City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 12, 2017

July 10th

Field on a Slope

7:30 p.m. To see other areas where the Cheat grass sea has not yet penetrated, I am jogging up canyon to milepost 2.0. I am also seeking one of the few canyon locations that has a field of cacti. Along the way at the Gambel’s oak forest near mile 0.4, a female American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) drops out from behind the leaves, perches on a large oak branch. It cocks its head, listening to the branch, and then starts tapping it, looking it for insects.

Barney’s Hollow below picnic site 13 begins with fields that climb up to mile 2.3. The fields at milepost 2.0 like the Bonneville Shoreline Nature Preserve are covered with still green native Wild bunchgrass. There are four types of grass in this field, and I am only able to identify the one. The field is interspersed with white-topped weed Hoary cress and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). At one end of the field, I find the first purple Fireweed (Charmerion angustifolium L.) of the season in the lower canyon. In the high Wasatch, fireweed is usually red.

Above mile 2.3, there is a hanging field of about 15 acres and an inclined nose of about 20 acres on the west side of the canyon. In the spring, the hanging field is covered in thick Kentucky bluegrass and the inclined field above it is covered in native Wild bunchgrass. It is a special place in the canyon below mile 3.4. In the deep winter, Elk using these fields as a transit point to cross the canyon road from Little Black Mountain to the western salient ridgelines. During winter, Wild turkeys also congregate in the oaks below these fields, sometimes in flocks of up to thirty birds, and there winter coyotes attack. They pause in these fields, and there hunters wait during the October and November seasons. Mule deer use this same crossing in the spring. Reaching the hanging field is moderately difficult. The hanging field is hidden behind a step two hundred foot embankment cut by the stream over the last few thousand years. The slope is covered with Cheat grass.

Moving up to mile 2.3, I decide to try a new route up from one of many side gullies along the Pipeline Trail. In a gully heavily shaded by large overhanging oaks, the grass is thick. About every fifteen feet are funnel webs of another non-native – Hobo spiders (Eratigena agrestis). At the bottom of each funnel, there is tunnel, but I have to inspect about 20 nests before I actually see one of the spiders at the mouth of its burrow. It is unclear from the webs what the Hobo spiders are eating, and I suspect their numbers are supported by large House crickets population seen on July 6th. But there are no crickets in the grasses in this small gully.

Eventually, I come to a small seep-pond about four feet in diameter and two feet deep. Western Yellowjacket wasps rest on the surface drinking, and in the wet mud at the side of the pond is the clear massive foot print of a Shira’s moose (Alces alcs shirasi). In the late spring to early summer, single moose are sometimes seen on making their way through the oak forest near the ridgelines or in open fields on the top of Salt Lake salient’s west and east ridges. Shortly after the pond, I am stopped from going forward by thickets of Gambel’s oaks, and am forced to retreat back to the trail and try again by my usual route.

Returning to the trail and going down-canyon for a two-tenths of mile, I work my way up to the hanging valley by the usual route. The field is still thick with green native grasses, but the its soil reveals its source as the ancient mud bed of ancient Lake Bonneville. This slope faces to the south and west, and despite being covered in still growing green grasses, the mud is baked to a cracked solid. Everywhere the tracks of spring mule deer have been hardened into a grey mudstone. The large leaves of spring’s Arrowleaf balsamroot are baked to a golden and dark brown. Like the gully, these fields are also covered in numerous Hobo spider funnel webs. Although covered in native grasses, these fields just beginning to be invaded. I count fourteen Starthistle plants spread widely across both areas. Above the hanging and inclined fields of native grass is a field of Plains prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha). It is too late in the season for them; their bright red blossoms have past; and the green is draining from their spiked leaves.

As the Sun gets low in the sky, the light turns golden as the grasses wave in a newly risen breeze. A flock of five American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) float over the ridge to the west, slowly circle and descend into woods at Barney’s Hollow on the opposite, south side of the stream. They are settling down for the night. Crows are distinguished from Common ravens (Corvus corax) by their smaller size and square tails. Ravens have diamond-shaped tails and soar on thermals to cross the canyon, but crows flap their wings to power their crossing. Before landing, one crow comes over to inspect me, and finding nothing interesting catches up with its mates.

Coming back downhill, there are several odd three foot diameter distorted purple rocks. They are covered in green and black lichens. The rocks and lichens make their own abstract sculptures.

