City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 13, 2017

June 2nd

Evolution of Angiosperms

8:00 a.m. Some days are beyond beauty. This is the first official day of the five months in which cars are allowed in the canyon on alternating days, and I have decided to drive up to the end of the road to jog the uppermost canyon. It rained last night, the undergrowth and trees are all covered with thick layer of drops. As I drive up the road, the morning birds are active. With the windows open, I mentally tabulate a count as I slowly travel up the winding road. It comes to about 20 birds within earshot for every quarter mile. This suggests a population of some 800 smaller song birds along the five and three-quarters of paved road and the subsequent 2 miles of trail in a band for 50 yards on either side of the road.

Continuing the drive up canyon, Wild roses are open to Pleasant Valley, mile 1.1, and Wild geraniums are open to mile 5.0. Along the first mile, a new flowering plant, another weed, has sprung up to two feet tall seemingly overnight. It is Western salisfy (Asteraceae tragopogon dupon). Although a noxious invader, it is an admirable plant. To avoid the heat of the day, it folds closed into a pen-like tip, but now in the light morning sun, it shows sixteen thin yellow petals surrounded by hair-thin sepals. The center has a sharply contrasting black band. It lines the roadside and at Pleasant Valley, Utah Conservation Corps treated field, that removed yellow starthistle, is now covered with another invasive – salsify. A purple variant of this plant is also found along the first mile road.

At the water treatment plant at mile 3.4, the canyon narrows, and flashes of blue and black flittering into the Gambel’s oaks reveals a flock of Stellar’s jays. Stellar’s jays prefer the coolness of a montane habitat, and in contrast, their cousins, the Scrub jay, prefers the hotter lower canyon. But the Stellar’s jay is more territorial, and thus, more entertaining. When a hiker enters their territory, one will immediately swoop down to the trail and call with its repetitive “caw” in both curiosity and in complaint. The action of one will others of its tribe, and this provides the walker with an avian presidio under which one must pass inspection. Later in the afternoon, further up the trail at the end of the road, as I walk under a large moss covered log, a Stellar’s jay lands above me, its mouth full of moss intended for use as nesting material. It glances back for a quick inquisitive look and then proceeds on its business.

Resuming the drive up the road and as the walls of the canyon close in, the canyon transitions from Gambel oak forest to deciduous maple and Box elder tree forest. The road becomes a single track. The heavy moisture on the leaves is heated by the first penetrating morning sun, and as a result, the air is thick with mist and dew. Shafts of light peak make it through the dense overgrowth and illuminate the mist into yellow tubes. Here, the canyon feels most like an eastern forest. Although the dense greenery only extends for a few hundred yards on either side of the road, the narrow canyon walls cut off any vistas, and this is what I remember of my boyhood eastern forests. The green goes on forever and the all sense of direction is lost. Here, stream bed widens and the stream slows. But then, near mile 4.5, there is an abrupt transition to a Rocky Mountain forest (Peet 2000) dominated by Douglas fir and Norway spruce. The stream narrows and the stream bed becomes boulders that are angular and freshly honed from bedrock. This change is also announced by great vertically upended limestone fins on the western wall of the canyon that have been turned by earthquake faults (Sept 1st). The Wild geraniums thin out, and the first Mountain bluebells, a cool weather plant, appear and become more frequent. The air thickens more and forest becomes medieval.

Along this stretch of road between Lower and Upper Rotary Park, the bird communities, mostly of American robins, Song sparrows, Warbling vireos, and Black-headed grosbeaks are spread out into distinct communities, unlike in the warmer first mile canyon. The distinct trill call of a community of Chirping sparrows is heard. I also hear a lone Mountain chickadee calling. This is where they have come, since the lower canyon is too hot for them. This segregation of birds into unique groups along the road gives me the opportunity to stop and study the distinct songs and calls of a group of Warbling vireos.

The sun rises further and the mist burns off as I reach the end of the road at mile 5.75, and the old mining road and trail that leads to the Treasure Box mine begins. I have not been here since the end of last summer (Sept. 8th), and it feels restorative to be in the most natural of the canyon’s regions. Leaving the car and proceeding up the trail, where the direct sun penetrates, a green canopy of maples and box elders closes in, while on shaded eastern slope, Douglas firs reach to trails edge. The air is heavy with the smell of wet leaves and chlorophyll. Crossing the first and second red metal bridges affords views up the stream, and it is a torrent of white, with only hints of blue water. The stream has become a silver ribbon. After the third metal bridge, the trail rises, the canopy deepens and the undergrowth becomes impenetrable. This stretch is as the lower canyon appeared around 1900. Shipler’s photograph of the lower canyon road taken around 1903, appears nearly identical to this morning’s rise in the trail (J. Willard Marriott, Id. 459448, see also Salt Lake Tribune, May 24, 1903). The chirping call of a Green-tailed towhee is heard.

