City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

December 21, 2016

Winter: December 21st

Death and Resurrection

7:00 a.m. The cold has reached sub-freezing depths this morning as I jog along the canyon road our latitude reaches its furthest tilt away from the warming Sun. It is the first day of winter, and now the Earth will begin to point its northern latitudes and the canyon back towards the Sun and summer. For many cultures, the winter solstice marks a point of rebirth, and rituals such as the Christianized birth of the Jesus figure embody celebration of this seasonal change. During the northern solstice, people feel nearest to death and seek refuge in the belief of an immortal soul that exists after physical death. It is difficult for me as a product of a modern scientific culture to believe in that notion. Azevedo and colleagues found that there are about 84.6 +/- 9.8 billion neurons in the human brain. What I experience as me is the result of connections between some 8.6 billion neurons in my brain, and each of those neurons can have connections with another 14,000 other neurons. This means that my brain can have 8.6 billion to the 14,000th power potential states or 10 to the 11,200,000th power states. This is far more than the estimated 10 to the 82nd power atoms in the visible universe. Thus, it seems impossible that once the biological support for those connections ends that some independent entity can continue in the form of a soul. However, my experience of “me” is my experience of an ego that surrounds an unconscious mind capable of many things that I cannot achieve by my conscious mind alone. This everyday experience of “me” suggests and re-enforces the feeling that some independent entity might continue in whatever form.

But nature generally and the canyon specifically provide alternative examples that confuse the boundary between life and death. Here, under the snow and leaf liter and in underground burrows, impregnated wasp and bee queens lie frozen solid. Although science does not describe it as such, but for all intents and purposes they are dead. Not here, but in other northern parts of the United States, similarly, there are frogs that are frozen solid during the winter. When the warming spring comes, these seemingly dead wasps, bees, and frogs simply thaw and come back to life, apparently unharmed by the experience of being dead for several months. What then is the boundary between life and death and how can we say that life and death are permanent states?

In a few months, when the wasp and bee queens revive, the canyon will host a true, annual reoccurring resurrection.

Compare to Thoreau’s journal entries of January 8th, 1857 and January 24th, 1858, where he finds caterpillars frozen solid that revive when warmed. 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 21st, 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the passing of a surgeon born in 1932, and who, developed a life-long passion for the outdoors as the result of spending much time in City Creek Canyon as a boy living in the Avenues.


November 13, 2016

November 13th

How Nature Goes to Sleep

2:00 p.m. Last Friday was the sixth or seventh in a series of clear fall, warm days. During an afternoon jog, there were many unusual insects on or crossing the road, and at mile 0.6, there was a small golden iridescent beetle. It was a Golden Tortoise beetle (Charidotella sexpunctata). At mile 0.4, a yellow lady bug with large black spots on its back, landed on my hand. It was a Squash lady beetle (Epilachna borealis). At mile 0.3, there was what appears to be a Common stonefly (Zapada cinctipes) with its long forked tails, but the colors its abdomen are wrong: the segments are divided by white stripes. A sole European paper wasp flies by.

It is a month since the first day of Fall (Sept. 22nd). In the Fall, nature is going to sleep for the winter. Before visiting the canyon on a daily basis, I used to be wrapped up in the work day and did not notice the subtleties in the change of seasons. I thought the progression from Fall to Winter to be abrupt; it is an overnight affair that comes with the first deep snow. Now, having been in the canyon everyday this season, I see a longer pattern that is driven by the rate of change in the length of the day and astronomy of the Earth’s orbit.

At the equinox, the rate of change of the length of day is at its highest; the length of days decrease by at most four minutes per day. That initial rate of change causes a shock to the atmosphere and results in early Fall storms, and trees in the canyon respond by dropping their leaves. Storms come followed by a period of warm weather, and the insects not killed by initial cold storms respond by migrating to some new location to search for the less available food or to seek a new location in which to hibernate over the winter. The length of these warm periods lengthen as the rate of change in the length of the day decreases, although the absolute length of the day continues to decline. The few remaining insects rebound, but then their numbers are reduced to a lower absolute level by the next storm. This Fall cycle where storms are followed by longer periods of warm weather, continue until some tipping point is reached as the absolute length of the day fails to hold back the first frost and-or the first snowfall. The length of the day continues to decline until the first day of winter near Christmas.

The result of this cycle are days like last Friday, where unusual insect refugees are found on or along the road. In the summer, they are hidden by dense foliage, and although they are more numerous in the summer, they do not have to travel far for food. Now, the survivors chance leaving the protection of the leaves and venture far for food, and they are more easily seen. Some fail and lay flaying on the road. Several unidentified spiders were seen on the road, and they take advantage of this late season bounty.

Nature goes to sleep like an insomniac. It does not go to sleep abruptly. In the Fall, nature tries with the first heavy storms to fall asleep at once, then partially reawakens, and tries again for slumber. It repeats this cycle until true winter overtakes it, and forces it to rest.

