City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

April 19, 2017

April 18th

Filed under: Bicyclist, Colors, Kingfisher, Plants, Starry solomon's seal, Unidentified — canopus56 @ 2:47 pm

Yellow and White Flowers

4:00 p.m. In the first mile, all trees that are not oaks seem to have bloomed, and perhaps ten Gambel’s oaks along the road have bloomed up to mile 0.3. It rained during the day, and the canyon is full of the smells not of winter earth but of green spring leaves. The wind and rain have parts of the road with rotting bunches of inflorescences. These are something of a mystery because they appear to be River birch blossoms, but the deposits on the road are about two hundred feet from the nearest River birch tree. There are no other potential sources nearby. Could the wind have carried them that far? A small roadside bush has opened quarter-inch yellow flowers, and they are tube shaped at the bottom but open into five radiating petals. The small corn-like herbs mentioned yesterday have opened tiny – just a few millimeter – white flowers also with five petals. Because of their size, these are easy to miss. You have to walk up to the stalks and closely look into the top most set of leaves. They are Starry solomon’s seal (Maianthemum stellatum). The entrance to the possible burrow mentioned yesterday has fresh dry dirt knocked out over rain soaked soil. Something lives there, and as I turn away from watching the burrow, a Rock squirrel darts across the road. Just before exiting the canyon, a lone Kingfisher is again sitting on the high powerlines stretched across the canyon, making its staccato calls. It is cold, windy, and wet, but I may be misinterpreting the Kingfisher’s raucous, annoying voice as complaining. This is its type of weather and to the bird’s ears, the song may be joyous.

The parking lot is nearly empty, and I realize how with the spring rush on the canyon, solitude had gone. Today, I hear only my own footsteps as jog along the road. As I exit the canyon, a hard rain starts to fall over a quiet, empty canyon. A few signs left along Bonneville Boulevard announce the upcoming April 22nd running of the Salt Lake City Marathon along 11th Avenue and down the lower City Creek Canyon to Memory Grove.

* * * *

On April 18th, 1920, the annual City Creek canyon running competition was rescheduled due to weather (Salt Lake Herald).

On April 18th, 2009, Mayor Ralph Becker placed the City’s proposed creation of firebreaks along City Creek Canyon Road on hold due to public opposition (Salt Lake Tribune). On April 18th, 1925, the Salt Lake Telegram in an editorial approved of city plans to widen the road in City Creek Canyon by the use of prison labor. The Telegram stated, in part, that:

“City Creek is more than a motorists’ retreat . . . Few cities in the county are blessed with a natural park such as City Creek Canyon . . . It should not only prove a magnet for our own people, but an irresistible summer attraction for visitors and tourists passing through the city.”

On April 18, 1909, the Intermountain Republican noted that homes were filling up the Avenues from 11th Avenue to Brigham Street (South Temple), and the paper supported building a bridge across City Creek near Eight or Ninth Avenue. On April 18, 1908, city commissioners approved widening City Creek Road using prison labor (Intermountain Republican, Salt Lake Telegram). On April 18, 1900, the Salt Lake Herald described the use of prison labor in making the road up City Creek. The article is accompanied by racist caricatures of a Chinese prisoner and degrading depictions of older men no longer fit for employment who had been arrested for vagrancy. On April 18, 1876, part of the City Creek Road gave way under five young men walking in the canyon (Salt Lake Tribune).

April 11, 2017

April 11th

Queen Bee

4:00 p.m. Below picnic site 6, an aging tree has toppled, but this was not from high winds. The amount of rain from the last storm was so large that the soil around the tree, which sat on the inclined road bank, failed, and the entire tree slide down the slope. This has occurred before for several large cottonwood trees. Either they fall across the road, are removed, and leaves a scalloped mark on the road bank or their bleaches trunks fall against their neighbor. They rest there for many decades until wind and insects take them away. Near mile 0.2, a two foot by four foot by three foot segment of the side-bed of the road has broken away and fallen into the stream, and the stream bank is reduced to two feet from the road. This is geologic erosion in real time. To erode the both sides of the stream bank of the first mile two feet back and ten feet down to the stream bed would take about 35,000 such events.