For the next half-mile, the trail is about 150 feet east of stream, and the trail consists of sharp rocks that a month ago were another snow-feed branch of the stream. Geraniums and blue bells thicken along with young stinging nettle plants. All are so covered with last night’s rain water that my shoes quickly become soaked, but I do not care. A Mourning cloak butterfly with an odd color variant flies down canyon. Instead of the yellow-white trailing band, its trailing wing band is a dusky orange. Other now common butterflies appear uniformly distributed along the trail: Western tiger swallowtails and newly-hatched smaller Spring azure butterfly butterflies. The Spring azures flock in groups of three to six, and the harsh high-altitude light brings out a new property to their colors. Depending on the sun angle, their wings flash a deep medium blue, their streaked light blue, or flat light blue. The deep blue is new variation to their iridescence. There is a new unidentified one and one-half inch butterfly. It has forewings of patterned medium dark grey and rear-wings that are a grayish black. The colder air at this high altitude, along with their lack of exposure to humans, make insects sluggish. In the lower canyon, the Red-rumped central worker bumble bees are skittish. But here, the bees remain still when approached, and I am able to take a clear pictures of several.

Song sparrows, Warbling vireos, a Spotted towhee, Yellow warblers, and Lazuli buntings, another refugee from the lower canyons, are heard in profusion. But again, they rest in distinct communities in the spacious upper reaches of the canyon instead of being distributed uniformly along the trail. Jogging uphill feels good for the legs, but my progress is slow. I cannot resist the urge to stop and listen to each community of bird and to playback stock recordings of their calls, in part to assure to identification, and in part for the simple enjoyment of somehow communicating with them. At one point, the land between trail and stream widens, but is particularly lush with a low canopy. There I hear a single American dipper, the first of the season.

For the next half mile, the trail begins to narrow travels next to the stream, and the trail crosses a series of rock outcrops. There the trail becomes broken rock interspersed with patches of stream feed marsh, and the stream water itself is so pure that individual rocks can be seen distinctly on the stream’s bottom. A few Spearleaf scorpionweeds (Phacelia hastata) that have delicate light purple, fuzzy blossoms, hide in sun sheltered spaces. Along the broken rocks, I notice the small, 5 millimeter, dried-out shells of snails covering the trail. Over a 100 feet of trail, I count about the same number of shells. On picking one up and to my astonishment, there is a miniature live snail in each shell. I am unable to identify them.

Next, the trail starts to rise towards the first of four hanging meadows, and in the first of which stills with Louis Meadows SNOTEL weather station. Aspen trees first appear, a sure sign of a Rocky Mountain meadow ahead. Mountain bluebells surround the trail on both sides, and a few Western blue elderberry trees (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) rise from the surrounding bluebells. Each elderberry is heavily festooned with white, lacey panicles. In the autumn, as their dark fruit ripens, these are a favored trail snack.

As I crest the lip of Louis Meadows hanging valley, the SNOTEL station comes into view. It sits in the middle of field of Mountain bluebells the size of two football fields, and the field is surrounded by a grove of waving aspen trees to the west and Douglas firs to the east. It is an idyllic sight; one that I feel privileged to experience. I begin to feel giddy and overwhelmed by biophilia.

While my heart feels love, my intellect says my expansive feelings are not the effect of altitude at just 6,700 feet (2,042 meters), but of ultra-violet radiation. The 10 a.m. summer Sun is high in the sky, and its warmth penetrates all clothing. The exercise of hiking in Western summer mountains is a relaxing experience. The cool air makes hard, fast hiking enjoyable, but at the same time ultra-violet relaxes the muscles and the mind. Pictures taken here today all are blue tinged from the uv light. With every 1000 meters in altitude, uv light increases in intensity by 10 percent. An internet uv intensity calculator suggests this morning’s ultra-violet index is 12.

As I nearly reach the trailhead and the car, the only other hiker in the canyon today, a young man in his twenties, overtakes me, and he can only mutter, “That is so unbelievably beautiful!” as he passes by. Words escape us both. We have been closer to creation and the other world of the upper canyons of the Wasatch Mountain Range.

Driving out the lower canyon and back to that other reality of my human social and economic existence, the Mosquito Abatement District surveyors are examining their blue painted tree holes (November 7th). They are taking a census in order to estimate the canyon’s mosquito population.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 2nd, 1853, he travels through a thick fog and notes that birds are still making song. He sees cherry birds and yellow bluebead lily, an eastern plant, and red sorrel. On June 2nd, 1855, he describes a moth cocoon opening. On June 2nd, 1858, on a camping trip to a mountain top, he examines a snow bird nest, and hears a chewink, a wood-thrush, and night-hawks. On June 2nd, 1859, he finds a grossbeak nest in a blueberry bush. On June 2nd, 1860, he sees bats and a king-bird.

