City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

March 15, 2017

March 15th

Filed under: Ants, People, picnic site 4, Pollution, Smells, spiders, Stream, Water Skimmer — canopus56 @ 7:47 pm

A Day for the Senses

2:00 p.m. Record high temperature – 73 degrees Fahrenheit, and twenty degrees above average. Warm sun beats down. Insects continue to respond to these record highs. Box Elder bugs pass their R reproduction explosion yesterday and are diminished, but now the spiders respond. I stop counting at fifty small spiders scurrying across the road. They are oblivious to the larger world around them, and in places, I have to jump from side to side to avoid crushing them. Ants become active and run onto the round. At the pond at picnic site 4, three Water striders, the first of the new year, return. Butterflies sparsely float along the road. As yesterday, the warmth brings out numerous people and on another workday, many families with strollers are out. The stream still runs high with the early snowpack melt, and at rock pours, City Creek begins to look like its high mountain relatives. The water cascades over rocks and falls into agitated white pools. The stream is usually brown colored from the milky dust in the runoff that is only slightly opaque, but the water is set off against the brown of the creek bottom. This contrasts with the water of the boiling white, agitating eddies that creek into blue-green wedges. The silver ribbon returns for some stream sections (Dec. 26th).

At picnic site 4, I stop to do a chore. There is plastic child’s bucket that has been tangled in the low-hanging bushes on the far bank of the stream. I have grown tired of this piece of trash, and today, I have brought my river sandals. I change shoes and then wade across the two foot deep pond to remove the trash. The runoff is only slightly cold and afterward I am refreshed. As I wade across, a great plume of silt is raised, and the pond turns light brown for about five minutes. I now understand Salt Lake’s 1894 Mayor Baskin’s February 6th, 1895 comment that the City’s “inhabitants have been compelled to drink and use for culinary purposes very muddy, unwholesome and unpalatable water,” and why the City prohibited fishing in the stream beginning in 1895 (Salt Lake Tribune, June 19, 1895). Although the stream bed is made of rocks, the rocks are not natural. In 1896, this section of stream was lined with rip-rapp in order to reduce both sediment and to keep stream water from seeping into the true silt base hidden below the rocks (Salt Lake Herald, May 20 and July 26, 1896). Over the last one-hundred and ten years, the rip-rap has been covered with silt.

At milepost 1.5, a fresh katabatic wind blows up canyon, and between wind, the warm sun, and relaxing wade in the cool mountain stream, I mind cannot help to wander and just enjoy this feast for the senses.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on March 15th, 1857, he observes trout swimming in a zig-zag pattern. On March 15th, 1860, he admires a circling hen-hawk.

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February 20, 2017

February 20th

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Blacked-Headed Chickadee, picnic site 4, Wasp — canopus56 @ 1:57 pm

Hornet Nest

Opened Hornet Nest

External Link to Image

Source: Author. The nest is rotated 180 degrees and in nature points down.

10:30 a.m. It is a very windy day, and a holiday. The wind blows leaves on and by the side of the road in two patterns. First, is a widening v-shaped spray. Second, the brown leaves dance together in a circle and are driven by a hidden dust devil. The canyon is again full of strollers, runners and bicyclists. The Black-billed magpies have come around the ridgeline from Ensign Peak (Feb. 15th), and taken up residence near picnic site 2 and down canyon from the Black-capped chickadees.