Jogging up canyon, a kingfisher that flies by also traveling higher, and he alights on the power lines strung across the canyon at Guardhouse Gate about two hundred feet above the ground. There, he sits and watches my progress. The opposite of the down-canyon flight behavior seen on April 6th occurs. As I reach underneath him, the kingfisher noisily flies off going up canyon. He lands one hundred feet away, and when I reach him a second time, he again flies up canyon for another one or two hundred feet. This repeats four times as we reach below the picnic site 4. Then the kingfisher loops back and starts flying close above the stream in one hundred foot stretches. As on April 6th, he is looking for dinner. A few moments later, an unidentified raptor with a five foot wing span glides down canyon below the western canyon wall. He or she is too far and too quick to make an identification.

Under the snow’s effect, the flowers of the glacier lily fields along the road have shriveled, and in one field, I can find perhaps seven intact blossoms. Their passing was too quick, and I have seen no pollinator working their flowers. Will they try for a second bloom?

On this overcast day, I choose to jog back down the Pipeline trail to Shark Fin Rock, and I come across loud single chirps from the Gamble oak forest and an unseen bird. Its single chirp is loud and piercing, and the calls registers 70 decibels on my sound meter. A few minutes of patient waiting reveals a pair of Black-capped chickadees. Several hundred feet up canyon, another chickadee responds to my new neighbor’s call. Then for some unknown reason, the kingfisher from the stream below joins in with its loud rapid fire call, and the three take turns calling.

Along this trail, I see the first large bumblebee of the season, and it has a black rump, dark brown wings, and a single orange abdominal band. It is almost one and one-half inches long, and the bee is grazing on the many open poison ivy blooms along this section of the trail. It is a Hunt bumble bee (Bombus huntii), and given its size and the month that it is active, this may be a queen (Koch 66-68). Koch’s annual timeline for this specie’s annual activity suggests that the queen will be active for one month. During this period, she is building her underground nest and laying the eggs of her future sister workers. In May, these workers will slowly become active as their queen retires underground. Returning to the road, the land dwelling shrimp, the common pill bug (July 31st), has returned and it plods along the road apparently oblivious to temperature.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on April 11th, 1852, he describes the close inspection of a stream bottom including micro-air bubbles in the water and yellow mica on the stream bottom. In the Riverside Edition of Thoreau’s “Journal”, new entries begin again on June 1st.

* * * *

On April 11th, 1904, the Utah Audubon Society noted a drop in the City Creek bird population (Salt Lake Telegram). On April 11th, 1904, George W. Root announces that he had located a gold ore vein in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald).

April 6, 2017

April 6th

Filed under: Arrowleaf balsamroot, Kingfisher — canopus56 @ 8:26 pm

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – Part III – Challenges for the Future

3:00 p.m. While going down canyon, a Kingfisher calls from the branch overlooking the stream below the red bridge. Then it flits downstream for a hundred feet, lands again, and starts calling. This repeats again and again for about one-third of mile down to picnic site 3. The Kingfisher is looking for dinner in the stream. Along the road, there is a six inch diameter circular clump of thin twigs suitable building a nest. I cannot tell if this is refuse from a prior season’s nest that the wind has released from the trees or if it is a cache dropped by a bird building a nest for this year. As I leave the canyon, the next storm front is rolling in from the west. On the drive out to the state capitol along Bonneville Drive, the first Arrowleaf balsamroot plant has bloomed with its small yellow sunflowers. In the upper canyon, these plants are barely forming.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on April 6th, 1853, he hears a robin, a lark, a bluebird, song-sparrows, and a Dark-eyed junco, and he sees a pigeon woodpecker. He watches honeybees feeding on skunk-cabbage flowers. April 6, 1854, he again sees honeybees feeding. He notes that white maples and alders are shedding pollen. On April 6thm, 1855, he sees blackbirds, ducks, and a goosander. He sees flies over decaying leaves.

* * * *

The Mormons have more choices to make regarding the canyons of Salt Lake valley, including City Creek Canyon. In other canyons not protected by planning similar to City Creek’s, development conflicts between elites seeking massive development and locals seeking to preserve all seven of the Salt Lake valley canyons continue today, principally in the form of proposals for high density ski area development and associated real estate expansion. Two new pressures for high-density development in the Salt Lake valley canyons have arisen since the Great Recession of 2008-2009. There has been a large expansion in hotels on the valley floor, and there are now over 20,000 hotel rooms in Salt Lake valley. Ski resorts in the Park City area have consolidated ownership under a large national company, and they have long sought to create the largest ski resort in the United States by interconnecting the Park City resorts by both developments and ski lifts that span ridge between the western Salt Lake valley canyons and the eastern Park City mega-ski resorts. The principal counter forces to those development pressures in the Salt Lake valley are Salt Lake City Corporation and the Metropolitan Water District (Feb. 24th) which seek to preserve the canyons as a watershed resource and the general Salt Lake County population that see its adjacent canyons as an outdoor recreation resource.

