City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 23, 2017

June 21st

Growth Spurts

6:45 p.m. In the cool of the late evening, I jog towards Pleasant Valley at mile 1.2. A Lazuli bunting (Passerina amoena) perches near the gate. Near mile 0.3, a flash of bright yellow on the outside of a tree catches the eye. It is a Yellow warbler (Dendroica petechia). At mile 1.1, I mistake plaintive calls for raptor chicks, but it is only the squawking of a pair of Western scrub jays (Aphelocoma californica).

The summer-like heat turns flowering plants. The leaves of Wild carrots (Lomatium dissectum), a.k.a. Fernleaf biscuitroot, are browning, and their seeds are turning a light purple. Curly dock weeds (Rumex crispus) have turned a deep brown. I admire Curly dock. It grows, flowers, and dies over only for a few weeks in the spring, but then its rich brown color accents the canyon throughout the rest of the year. Only in the early spring, does it finally succumb to winter’s weather, and then in a few weeks, it begins to regrow. Even the seeds of yesterday’s Milkweed have turned from a light green to a subtle purple in a single day. Foxglove beardtongues (Penstemon digitalis) that have delicate bell-like flowers have deepened in color from white to streaked pink.

Other plants respond to this initial summer heat with a growth spurt. Starry solomon’s seal plants (Maianthemum stellatum) have reached almost two feet in height. At the seep below picnic site 6, watercress (Nasturtium officinale) has grown four inches in height in just a few days. Scouring rush horsetails (Equisetum hyemale) along the road stand erect and have also reached two feet in height. At lower Pleasant Valley field, Wild bunchgrass (Poa secunda) is two to two and one-half feet high. Heat drives this rush.

Hovering other the Pleasant Valley field, a fleet of twenty Common whitetail dragonflies dart back and forth and play tag in the evening breeze. Their miniature relatives, Circumpolar Bluets (Enallagma cyanigerum) line the first mile roadside. Returning down-canyon, a Pinacate stink bug (Eleodes sp.), a.k.a. the Darkling sting bug, is running down the road. This is the first time that I have seen one fast motion, and usually they standing with their abdomens pointed into the air and ready to launch a chemical spray on predators. When running, its oversized rear legs make its large black abdomen comically waive back and forth. Since cars are banned from the canyon today, many bicyclists streak by heeding on caution for speed.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 21st, 1852, he notes that adder’s tongue, a fern, smells like snakes. He hears a cherry bird. He sees a field with snap-dragon and he notes that lupines have lost their blooms. He hears thunder when there are no clouds in the sky. He collects morning glories. On June 21st, 1854, he notes the many smells in the air, including may-flowers and cherry bark. He compares how a stream bank has grown from a low covering of brown in spring to a thicket of weeds in summer. He finds a small pond with two pout fish and a brood of small fry. He describes a sprout forest – a forest of small sprouts that grows from fallen trees. He sees wild roses. On June 21st, 1856, he sees night hawks, and on June 21st, 1860, he observes pine pollen covering the surface of water.

* * * *

On June 21st, 2000, Mayor Rocky Anderson held a press conference urging Congress to pass a bill that would designate a portion of offshore federal oil revenues to fund improvements in local parks like City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1995, Rotary Club members repainted benches at Rotary Park in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1994, a 19 year-old man was robbed at knife point by his passenger after they drove to City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 21st, 1934, Street Commissioner Harold B. Lee referred a proposal by former City Engineer S. Q. Cannon to employ road crews to widen City Creek Canyon Road to the Depression Federal Emergency Recovery Act Bureau (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 21st, 1912, City Parks Commissioner George D. Keyser proposed a circular scenic boulevard be created up City Creek, along 11th Avenue to Fort Douglas, then to Sugarhouse, and then returning to the City’s center (Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Telegram). The route would be lined with trees (id). On June 21st, 1906, City Engineer Kelsey reported that 100 miles of sidewalks will be completed in the City this year and another 25 miles of roads will be paved or graveled (Salt Lake Telegram). A minor $1,000 project will construct a bridge in City Creek Canyon (id).

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.