* * * *

Fully preserved angiosperms first appear in the fossil record about 130 million years ago and by 90 million years ago, flowering trees had dominated the forest canopy. Pamela and Douglas Soltis at the University of Washington with Mark Chase at the Royal Botanical Gardens used modern gene mapping to reconstruct the evolutionary phylogenetic clades of flowering plants (Soltis, Soltis and Chase 1999). Soltis and Soltis review state-of-the-art flowering plant clades as of 2004 (Soltis and Soltis 2004).

Magallon and Sanderson at the University of California at Davis used the rate of diversification of woody plants in the fossil record to estimate the age of the major families (Magallon and Sanderson 2001, Fig. 4). Members of the Sapindales family, which includes maples seen in the canyon, appeared about 60 million years ago. The Rosaceae family members in the canyon, which include Western serviceberry, apple trees, chokeberry, ash trees, and Woods rose, evolved relatively recently, about 45 million years ago (id). Modern oaks appear about 35 million years ago. In Utah around 35 million years ago, the Farallon Plate had passed through Utah, crustal spreading behind the plate cracked Utah’s surface, and the spreading generated Utah’s volcanic era (January 7th). The volcanic breccia at milepost 1.0 of the canyon was forming (id).

* * * *

On June 2nd, 2002, teenager Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Federal Heights home and was hidden on the south slope city side slope of the Black Mountain-City Creek ridge for two months (Salt Lake Tribune, March 15, 2003). The hiding place was not found by a 2,000 person search organized by the Laura Recovery Center (id). On June 2nd, 1915, the City Commission approved plans to build a 5,000,000 gallon reservoir at Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Herald). On Decoration Day (May 30), a picnic was held in City Creek as reported on the social page of the Deseret Evening News.

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May 22, 2017

May 22nd (Revised)

Continental Scale Bird Population Trends – Part I

(Science Section Revised May 28th.)

1:30 p.m. It will be a good day. As I ready to leave for the canyon and before even starting the car, a brilliant red House finch lands on a nearby telephone wire and sings happily for five minutes. Bright sunlight floods the canyon, and spring life explodes. There is too much to see, and I am overwhelmed. The roadside heats up with smells of fresh growth, and it mixes with the crisp cool air that rises from the transparent, chilled water of the swift stream. In the first mile, fifty birds are active, all singing in cacophony. The red ozier dogwood bushes are covered with small one-half inch bees with yellow and black abdomens and similarly miniature wasps with black and white striped abdomens. The first Western Yellowjacket wasp of the season lands. Nine Yellow swallowtail butterflies line the first mile with Mourning cloak, White cabbage, Painted Lady, and Spring Azure butterflies. Two Blue-eyed darner dragonflies fly above the road, and one unceremoniously defecates as it passes.

Immediately past Guardhouse Gate, three Warbling vireos exchange calls from the surrounding trees. Along the road to mile 0.3, I can distinguish about fifteen bird songs and calls, but by sound, I can identify the American robin, a Mountain chickadee, the Black-headed grosbeak, and the Song sparrow. A small Blue-gray gnatcatcher (Polioptilidae Polioptila caerulea) jumps parallel to the road along oak branches. Black-chinned hummingbird wings beat loudly.

At the bend in the road above picnic site 3, there is another riot of bird songs in a small cluster. Songs of the House finch, Mountain chickadee and others blend together. Then a blazing Yellow warbler comes of the screen of trees and lands in a nearby branch. The warbler leaves and finally, a Western scrub jay lands on a another branch. I play a recording of one of its kind squawking, the blue shouldered bird replies. This way we have an odd conversation. There is more, but this is enough.

This is the green explosion that the vernal season (February 16th) has been building to since the first of May.

* * * *

Parrish, Norvell and Howe’s Utah bird study covers one state – Utah (Parrish et al. 2007; Novell, Howe and Parrish 2005), but birds are international travellers. Olsen’s Pacific Flyway data is international but regional (Olsen 2017). Because of their dispersal, bird trends also need analysis on the continental scale. In 1966 in response to DDT’s impact on birds, the U.S.G.S. and the Canadian Wildlife Service began the first North American continental Breeding Bird Survey (BBS). However, design of the BBS did not cover weighted areas of differing habitat types (Bart 2005; Parrish et al. 2007 at 11). All survey sites were along roads, and this introduced a bias that would not allow for the study of how changes in habitat affects bird populations (id). Acknowledgement of the need to have coordinated continental scale non-game, longitudinal bird population data led to the establishment of the Partner-in-Fight Working Group (Bart 2005) to supplement the Breeding Bird Survey, and Parrish, Norvell and Howe’s work on Utah riparian habitats was part of the Partners’ system. Governmental agencies, including Utah, consolidate results into the national Breeding Bird Survey database (Sauer 2017; Pardieck 2016). Both the BBS and the Partners-in-Flight programs focus on professionally trained biologists working for or associated with many governmental agencies collecting high quality data by conducting transect surveys over time at the same sites.

Through 2015, the Breeding Bird Survey shows a declining population at 1.4 percent per year in its Western region (Sauer 2017). Plumbeous vireos decline at 2.3 percent per year.