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Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 10th, 1851, he admires a sunset after a rainstorm. On July 10th, 1852, he notes again the peak of summer heat, and notes that soil has become dry. He sees white lelilot, a clover, in bloom, and he hears huckleberry bird, oven bird and red-eye. St. John’s worts are peaking. On July 10th 1854, he lists song birds active in summer including robin, warbling vireo, song sparrow, flicker, crows, and many others. On July 10, 1856, he finds an owl’s burrow and comes within six feet of a screech owl with its two young. On July 10th, 1860, he sees yellow Pennsylvania sedge grass.

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On July 10th, 2010, a 59 year old man, who enjoyed bicycling in City Creek Canyon, passed away (Deseret News). On July 10th, 2003, during the celebration of the Boy Scouts 90th anniversary in Utah, the Scouts reported that Irwin Clawson, at the age of 18, started one of the first Boy Scout Troops in Utah in 1911, and his first activity back in 1911 was to take his troop on overnight camping trips up City Creek Canyon (Deseret News).

May 10, 2017

May 8th

A Jet Stream Back-flip

4:00 p.m. The air is warm, humid and muggy, a rarity in May in Utah. A line of clouds also is uncharacteristically moving from the southeast to the northwest over the mouth of the canyon, and the east side of the valley is overcast while the west side is clear and sunny. Usually, clouds move from the southwest to the northeast as storms move in from the Pacific to the west. As I pull into the canyon parking lot, the division of these two bodies of air meet, and the result is a light, pleasing cold rain. The parking lot is full, but the road is empty except for a few walkers with rain gear. I have left my rain poncho at home, and for the first time in months, I jog with my shirt off to keep it dry. The rain is so lite that it sprinkles evaporate immediately and my shirt, held in one hand, remains dry. The rain continues on and off for the first mile, but abates at Pleasant Valley. The sky is in reverse. The dark line of clouds makes a lens across the front of the canyon, and there, although their are fewer clouds, the rain is heavy. Just beyond the lens, the sky is a deep sunny blue. The difference in the air masses makes the rain fall. At milepost 1.5, the clouds are thicker and more menacing, but their is no rain. It is a sublime scene.

Later at home, I check the jet stream map. As the globe’s air has warmed, the circumpolar jet stream has fragmented into great eddies containing low pressure systems. Unusually, the jet stream now brings moisture up from the Gulf of Mexico in a counter-clockwise turning storm. That is why the humidity reaches an unheard of sixty-five percent, and why I enjoy a refreshing spring shower while jogging. Back at Guardhouse Gate on the return leg, the clouds open up and it starts to rain heavily. The rain rejuvenates me. At other locations in the valley, lightening strikes fall with large hail stones.

At Pleasant Valley, a single Wild Turkey climbs a hill-side. Hunting season for turkey remains open from May 1st until May 31st, and now the turkeys travel alone instead of in groups. On the way down, I pass two turkey hunters and joking say, “They are up there; I know where they are; but I will not tell you where.” A tuff of dropped fur on the trail discloses the passing of a mule deer. Last year’s Curly dock (Rumex crispus) have dropped their seeds and disappeared. A new crop of these plants rises along the Pleasant Valley road. Although a noxious weed, I favor its deep red colors that contrast both with summer’s browned grasses and winter’s white snow. All of the young dock plants are healthy, except for one, that has been almost entirely consumed by Black bean aphids (Aphis fabae), and this aphid has a preference for dock species. A large three-inch Blue dasher dragonfly (Pachydiplax longipennis) streaks by on some unknown, but purposeful, errand. The first Grasshopper (Melanoplus sp.) of the season with red-colored underwings is startled along the Pipeline Trail and the meadow at Pleasant Valley.

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On May 8th, 1920, a citizen group meeting was planned to consider constructing a viaduct over City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). On May 8, 1909, a father committed suicide by hanging himself in the canyon because his business had failed and he could no longer provide for his family (Salt Lake Herald).

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).

September 20, 2016

August 21st

Filed under: Birds, Coyote, Eagle, Gambel's Oak, Mammals, Meadow Mile 1.3, Plants, Wild Turkey — canopus56 @ 11:16 pm

A Family of Turkeys

4 p.m. At mile 1.7, the presence of a group of wild turkeys is given away by a single clump of scat. At this same location in mid-July, a breeding pair were walking through the Gambel oaks followed by a brood of eight or nine chicks. Unexpectedly, wild turkeys do well in this Great Basin shrub oak habitat. In the canyon, the Gambel oak forest covers the northern slope and continues over into the much larger Bountiful drainage. The dense oaks provide protection their principal predators: hawks and eagles from above and coyotes from below. The oak’s acorns provide an ample food supply. But they’re rarely seen except in late January and February, when the winter snows drive them near the road near mile 2.2. Then they can be seen in flocks of up to twenty individuals.

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