May 29, 2017

May 28th

It is enough. This is the Right [Natural] Place – Part VI – Future Population Growth

5:30 p.m. I have misjudged the reopening of the road; it has opened to traffic today, but only a few cars come through the gate even though it is a beautiful blue-skied day. The road will also be open to cars tomorrow, Memorial Day. From the gate to mile 0.2, Warbling vireos sing, and I get a Black-headed grosbeak to respond to my playing of bird song audio recordings. When I return down canyon an hour later, a female Yellow warbler is at the top of what I now calling “Perching Tree”. The Perching tree is below picnic site one; it is about 40 feet tall; but the last 15 feet of its vertical branches are bare. Various birds like to perch there in the warm evening sunlight (May 19th, Lazuli bunting; May 23rd, Western tanager). The perch gives the birds a clear view of the surrounding landscape, and although it exposes them to attack from the hawks above, the bare branches prevent other birds from approaching unseen from below. Near picnic site 3, a Chirping sparrow, a Song sparrow and a House finch are heard.

In this lowest part of the first mile road, the blossoms of red ozier dogwoods and chokecherry shrubs are failing or are closed. The leafless ovaries are swelled and pregnant. At picnic site 3, blossoms on one dogwood are three-quarters gone and the remaining one-quarter is mobbed by a one-hundred nectar drinking 1-2 millimeter flies. But further up canyon at mile 0.7, the red ozier dogwoods are still in full bloom. As with the chokecherry, the pregnant ovaries have swelled in preparation for seed making. At the seep around the bend from picnic site 6, a cattail has grown to six feet high. Near the Red Bridge, a Box Elder tree is festooned with this season’s new catkins, full of seeds. Near mile 1.1, Wild geraniums are smaller than those found lower at mile 0.2, and there is a strain of white, not purple, colored blossoms at this higher and drier site.

Near mile 0.4, there is a small grove of new horsetails whose top buds are fully expanded. These horsetails appear different from the predominate variety in the canyon. They are larger in diameter and light, instead of dark green in color. When I tap one with my finger, it gives off small clouds of dense white spores. That horsetails give off spores means that they reproduce asexually and not sexually through seeds. Other horsetails in the canyon do not have these new season buds. Horsetails are primitive plants that originated in the Devoian period about 400 million years ago.

At the tunnel seep below picnic site 6, there is a small brown butterfly with a black pattern along its leading wingtips. It is a Sleepy duskywing (Erynnis brizo burgessi). About eight others are spread out along the first mile. At mile 1.1, they are joined by a single Yellow swallowtail butterflies and a lone Red-rumped central bumble bee. Near mile 0.6, a diarrhetic bird was laid a series of thick spots on center of the road, and a Stink bug is busily cleaning up one by feeding.

Near mile 1.1, eight unidentified large raptors are circling about 300 feet overhead and around the meadows on the south-east Salt Lake salient. They are too high for identification. They are black from above, have a black body with dark tails, but their trailing underwings are a dirty white with black leading edges. The beak is not raven or crow-like. That they are flying high is good, for I hear loud chirping coming from underneath the shelter of a nearby low plant whose broad leafs are about 12 by 18 inches wide. It is a mallard chick. As newborns, mallard chicks look like their mothers. They have a brown back and a brown eye-strip across a light brown-yellow face, but their breast feathers are a lighter yellow. This chick appears lost. It clutch-mates are not near as it moves from underneath its hide and pathetically sits in the open. The chick sees me as a large parental figure and wants me to help. As I regrettably leave, I can only hope that its mother is gathering food in the nearby in the stream and that she will return before a predator finds her young. I also hope by leaving that the chick’s protective instincts will reassert itself, and the young bird will return to wait quietly underneath its leafy hiding place.

After some research at home, I find that my “raptors” are not raptors after all. They are Turkey vultures. Turkey vultures eat only carrion and not eat live prey. The mallard chick was safe from them. This is a beginner bird identification mistake.