Since the 1990s, concerns grew over what impact climate warming might have on bird populations and a need was perceived to develop management tools to early identify adversely effected bird species, and a management tool, the Partners-in-Flight the Conservation Concern Index was develop to provide guidance under the conditions of uncertainty in estimating local and global bird populations and their trends. The Partners-in-Flight methodology rates stresses on bird populations for 1,154 bird North American bird species (Panjabi et al 2012) based on five non-dimensional, ascending scales ranging from 1 (least concern) to 5 (most concern). The five indices are global population size, breeding geographical distribution, non-breeding geographical distribution, threats to surviving the summer breeding season, threats to surviving the non-breeding season, and population trends, and the combined indices yield a maximum total score of at most 25 denoted as the “Conservation Concern Index”.

Of the five indices, the global breeding population size is the most sensitive. It varies by a geometric growth rate of 10 denoted by a logarithmic index:

5 – World breeding population is less than 50,000 or 5 x 10^4.

4 – World breeding population greater or equal to 50,000 (5 x 10^4) and is less than 500,000 (5 x 10^5).

3 – World breeding population greater or equal to 500,000 (5 x 10^5) and is less than 5,000,000 (5 x 10^6).

2 – World breeding population greater or equal to 5,000,000 (5 x 10^6) and is less than 50,000,000 (5 x 10^7).

1 – World breeding population greater or equal to 500,000,000 (5 x 10^8) (Panjabi et al 2012).

The global breeding distribution index is the second most sensitive. It varies by a geometric growth rate of 3 denoted by a logarithmic index. An index of “5”, or highest concern, corresponds to 80,000 square kilometers or a U.S. state size of about 300 kilometers square. A breeding distribution index of “1”, or least concern, corresponds to 4,000,000 square kilometers, or a continent-sized 2,000 kilometer square(Panjabi et al 2012).

The Populations growth index is the least sensitive. An annual growth decline rate between 0 and 15 percent is rated “3”. Only crashing populations with a growth rate of greater than 50 percent are have an index of “5”.

Logarithmic risk indices are intended to overcome human compression bias, i.e. – our tendency to misinterpret risk over a large range of outcomes (Adams and Smith). Humans overestimate the risk of rare events, like botulism, and under estimate the risk of common events, like heart attack (id) and many natural processes, for example from our hearing and sight, increase sensitivity by a geometric scale. Thus, a logarithm index is a useful abstraction, but it is still often misperceived. If a risk level is expressed in terms of raw data, e.g. a world population breeding size of 50,000 to 500,000,000, this lends to unwarranted accusations of overstating for conservation. Conversely, when confronted with a logarithmic index, the natural human tendency is to erroneously interpret risk as an arithmetic sum. The earthquake Richter scale is a useful, common analogy. An earthquake of 5.0 on the Richter scale will shake the picture frames on your walls, but an earthquake of 7.5, will turn your home into a pile of sticks. The effects are perceived as additive, but in reality the effects are exponential.

To supplement the governmental North American Breeding Bird Survey by applying the Panjabi et al criteria on a global scale, private groups and industry from the North American Bird Conservation Initiative (NABCI). NABCI analyses are reported in annual glossy “North American State of the Bird” reports, – e.g. North American Bird Conservation Initiative (2009) and North American Bird Conservation Initiative (2016a). Another useful form of the their results is the annual NABCI Assessment Database, a spreadsheet that allows the user to sort and select birds by risk and habitat North American Bird Conservation Initiative (2016b). The mean of the index is 11.5, and a Conservation Concern Index higher than 13.5 suggests a high level of concern for which further study and action should be taken. A Conservation Concern Index (CCI) of 8.5 to 13.5 denotes moderate concern. This continental scale study provides insights into future threats that might change the currently stable bird diversity and populations totals seen in the canyon. But again, the CCI is a management tool and it does not report additive risk. Because its two key component scales, global breeding size and global breeding area, are logarithmic, the CCI scale conveys an expert opinion of a geometrically or exponentially increasing risk.

Two spring species that are regularly seen in the canyon (May 6th, May 20th) have CCI’s of 13 at the borderline of high concern: Virginia’s warbler and Plumbeous vireo. Others in the moderate concern category and their concern indices are: Broad-tailed Hummingbird (12), Steller’s Jay (11), Dusky Flycatcher (10), American Dipper (10), Black-chinned Hummingbird (10), Mountain Chickadee (10), Townsend’s Solitaire (10), Lazuli Bunting (9), Northwestern Crow (9), Orange-crowned Warbler (9), Western Scrub-Jay (9), and the Western Tanager (9). One commonality between these 13 species of 149 known to visit the canyon are that their non-breeding season ranges are in the southern Mexican highlands or the Pacific Coast lowlands. In short, land development in distant places might reduce their annual appearance in the canyon. But these results should be read in context. The NABCI indices for species found in the canyon generally indicate there is low concern of immediate threats to most species. The diversity of bird species in the canyon is stable. The NABCI “State of Birds” reports are not a trend-based forecast, although their short annual narrative report incorporates conclusions from Christmas Bird Count trend studies by the Audubon Society and governmental Breeding Bird Surveys.