Humans, even those of the modern post-industrial world, are part of this astronomical cycle: we celebrate our holidays in response to the change in the length of days at cross-quarter days. Today, it is about a week past the cross-quarter day of the Fall – Halloween or All Saints Day, and the rate of change in the length of days has reduced to about one minute per day. Seasons are about ninety days long and cross-quarter days occur about forty-five days after the start of the season or forty-five days before the end of a season. The other lessor holidays occur that occur near cross-quarter days are Groundhog Day in the winter, May Day in the spring, and Labor Day in summer. Major holidays are near the solstices and equinoxes when the rate of change in the length of the day is at its greatest.

In his “Journal” on November 13, 1851, Thoreau observes that after a snowfall, crickets and mosquitoes can no longer be found.

October 21, 2016

October 21st

Smart Trout

1:30 p.m. At the water striders’ pool at picnic site 5 (Sept. 12th), I see the first brown trout in the canyon for over a month. The light filtering through the trees brings out the molted spotting on its upper skin. This trout hides in the pool under a branch that dips across the pool’s middle. I remain motionless for a minute and in reply it station-keeps with one eye gazing at me. When I make a sudden move by taking one quick step the right, the trout frantically swims under a stream-cut overhang that is covered by dense foliage. It has excellent eyesight even through the water’s surface. In one corner of the pool is a single water strider, and these are what the trout has been feeding on. Later, the trout is joined by two smaller companions.

Today, the yellow tube of falling leaves (Oct. 11th) is over and temperatures have risen into the sixties. The predominate colors between mile 0.0. and mile 2.0 is brown and grey. Like the last sunflower (October 14th), this is another marker of seasonal Fall change. Because of the temperature, insects have again become active, but I count only thirty on the road, including possibly two Yellow-head bumble bees with black rumps, a Variegated Meadowhawk dragonfly, a large unidentified blue dragonfly, and, in the box at picnic site 11, a sole European Paper Wasp (see Oct. 11th). These rare late season insects are now more visually striking; they provide the only accents of bright colors now that the leaves have fallen. Crickets are still heard in meadows and forest undergrowth and some have come to die on the road. At picnic site 12, a woodpecker can be heard but not seen. Common woodpeckers in the canyon that drum on trees are the Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens) and the Northern Flicker.

Together, they will swim upstream to join their mates at a shallow fifteen by twenty foot pool below an outdated flood gate at mile 2.8. A regulatory “no fishing” sign on the sluice box protects them from humans. During the winter, ten or fifteen trout can be found there, resting in water so cold that it would kill a person in two or three minutes.The next marker of the seasons, as winter storms reappear at the beginning of November and December, will be season’s end for the flying insects, season’s end of the crickets, and the falling of the last remaining leaves during a heavy snow storm.

October 9, 2016

October 9th

Filed under: European Paper Wasp, mosquitoes, picnic site 11, Variegated Meadowhawks — canopus56 @ 7:08 pm

Wasp Shock

8:30 a.m. Along the road, taxpayers provide free plastic bags for visitors to pickup their dog’s droppings; however, the dispensers purchased by the City do not work well. The rolls of bags frequently bind up inside the housing. At picnic site 11, I pop the lid to the dispenser in order to free the roll. Today, it is empty except for two plastic bag rolls and a small beginnings of the fan shaped nest of the European Paper Wasp (Polistes dominula).

The afternoon of the day following the last storm (October 6th), I also walk up to dispenser, and as usual the plastic bag roll will not feed out of its slit. I open dispenser’s lid to free the roll, and its top half (10 in. x 12 in. by 4 in.) is filled with about 100 bright-yellow European Paper Wasps. As I jump back in alarm, the lid drops open, and all of the wasps spill out into a pile at the base of the dispenser. A few remain within the dispenser and they cling to the plastic rolls. I brace for an en masse stinging, but the European paper wasp is not particularly aggressive, and the colony has been stunned into docility by the intense overnight cold. They crawl around on the plastic rolls and on the ground while staring at me vacantly. The face of the European paper wasp is similar to their relatives, the Bald-Faced hornets, who have a nest a quarter-mile down canyon. For the European paper wasp, the lines in their face where exoskeleton plates meet are colored yellow and not white as in the Bald-Faced hornet.

I checked back an hour later. The colony, including all the wasps clumped on the ground, have flown off. They have decided that building a nest in a moving plastic roll was not a good idea.

Human make micro-habitats, and, if possible, a parcel’s original plants and animals readily adapt to those changes. The wasp using a plastic bag dispenser is an example, and the holding tank public toilet around the corner from the dispenser at picnic site 11 is another. Mosquitoes are not a significant nuisance in the summer canyon; numerous insect and bird predators, like Variegated Meadowhawk dragonflies, keep them in check. This morning, inside the toilet at picnic site 11, humans have created an ideal micro-habitat for mosquitoes, and the walls of the toilet are covered in about one-hundred “no-see-ums”. They have a ready source of water in which to breed; they are protected from the predators outside by the toilet’s walls, and heat from decaying matter in the holding tank provides a source of warmth.

But on this cold morning, these mosquitoes, like the paper wasps, can do little more than weakly flail about on the walls. None can warm themselves sufficient to fly, and thus, I am able to take care of my morning business unmolested.

Across from picnic site 11 is the gas pipeline check value. Here and along the road, several hundred bright-yellow roadside sunflowers could be found at the height of the summer. Now, only two live yellow blooms remain.

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