* * * *

On April 6th and 7th, I alluded to how the Mormons have many important choices to make regarding the canyons of Salt Lake valley, including City Creek Canyon. Many of these will be population driven. On the one hand, Mormon Utah has a propensity to have large families, and this creates high pressures for rapid development, and that might lead to increased demand for developing water, the evaporation of the Great Salt Lake (May 27th), and decline of bird populations (May 26th). Other meta- or mega-trends suggest an opposite course. Although the Earth is on a path to add 3 billion more persons and to reach by 2050 a global population of between 8.5 and 13 billion persons with a mean forecast of about 10 billion persons. A mega-trend for all developed countries and developing countries except Africa is that the total fertility rate has declined below the sub-fertility replacement threshold (United Nations 2015). This includes China, the United States, the Russian Federation, Japan, and Germany. This means that their populations will decline in the future and that future populations will age and that and capitalism, which has been rooted in ever expanding markets, must adapt to negative yields. Early effects of this are seen in Japan, which elected to not permit the importation of foreign workers, and that decision was one cause of Japan’s stagnant economic growth since the 1990s. Capital, fearing Japan’s negative growth population structure and hence negative yield outlook, has been flowing out of the country. The United States and the European Union responded differently by, in the case of the United States allowing massive illegal immigration, and in case of the European Union by having large legal guest worker programs.

In the United States, Utah is an exception due its Mormon heritage. In 2014, Utah’s total fertility rate is 2.33, or about 0.5 higher than the national average of 1.86 (Perlich 2016). But even Utah’s rate continues to decline as rapidly as the nation’s, and in the near future even Utah may drop below replacement fertility of 2.1.

These general population trends for the global, for the United States, for Utah and the canyon suggests several alternative long-term outcomes for recreation use in City Creek and the other Salt Lake valley canyons. The trend also has implications for public support for their continued preservation as a natural areas. In one scenario, the global population continues towards the 10 billion forecast and Utah’s population continues to age. As Utah has more older citizens, they will be less able or interested to take long weekend journeys for outdoor recreation. They will become more interested in preserving areas like City Creek and the other Salt Lake valley canyons in order to have an adequate supply of nearby outdoor recreation opportunities. Second, the United States could embark on a massive immigration program in order to sustain the historical population increases on which modern capitalism demands in order to maintain positive investment yields. In that case, continued population growth will fuel the demand for more water in the Bear River Basin and more land development in the nearby canyons. Third, population trends could move towards the high end the United Nations’ forecast of 13 billion persons by 2050. The result in Utah would be the same as in second scenario.

Faced with such uncertainty, government could decide to either make plans with definite functional objectives on the state of the future environment or make, what I call “non-plan” plans. In a non-plan plan, governments merely state that they meet their minimum legal obligations, e.g. – constraints imposed by the Endangered Species Act – and that the governmental entity will study issues as the baseline state of the social, economic or physical environment changes. Most of the governmental plans previously discussed, such as the 2013 Utah Department of Natural Resources Great Salt Lake Management Plan or the recent draft Salt Lake County Resource Management Plan fall into the “non-plan” plan category (Salt Lake County 2017). The other approach is to define functional objectives or desired states, and the 1986 Salt Lake City Master Plan for City Creek is an example, e.g. – the City will operate the canyon as a natural area. A consequence of ambiguous plans is that clear signals are not sent to stakeholders, and the price of such plans is that instead of having stability, citizens must remain vigilant against never-ending attempts by better funded development interests to revisit previously settled matters (April 28th).

* * * *

On May 28th, 2010, the City announces that it will close City Creek Canyon while helicopters spray the herbicide Milestone on the Starthistle infestation at City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). (From 2011 to 2017, the City will hand spray Milestone on selected small areas of about 20 acres.) On May 28th, 2008, Samuel Stewart announced that he would host President George Bush at his home overlooking City Creek Canyon in order to raise funds for John McCain’s presidential race (Salt Lake Tribune). On May 28th, 1881, the Union Pacific and the United States will survey City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). The Union Pacific owns a federal land grant of twenty-miles of land on either side of the railroad in Morgan County interspersed with Forest Service sections, which includes parts of City Creek (Salt Lake Tribune).

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.

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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).

May 9, 2017

May 6th

Wizards of the Canyon Soundscape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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