* * * *

On May 22nd, 1914, the newly completed scenic automobile drive up City Creek and along 11th Avenue to be called Wasatch Boulevard will be opened to the public (Salt Lake Tribune). Other park improvements include the new Thirteenth Street Reservoir Park and adding lawn areas to Liberty Park (id).

March 27, 2017

March 27th

This is Not the Natural Place. – Part VIII – Water Infrastructure

9:30 a.m. Another great Coriolis effect band of clouds and rain that stretches from central Canada to New Mexico sweeps over the canyon. This is the second in three days, and it rains continuously overnight and into the morning. The canyon freezes overnight. Except for a single gnat, insects are absent. A lone robin and chickadee calls from the thicket far from the road. Some plants respond, but most canyon trees continue their wait for spring’s true warmth. A lone river birch below picnic site 3 blooms, but along the stream, many small birch shots have bloomed and extended small leaves. Service berry bushes are among those that thrive despite the early spring cold. They have bloomed and in the last few days have grown one to one-and-one-half inch leaves. The forest understory is greening first. Whether beneath Box Elder or Gambel’s oak trees, small sucker shoots are blooming with leaves. Their mature parents stay dormant. Near mile 0.1, buds on an unusual tree swell and prepare to open. When sap surged up its grey trunk and branches, the wood’s skin has turned a dull orange. The rain floods the canyon with a pleasing earthy smell.

The events of the last week reveal the pattern of early spring in the canyon. Plants respond primarily to the lengthening of daylight, but insects are waiting for overnight temperatures above fifty and daytime temperatures in the sixties. Days alternate between sun and cold nourishing rain with an overall pattern of increasing temperatures, but an early heat wave fools the insects into an early exit from winter’s hibernation. All wait for the dominate forest trees to swell their buds and to deploy this year’s leaves.

The last few days have also given me a new appreciation for the few water seeps and springs in the first mile of the canyon (January 20th). They are signs of the larger sub-surface migration of water from the surrounding canyon walls and beneath the Gambel’s oak forest. Refreshing rain falls on the high ridges and leeches through the high sandstone layers picking up minerals, and these nutrients then seep underneath the earth to the stream below. Along the way, forest roots dip below to sip the mineral rich broth to obtain the necessary building blocks of life.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 27th, 1842, he sees birches and pines reflecting light as they wave. He watches two fledgling hawks and an eagle. On March 27th, 1853, he notes flowering hazel. On March 27th, 1859, he notes alder trees are in bloom. On Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 28th, 1858, he sees a flock of shelldrakes, a flock of ducks, two dippers, and two herring gulls.

* * * *

The third era of utilization of City Creek Canyon was water infrastructure development. As previously noted (Dec. 27th), City initially developed infrastructure in the canyon between 1870 and the early 1900s. Construction began in 1872 with the installation of an enclosed piped water main up City Creek, dug by City prison labor (Cater, 94). Three enclosed take-off points were developed that went to the business district, Central City, the low Avenues below 6th Avenue, and the Ensign Peak 20th Ward. The “high-line” went from a head gate in City Creek at 5030 feet in elevation to a reservoir in the high Avenues and provided water to the high Avenues district. The “mid-line” went from a head gate at 4712 feet to the low Avenues and Central City districts. A second head gate at 4676 feet went to Capitol Hill and west-side districts. The “low-line” went from a head gate at 4579 feet to serve the business district (Hooten, 21-26; Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 27, 1903). Two take-offs in City Creek from the main pipeline still serve Capitol Hill and the high Avenues. The take-offs are at westbound water line trail at picnic site 4, mile 0.5 at the site of the old Twentieth Ward aqueduct head gate, and a southeast bound line at the red bridge on the south side of the road at mile 0.9, the site of the old mid-line headgate. In 1915, the City completed construction of the 5,000,000 gallon reservoir at the up-canyon east end of Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 2, 1916).

* * * *

On March 27th, 1920, the snow depth at the High Line station in City Creek was 17 inches (Salt Lake Telegram). On March 27th, 1900 in order to increase the City’s water supply, the City Board of Public Works approved the bid of Moran Construction to install a 30 inch iron water main from City Creek Canyon for $61,854 (Salt Lake Herald).

January 17, 2017

January 17th

Filed under: Duck, Flood retention pond, Mountain Chickadee, picnic site 7, Weather — canopus56 @ 9:34 pm

Ice Mirror

1:00 p.m. City air grows thicker; buildings a mile away are reduced to mere outlines; and, during these inversion layers, the eyes burn and breathing becomes more labored. I escape to the canyon. I will not be able to reach clean air, but at least will see the beginning of blue skies. It is growing warmer, and the two ducks at the flood retention pond, who have used the pond as a refugee during this coldest part of the year, have left. There is only one chickadee call near the canyon’s mouth.

