon today proves my impressions wrong. The sides of the trunks of Gambel’s oaks and horizontal branches have become soaked with snow melt and rain water. Trunks which had previously been a uniform grey, now are covered in the green of mosses and lichens. One some oaks, the lichen has a light green color that is luminescent against the dark tree trunk. Just beyond milepost 1.5, the interior of a copse of Gambel’s oak reveals, now that its leaves are gone, a large horizontal branch that is covered with thick mat of moss. The summer leaves provided a protected moist environment against the harsh mid-year sun. From along Bonneville drive up to mile 2.0, all of the Gambel’s oaks have come alive with green trunks.

At mile 0.4, a three inch long Leopard slug, also known as the Great grey slug, (Limax maximus) is slowly inches its way across the road. The last third of the grey body near the head is covered with large black blotches, hence the “leopard” name. This is another invasive species, originally from Europe. The rain has wetted the road, and this allows the slug to migrate across this summer barrier.

At Guardhouse Gate, today’s single insect, is a miniature unidentified spider hanging from the guardhouse’s community posting board. While picking up trash left from a beer party at Guardhouse Gate picnic area, I notice what appears to be a House wren (Troglodytes aedon) hiding at the base of a dogwood tree next to the stream. This identification must be wrong. The Rock wren is out of season and it is in the wrong habitat. At mile 1.1, a single Black-billed magpie hides in the center of an oak copse.

A bow-hunter walking up the road informs me that mule deer browse inside the Gambel’s oak copses for acorns. They do not eat the dry grass in the meadow, but they will graze on the green shoots at each grass clump’s base.

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