City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 23, 2017

June 19th

Filed under: Astronomy, Birds, Geology, Insects, Mammals, Microbes, Mollusks, Plants, Seasons — canopus56 @ 9:18 am

Last Day of Spring and a Walk Through Time

3:00 p.m. It is the last day of astronomical spring, and the canyon has completed its seasonal growth spurt, has become pregnant, and is readying itself for the coming stress of summer’s heat. Today, as I sometimes do, I see a walk through nature as a walk through geologic time and the history of life. The canyon contains living refugees from each major geologic period.

The seep below picnic site 6 contains slimes, molds, bacteria and protozoa from the Hadean Eon to the Precambrian period in the Neoproterozic, 530 million years ago. There are 2.2 x 10^30 prokaryotes in the 4 kilometers of Earth beneath my feet from that era (December 20th), and another 7.2 x 10^24 microbes in the 4 kilometers of air above my head (id). The orange lichens on the Gambel’s oak trees also come from this time. The mosses also that adorn the oaks and that live on rocks in the stream come represent life’s first steps onto the land in the Ordovician period 485 million years ago. The trout in the stream represent the arrival of fish in the Silurian period 443 million years ago. The horsetails by the side of the road represent the vascular plants that also migrated to the land during the Silurian periods.

Insects first appear during the Devonian about 400 million years ago. The canyon’s conifers represent the Carboniferous period beginning about 350 million years ago. The Permian period beginning about 290 million years ago when mollusks arrived is represented by the Common garden snails seen crossing the road. The Permian is also when insects like the Variegated Meadowhawk dragonflies arose.

The Mesozoic era, including the age of the dinosaurs during the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods, began about 250 million years ago. Presently, the dinosaurs are represented by their descendants, the many birds of the canyon. The many flowering plants and trees in the canyon first appeared during the Cretaceous, 130 million years ago. The late Cretaceous is represented by the canyon’s Western rattlesnakes and Western ground snakes (Sonora semiannulata). Small mammals like the Rocky Mountain deer mice and Rock squirrels also first appeared during that period.

The Cenozoic era, including the Paleogene period that began forty million years ago, is represented by the canyon’s many butterflies. The Neogene period that began about 25 million years ago is represented by the grasses along the road. The early Quaternary period, the Pleistocene, that began about 2.5 million years ago, are represented the canyon’s coyotes, mountain lions and black bears. The late Quaternary, the Holocene, is represented by homo sapiens, myself and the other walkers and runners on the road.

In the last 500 million years, the Earth has rotated around the core of the Milky Way two times. Life remains persistent, infinite, incomprehensible, and irrepressible.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 19th, 1852, he notes that clover, buttercups and geraniums are at their peak. Grapes and mullein are blooming. He hears robins and walks across a summer-dried swamp and collect orchids. On June 19, 1853, blue-eyed grass, a small iris, is blooming. He sees a blue jay, a tanager, and a cucokoo. He hears a night warbler and a bobolink. On June 19th, 1854, he admires a distant thunderstorm. On June 19th, 1859, he observes a squirrel nest and its young, and he sees a partridge. On June 19th, 1860, he follows a fox track back to its burrow.

* * * *

On June 19th, 1993, the 14th annual Wasatch Steeplechase was won by Tom Borschel with a time of 2:02:50 (Salt Lake Tribune, June 20, 1993). On June 19th, 1992, the City and the L.D.S. Church develop a master plan that proposed a five block parkway with City Creek raised to the surface (Salt Lake Tribune). The Tribune notes an enlarged underground conduit was installed after the 1983 floods along North Temple (id). On November 19th, 2006, a human skill was found by tree-trimming crews working in City Creek Canyon, and a subsequent search failed to find any other remains (Deseret News). On June 19th, 1925, the City condemned land at the mouth of City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 19th, 1917, the City reopened City Creek Canyon after initially closing the canyon out of concerns that terrorist saboteurs might harm the City’s water supply (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 13, 1913, in support of a national education convention held in the City, Parks Commissioner George D. Kesyer plans to open City Creek Canyon road to automobiles (Salt Lake Tribune). Prison labor will be used to improve the road (id). On June 19th, 1903 in a lengthy statement, City Engineer L. C. Kelsey described the risk to the City of flooding from a cloudburst after hundreds died in a cloudburst flood in Heppner, Oregon:

“A part of the city is located at the mouth of City Creek canyon in such a position that a heavy cloudburst in the canyon would send a wall of water into the city that would cause a heavy loss of probably both life and property.”

“I understand that cloudbursts in former years have done considerable damage, but nothing of that kind has ever happened while I have been here.”

“A cloudburst of any considerable magnitude would do almost incalculable damage, and I cannot see how it could be avoided.”

“There is no possible way to divert such a stream without an enormous expenditure of money. If unlimited means were at hand the question would have to be most carefully considered. I would not suggest any means of reaching this end without studying the situation. Means, however, could certainly be devised.”

“A war of water coming down the canyon, similar to that at Heppner, would sweep everything before it. Residences in the canyon’s mouth would fall like card houses and the wave would then sweep down North Temple and State streets. The greater volume would go down the former and the wall surrounding Temple square would melt before it.”

“The Temple itself, the basement at least would be inundated and havoc would be played there. The water going westward would soon spread, but incalculable damage and perhaps heavy loss of life would mark its path.”

“The lesser volume would go down State street, spreading ruin in its course, until it, too, had dissipated.”

“While such a thing is not probable, it is altogether possible, as the city in a climatic belt where cloudbursts could be well expected. Such things cannot, however, be foreseen” (id).

On June 19th, 1895, Watermaster Commissioner Heath reminds citizens that no fishing is allowed in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 19, 1894, the Lady Rosalind Stearns bicycle race was held up City Creek (Salt Lake Tribune). Three racers went up the canyon at full speed, and the winner was forced by exhaustion to dismount at seven miles up the canyon (id).

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.

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