The retention pond has melted and then partially re-frozen. The frozen shaded part is covered with a thin layer of glass ice. Like its arctic ice pack counterpart, the floating ice layer has fractured and a network of miniature pressure ridges have formed in its surface. When sunlight hits it a the right angle, the glass surface reflects blue-green colors highlight by a bright fire-yellow spider web of pressure ridges. The pond at picnic site 5 is free of ice, and one small trout – the first that I have seen in the lower canyon stream since November 25th – dashes into the shadows. Above milepost 1.0 between picnic site 7 and picnic site 8 where the stream froze completely over into a milky cathedral (Dec. 20th), now there is a open channel in the middle of the stream, but near the banks, the stream retains its original thick layer of ice. In spots in this stretch, the stream has re-frozen and it is covered by a thin layer of delicate window-pane glass ice. This re-freezing process is echoed in the snow on the sides of the road: the surface has melted and then re-frozen. This is “crust” snow – a bane to both back-country and developed area skiers. Placing a foot on the surface, it feels strong, but when any weight is put on it, ones foot breaks through the surface revealing a sugar-powder snow underneath. At a winter intermittent seep near picnic site 7 where warmer water melts overlaying snow, rising vapor from the seep encrusts a cinquefoil sprout and overhanging twigs with its re-frozen waters in the form of intricate ice rime crystals.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 17th, 1852, he notes a sign of a clear, rested mind: enjoying watching sunsets. He comments on the infinite variety of shapes created by clouds.

On January 17th, 1918, Waterworks C.F. Barrett warned of flooding from City Creek into the city because of abnormally high snowfall (Salt Lake Telegram). On January 17th, 1909, City Water Commissioner Frank M. Matthews reported that City Creek delivered approximately 11,000,000 gallons of water a day to the City and that improvement of the road using prison labor continues (Intermountain Republican).

January 10, 2017

January 10th

Wooden Noises

3:00 p.m. Last night media was concerned that flooding may occur because of the heavy rain and continuing high temperatures. Most of the snow is gone from south facing slopes and the snow left along the road is saturated with water. It has remained warm, so no crust has formed on the snow’s surface, but everywhere the snow is covered with bits of bark, leaves and dirt from a high wind. There is no sign of the potential flood; the stream has not risen; but, for the remainder of the season the risk of avalanche in the high Wasatch Front Mountains will be high. At higher elevations, this water soaked layer will form a base on which further snow layers will accumulate, and this can form a fracture zone in which back country skiers can be swept to burial. At Guardhouse Gate, a chickadee is sings a bright note. The sky is overcast and gives off a uniform diffuse light. For some stretches of the stream, I see hints of the silver ribbon (Dec. 26th).

Where the snow bank is partially eaten away, the bunch grass is exposed, and the dried tan grass is mixed in with still growing green shoots. Although recently soaked in water, this time the tips of the oaks and maples do not turn red-tinged (Dec. 11th), and the trees make no start at growth in response to the water. Although I had thought that mosses had stopped growing, at the down-canyon end of picnic site 4, I find two trees where on the west side, they are covered in bright orange lichen and on the east side, they are covered in a thick mat of dark-green moss.

From this weather, at picnic site 9, the Bald-Faced hornet nest is reduced to the size of a large grapefruit. At picnic site 1, the hummingbird nest is dissipating. I can partially see through its weaving.

Another storm front is approaching, and at mile 1.3, the wind gusts at 30 miles per hour while six anterless elk graze on a west hillside about three hundred feet away. The Gambel’s oaks creak and groan. Leaves rustle, and a single leaf loudly tumbles across the surface of the snow. There is a fourth sound. Where the wind causes two small branches to collide, they make a subtle dull and hollow thud sound, similar to tone of musical wooden xylophone. In their resting state, it sound as if the branches of trees are empty of water.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 10th, 1957, he records a -8 degree F. temperature with heavy snows that have trapped him at home. He recalls summer. On January 10th, 1858, Thoreau prescribes the snow-covered beauty of catkins as a remedy for winter seasonal affect disorder. He notes that any sight of “catkins, birds’ nests, insect life” is welcomed in winter. He observes a sunset in which pink light is reflected off of snow.

December 30, 2016

December 30th

Reflections

3:00 p.m. The angle of the lowering Sun makes this a season for reflections just as winter is the season most suited for introspection. Wherever water in the stream is smooth, a clear reflection can be seen of the trees on the opposite bank. The clarity of the images varies with the degree to which the surface water is disturbed. The reflections range in appearance from a realist to impressionist to abstract painting. I catch glimpses of the silver ribbon (December 26th).

Mountain chickadees still flock at mile 1.3. At milepost 1.5, a flock of sixteen wild turkeys are grazing on the west hillside just next to the road. As the sunset line rises up the hill, they stay just above it in the sun’s warmth. In the shade beneath them, small birds that I cannot identify, flit from and hide behind tufts of bunch grass. I count perhaps five or six, but then at some unknown signal, a flock of thirty take to the air and float down canyon.