* * * *

Above, I say “the Mormons have more choices to make” because theodemocracy has again arisen in Utah. Although the non-LDS population in Salt Lake valley remains about thirty-three percent and is a slight majority in Salt Lake City limits, Brigham Young’s original vision of theodemocracy (March 16th) has combined with a larger Republican program of gerrymandering, the national Republican Redmap program (Daley 2016). The result of Redmap program has been the national gerrymandering of districts and the transformation of the country into more political groups with more divergent views. In Utah Redmap gerrymandering has resulted in odd wedge-shaped Utah federal congressional districts that stretch of hundreds of miles from Salt Lake City to rural areas in southern Utah and state level districts that minimize the probability of non-Mormon democrats being elected. On the federal level, the purpose of that gerrymandering is to dilute non-Mormon Democratic voters into larger pools of Mormon Republican voters and on the state level, the purpose of that gerrymandering is to result in the highest concentration and lowest number of non-Mormon Democratic legislative seats. The result over the last twenty years has been the increase the percentage of Republican Mormon state legislators from sixty-six percent to over eighty-five percent of legislators. Although Utah State legislators rank issues with similar priorities to the majority of Mormon Utah voters, the people who select Republican Utah legislators, Republican party delegates, have opinions that are far more right-wing leaning that the already conservative majority (Utah Foundation). The practical result of national gerrymandering in concert with Utah’s L.D.S. culture and a local political super-majority is the resurrection of Young’s theodemocracy (see Salt Lake City Tribune, March 28, 2012). Armed with political certainty that is amplified with underlying religious certainty, the Utah State legislature often implements policies that are disconnected from with the wishes of the local population. The scope of local community political options are always overshadowed and restricted by the questions of “What will the legislature allow?” or “Will the legislature override a local action when a compromise is reached?”. This is Young’s theodemocracy of religious elites in action. An example of theodemocracy in action was the Utah State Legislature deciding to allow Salt Lake County’s Mountainland Planning District (H.B. 293-S2) to sunset. This Salt Lake County planning commission included by legislative authorization, members drawn from all local municipalities and the unincorporated areas of the county instead of a small geographical unrepresentative region of the unincorporated county.

One choice and one task left undone in City Creek Canyon is the process of reforestation promised by the City in 1914 and 1934 in Public Law 63-199 and Public Law 73-259 (March 12th). Given the possibility that future peak flooding will be more extreme than the historical experience (Bekker et al. 2014; Feb. 9th), the lessons of Forsling (1931), the Utah Flood Commission (1931) and Cottam (1945) regarding reforestation learned during the floods of the 1920s and 1930s should be taken seriously. Even minor 12 percent removal of forests in the upper canyons can result in severe flooding in the valley, given an extreme storm event (Forsling). The Salt Lake canyons, including City Creek Canyon, should all be completely reforested as insurance against future flooding. Current cultural and political battles between theodemocratic elites favoring massive development of Salt Lake canyons and the general population that favors canyon preservation remain a continuing process that may never have an resolving endpoint. Again, these are choices to made by ordinary people, and which as shown in the history of City Creek Canyon can had good outcomes.

In his “Sound of Mountain Water” (Introduction, 38), Stegner, although disturbed by the changes in Salt Lake City since his boyhood (At Home in the Fields of the Lord), remained optimistic about the future of natural lands in the Western United States despite the broader historical conflict between the bravado of the West’s rugged individualism and the cooperative conservation that restored parts of the region from 1900 to the present. He noted that “cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves” the region (id). The individualistic approach historically gave way to the nature’s hand that forces cooperation during the regions’ and the canyon’s periodic aridity (id). That pattern of cooperation vs. competition is repeated in the history of City Creek Canyon as both a natural and an unnatural place.

