City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

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).

October 6, 2016

October 6th

Battling Birds

10:45 a.m. A flock of Western Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica) have returned to the canyon, as revealed by their raucous screech call. On the north embankment of the road near Guardhouse Gate, one jay lands, picks up an acorn off the slope, throws it into the air above its head, and then expertly catches and swallows the falling nut. Like the flickers, the Gambel’s Oak acron are the scrub jay’s staple during the non-breeding season. Scrub Jays are one of the two prominent jays that pass through the canyon; the other is Stellar’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri). Both the western jay, Stellar’s Jay, and magpies are cousins in the family Corvidae.

Just northeast of Guardhouse Gate, the flock of Scrub Jays and the flock of Northern Flickers are having a heated discussion. Given that the Scrub Jays the more aggressive species, I suspect that they will get the best of the matter.

At mile 1.7 near the eastern end of Pleasant Valley, the Black-billed magpies (Pica hudsonia) have also returned. The Black-billed magpie is a commonly-seen over-wintering bird in urban Salt Lake City, and they are known for their obnoxious “wenk-wenk-wenk” screech. They are well-adapted both the city and their native open chaparral. Magpies are another bird for which I have a great deal of respect. They are highly intelligent and opportunistic. One winter, after leaving a window open, I discovered two them in the kitchen snacking on granola and three others exploring the house. They over-winter in Utah and seem to be impervious to sub-freezing temperatures that would kill a human within an hour, and despite being carrion eaters, they find adequate food during the winter. They are fearless of humans. Today, as I jog pass the mile 1.5, a magpie is sitting at the base of the 1.5 milepost sign with his back to the road. He or she only gives me a brief acknowledging glance as I stride by.

The meadow at mile 1.7 is a recuperating, open, and circular flat where a concrete reservoir used to sit. During the 2000s, the reservoir was decommissioned, like many older dams on the western urban slopes along the Wasatch Front range, out of concern that water retention structures would fail in a large earthquake. Trees circle the outside of the flat.

Today, a magpie flock is stretched along several trees on the far edge of the flat, and on the side nearest the road, a similar flock of Scrub Jays rest in a string of trees. At the tree dividing the two sides, a couple of magpies and jays are debating loudly. The magpies are larger than the jays, and they are more of a bully than their cousins. I suspect the magpies will win the discussion.

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