It is a clear day and the temperatures in the canyon have dropped into the teens. There are only two or three other regular walkers on the road. The inversion layer lays thick over the city, but it thins as it extends up into the canyon. Being a city-dwelling, I have become acclimated to heavy haze and smog, and I do not appreciate how dense the smog and haze is. The inversion air consists of water saturated haze from snow melting from the ground, and this mixes in with exhaust from automobiles and industry. The toxic mixture cannot escape the valley because it is a trapped underneath a layer of cold air. At Guardhouse Gate the sky is gray, but as I reach milepost 1.5, a bluer, but still white-tinged, sky appears. At the 5,000 foot level, I can see the top of the inversion layer is still another 700 feet over my head. But here, the layer’s density is much reduced, and I come here in the depths of winter for the health benefit of clearing my lungs. As I run back down canyon, as the Sun falls lower, a tipping point is reached in the atmosphere, and its saturated moisture turns to an even denser fog. As I reach Guardhouse Gate, I am coughing and clearing my lungs every quarter-mile. Even so, my daily trip to the canyon’s relatively clear air helps cope with the rest of the day in the City.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 30th, he observes a shrike. On December 30th, 1860, he describes the distribution of blueberries and their natural history throughout the year.

On December 30th, 2000, William Alder, the long-time chief meteorologist with the Salt Lake Office of the National Weather Service, retired, and he rated the floods from City Creek Canyon in 1983 as the second most significant weather event of his career (Salt Lake Tribune). On December 30th, 1991, there was a heavy inversion layer in the air and the Salt Lake Tribune featured a picture of joggers in City Creek Canyon exercising above the smog. On December 30th, 1917, retiring City Commissioner Heber M. Wells cited as a major accomplishment, the installation of the then new multi-million gallon reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On December 30, 1900, the manager of the Red Bird Mine, on the City Creek side of the City Creek-Morgan County divide, reported having completed a 750 foot-mine tunnel (Salt Lake Tribune).

December 29, 2016

December 29th

The Great Concentrator

4:00 p.m. Thoreau called the winter snow and cold “The Great Betrayer” because wildlife, normally unseen, can be easily followed by the tracks in the snow. For me, this coldest part of winter is The Great Concentrator. Elk and mule deer collect in larger herds closer to the city. Birds condense into even larger flocks. Yesterday, I saw a flock of fifteen wild turkeys at mile 1.7, near the bend at the end of Pleasant Valley. Turkey flocks are forced closer to the road in the depth of winter. There, they scratched through the thin snow layers at the edges of Gambel’s oak groves, and fed on the acorns hidden beneath the snow. They were wary of humans, but unlike summer, they did not rush into the oak groves at the first sight or sound of people. The oak groves also provide protection from coyotes predation. At night, the turkeys form a circle deep within the oak groves, but sit in the trees one or three feet of the ground. In this defensive stance, they repel attacks by lone coyotes. In late January and February during the early mornings or late evenings, the bark of the coyote and responsive calls of the turkeys can be heard. Several other walkers and I watch the flock for about ten minutes.

As the deep cold of winter continues, European house sparrows will concentrate in a large flock at Guardhouse Gate. Mountain chickadees and Black-hooded chickadees will form even larger groups. These will be joined by flocks of Stellar Jays. But for now, only the magpies have grouped at Pleasant Valley, the Mountain chickadees have formed small groups near picnic site 3 at mile 0.3.

Today, at mile 1.7 where turkeys grazed yesterday, snow tracks reveal a rabbit crossing the road. At mile 2.3, a group of four hunters are transferring freshly killed elk meat from their backpacks to a bicycle towing a cart. The hunters are outnumbered by twenty or so walkers and runners and three bicyclists. As I run out of the canyon, the sky is a clear, cloudless blue, then grey, but below a thick inversion layer hangs over the city. With the sky having no cloud cover, tonight temperatures will fall near zero degrees Fahrenheit in the canyon.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 29th, 1851, he notes and unusually warm winter day. On December 29th, 1853, he notes the worst winter storm day in memory. On December 29th, 1858, he contrasts the speed of an ice skater with that of winter walking.

On December 29th, 2006, Salt Lake City Dept. of Public Works Deputy Director Jeff Niermeyer reported that in the spring, the department would be fixing chuckholes on City Creek Canyon road due to complaints from bicyclists (Salt Lake Tribune). On December 29th, 1934, the City reported the costs of fighting major fires in City Creek, Parley’s and Lambs’ Canyons (Salt Lake Telegram). A total of 234 acres were burned in the three canyons, mostly in City Creek. On December 29th, 1909, an airship company sought to purchase the Ensign Peak area from the City and to build a water reservoir in City Creek for the purpose of constructing and maintaining a dirigible airport on the peak (Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 29, Salt Lake Tribune, Dec. 30). On December 29, 1907, the President of the Civic Improvement League suggested that City Creek Canyon is a “A neglected spot of great natural beauty is City Creek canyon [and] some uniform plan should be adopted by which this spot may be gradually improved and its natural advantages protected” (Salt Lake Herald). On December 29th, 1907, Water Superintendent Frank L. Hines reported 18 inches of snow at five miles up City Creek Canyon (at elevation 5030 feet), and this was more snow than had been seen in the previous five years (Salt Lake Herald).