* * * *

On April 6th, 2006, the snowpack at Lookout Peak is 173 percent of normal, prompting flooding concerns (Salt Lake Tribune, April 26, 2006). On April 6, 1919, a road going to the base of Ensign Peak, built with City funds, is nearly completed (Salt Lake Herald). On April 6, 1898, the Utah Forestry Association meets and plans to present a proposal to the City to plant trees in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald and Deseret News).

March 19, 2017

March 19th

Filed under: Chuckar, Flood retention pond, Geology, Kingfisher, People, Sounds, Stream — canopus56 @ 7:58 pm

Erosion across Geologic Time

5:00 p.m. Kingfisher! Above Guardhouse Gate, a Belted kingfisher has made its annual migratory appearance. The bird is agitated. As it flies in a circular path a hundred yards in diameter, it makes two-second rapid-fire calls. Usually, the kingfisher is seen at the flood retention pond at Bonneville Drive and Canyon Road. There it perches on a tree next to the upper pond and peers down into the waters looking for its next meal of Brown trout. But the pond was been cleared out by the City that fears an earlier spring flood (March 5th and 16), and for the last week about twenty anglers have been cleaned out both the upper and lower ponds of fish. There is nothing left for the kingfisher to eat. On the drive back home, another early bird sign of spring appears. Three chukars scurry across the road. It is the last day of winter, and the canyon is again busy with an overflowing parking lot. There are about eighty strollers, couples with substitute child-dogs, and bicyclists. Two Rock squirrels scamper across the road. At the pond at picnic site 5, someone has partially pulled out the tree branch that grows horizontally across and below the surface of the pond. The limb has been growing there for about ten years, judging from its size. Fall, trout used this branch as a hiding place. They feed on the water skaters along the outside edge of the pool, but when disturbed by people, the trout bolted underneath the branch (October 21st). Now their hiding place is gone. I am looking forward to the next cycle of annual life and to watching the canyon come fully alive.

The milky high-runoff stream continues its loud roar.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 19th, 1842, he records a strong west wind that generates haze. On March 19th, 1856, he records a 16 inch deep snow. On March 19th, 1858, he sees numerous gnats. He sees redwings. On March 19th, 1859, he notes a strong wind and notes how wind reflects off of blowing trees. On March 19th, 1860, he admires pitch pine trees in the spring light.

The milkiness of the stream reveals that it contains sediments, but is this small stream enough to have carved out the gorge of lower City Creek Canyon below Bonneville Drive over the last 11,000 years? Crudely abstracted, the lower gorge is 2 miles long by 0.1 miles wide and by 200 feet deep, or about 0.008 cubic miles, and it formerly contained about 1.2 billion cubic feet of earth. A rough estimate of sediment transport from City water quality data suggests that the stream could have made the lower gorge over the last 11,000 years.

Most data about water quality in City Creek Canyon is from measurements by the Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities, but it is easily obtained. The U.S. Geological Survey maintains an archive of water quality and volume measurements of City Creek, including the City’s data, as part of its National Water Information System (U.S.G.S. 2017c), and a set of water quality measurements from 1964 to 1966 includes the dry weight of dissolved solids in City Creek stream water. The stream transports a surprisingly wide range of daily weight of solids down the canyon, but in terms of unitized acre-feet of stream flow, the stream transports a steady proportion of about 0.4 tonnes of dry solids in each acre-foot of water. City Creek stream flow data from the National Resources Conservation Service gives a mean annual flow for the stream of about 11,700 acre-feet per year (NRCS 2017), soils in Utah typically contain about 35 percent water, and a cubic foot of soil weights about 100 pounds. Putting all of this together gives a rough first-order estimate that little City Creek stream has transported about 1.5 billion tonnes of sediment to the delta over the last 11,000 years*. Over geologic time, City Creek’s little stream could have carved out the lower canyon gorge, and this estimate excludes extreme flooding events, like the flood of 1983, where the canyon’s flood waters run as a thick, dark red mass of mud, silt, and boulders.

* – 11,700 acre-feet per year x 0.4 tonnes dry weight per acre-foot divided by 0.65 percent dry weight x 11,000 years x 2,000 pounds per ton divided by 100 pounds per cubic foot of soil = 1.489 billion cubic feet.

On March 19th, 1892, Mayor Baskin and the City Council met at the old Silk Mill to decide if it should be torn down (Deseret Weekly).

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.

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