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.

December 8, 2016

December 9th

Counting Nests

8:00 a.m. On December 8th, I completed an inventory of nests in the first two miles of the canyon done on December 1st through the 7th, and the results are not what I expected. I had thought that small birds would prefer to nest away from the road and expected to find more nests along the trails, but they predominantly nest close to the road and stream. I count thirty-nine nests in the first two miles. For insect nests, two are Paper wasp nests and six are Bald-faced Hornet nests. The remaining thirty-one are birds’ nests. Of the thirty-one bird nests: nine are delicately woven bag nests for small birds such as hummingbirds; four are hanging and finely woven grass nests suitable for small and medium sized birds; one is a cliff stick nest of the falcon pair; five are snag nests in drilled into hollow cavities of snag or dead tree trunks; and the remainder are circular or platform twig nests.

All but one falcon nest is along or adjacent to the paved road. Initially, I thought that there would be many small bird nests along the Pipeline trail in the scrub oaks, but there are none. Checking the trail a second time, I realize that the Gambel’s oaks on this west side of the canyon would be too hot in late May and early June for fledglings. Birds are nesting in the coolest part of the canyon, next to water. Mountain chickadees and Black-hooded chickadees both use snags for nesting and do not build twig nests (Hutto, p. 34-35).

There are many snags, i.e. – dead trees, in the first two miles of the canyon. In addition to the chickadees, the Hairy woodpecker (Picoides villosus) and the Northern flicker rely on snags for shelter and nesting (Hutto 34-35, Werstack, 49-50). At picnic site 7, a good example is in a 40 feet vertical snag on the other side of the creek. At its top is a tear shaped excavation that indicates there is a nest in the hollowed out tree. It is possibly the primary or secondary nest of the Northern flicker seen in this area. A second snag at the up canyon end of picnic site 9 has many smaller holes drilled in it, and these may be suitable for chickadee nesting. Birds prefer snag trunks between 10 inches to 14 inches for making a hollowed-out tree nest. In 2016, Werstack et al estimated that there are 149 million snags in Utah suitable for bird nesting, but I estimate that there are probably about 20 to 30 suitable snags in the first two miles of the canyon.

Where the Pipeline Trail skirts the based of cliffs on north side of the road near mile 1.0, a Peregrine falcon pair has a large stick nest. The nest is perched on a rock ledge about 300 feet from the trial. It cannot be accessed either from above or below by predators, and it is only faintly visible with the naked-eye. Binocular or a monocular magnification is needed to see any detail. Although the nest is currently empty, from April to June, I watched the pair and fledglings almost every day. Not in this survey, but seen last year, is a large circular stick nest in the top of an eighty foot fir tree near mile 2.4. That nest was occupied by a breeding pair of Cooper’s Hawks.

Goodfellow and Hansell describe the architectural skill that birds use to construct the many woven grass and smaller twig nests. When making hanging-basket grass or circular twig nests, some birds will use a hook technique similar to Velcro. As noted on September 5th, the design of Velcro was inspired by the burrs of the burdock plant. Birds also mimic the burdock burr. They choose twigs with small hooks near the ends or twist grasses to make hooks and as they weave a twig into the nest, they secure the twig by hooking the end around an earlier placed twig.

My instinct is that there are too few nests for the volume of birds seen during the March to May nesting season, but my bird count data suggests the number is about right. My birding log between March 2015 and May 2015 of last year (Fisher 2015) shows 166 bird sightings. Given that these involve resighting the same birds multiple times, 39 nests is reasonable. During the winter and spring, small Black-hooded chickadees, Mountain chickadees and Stellar Jays are the most prevalent bird in the canyon. Other birding logs made by Tracey Aviary professionals are stored at the Cornell University’s Ornithology Laboratory’s eBird database for the “Bonneville/City Creek” observing area (Cornell 2016). Are there and where are any missing birds’ nests?

Hornets were far more common than I had previously thought. A nest down canyon of picnic site 6 is notable. The late afternoon Sun makes it glow. It is twice the size of a basketball, and it precariously sits intertwined with the smallest upper branches at the top of a 100 foot tall Rocky Mountain cottonwood. The nest sways back and forth in the wind, but it is the most secure of the five hornet nests in the lower canyon. Although I see and photograph this nest

These hornet nests provide another link in the food chain. The hornets drink nectar and eat other smaller insects. In turn, hornets are the another food source for the many small birds seen in the spring in the first canyon mile.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 9th, 1855, he visually observes his first owl in ten years, having only their heard their calls during that period.

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