Near picnic site 4, I peel back the bark of a horizontal fallen snag. Underneath the bark are no insects, but there are long strands of a fungus sticking between the trunk and the bark. Hidden well up under the bark is a Paper wasp nest. The wasps carefully choose this place. Only a small opening in the bark leads down a tunnel to their hidden fan shaped nest. This is the natural version of their human adapted nests at the Red Bridge and in the natural gas pipeline valve station tubes (Dec. 10th). At those sites, the Paper wasp nests are inside metal fence hangers and bridge tubing. At picnic site 9, the hornet’s nest that I discovered on September 27th, long abandoned, has finally fallen from its tree. Inspecting the nest, it is apparent how the Bald-Faced hornets, who are a more social form of wasps, have engineered an evolutionary improvement in home building over their cousins, the Paper wasps. The Bald-Faced hornet nest also contains fanned shaped crèches that hang down from an attachment point. But in the hornet nest, they have constructed apartment style tiers. From the middle of the first, largest tier, a stack protrudes and on the bottom of that stalk, a second tier hangs. The third smallest tier hangs below. The diameter of the respective tiers contain 17, 12, and 9 cells, and this suggests that this compact eight inch high colony contained about 380 individuals. It is around this that the hornets build a thin multi-layer shell about two to three times the central colony. The shell contains air gaps that provide ventilation and natural cooling. The nest’s core colony is a marvel of insect engineering and the broken outer paper shell an artistic swirl of gray toned bands. That such beautiful complex construction can arise from simple, almost robotic insects is inspiring.

On my way down-canyon, I check the five hornet nests that I inventoried on December 10th. Winter weather has blown all from the trees. In a few months, will they will rebuild at the same locations?

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 20th, 1856, he finds otter tracks.

On February 20th, 1909, City Engineer Louis C. Kelsey reported on infrastructure accomplishments across several years of his tenure (Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake Herald). He recommended the replacement of the wooden flume below the City Creek Brick Tanks reservoir be replaced with a concrete flume and that water mains be extended into the business district.

February 19, 2017

February 19th

Filed under: Blacked-Headed Chickadee, Horsetail, Lichen, picnic site 4, picnic site 6 — canopus56 @ 6:19 pm

Blue-Green Lichen

4:00 p.m. It rains into the afternoon, but around 3:00 p.m. the Sun reappears. Horsetails have tan pads that divide each green segment, and usually, these go unnoticed. But the rain makes the green more vibrant, and where horsetails hang over the stream, the beige segments are highlighted. Drops of rainwater stick to the cylindrical segments and randomly fall into the stream below. In response to the continuing warmth, the Black-capped chickadees have moved further up canyon to mile 0.6. Now that the snow is gone, it leaves behind a flattened mat barely 1/16th inch thick of soaked leaves. In the autumn, these covered the ground to a depth of four inches. Scraping at the mat with a stick, one small insect is dislodged. All is primed for leaves’ decay back into soil, and the ground only waits the addition of spring’s heat. Testing the Box Elder catkins, the helicopter seeds easily come loose and are awaiting the strong winds of March. At picnic site 4, an unusual lichen stands out. Lichen is uniformly orange on trees in the lower canyon, as was this specimen. But the lichen on this tree has changed in the last week; it now has an orange green tint. Examining the lichen closely, under the orange lichen miniature green moss-like leaves are fruiting. Interspersed with these plants are three-quarter inch circles of a kaleidoscopic blue-green lichen. The centers are slate blue, the border is light blue, and a splash of new growth light blue-green tops the mass. At mile 0.2, I find another “mystery hole” next to the road (December 3rd). This hole is only four inches in diameter, and on exploring it with a stick, it is at least eighteen inches deep.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on February 19th, 1852, he notes that the lengthening of the days is a sign of the coming of spring. At night, he sees a bright auroral display that covers the entire northern horizon. On February 19, 1853, he finds more insect cocoons.

On February 19th, 2006, a moose wandered out of City Creek Canyon and into the Avenues where wildlife officers tranquilized it for removal (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 13th, 1913, 49 head of cattle were found illegally grazing in City Creek Canyon and were impounded by the City (Salt Lake Herald). On February 19th, 1912, Superintendent of Waterworks Charles F. Barrett recommended tunneling in City Creek in order to develop new water supplies for the City and to reduce current water shortages (Salt Lake Telegram). On February 19th, 1903, City Councilperson Hewlett recommended building a reservoir in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On February 19th, 1896, Charles Stewart, the manager of a mine in Hardscrabble Canyon just on the other side of the City Creek divide, argued for the development of a road down City Creek Canyon from Morgan County (Salt Lake Herald).

January 10, 2017

January 10th

Wooden Noises

3:00 p.m. Last night media was concerned that flooding may occur because of the heavy rain and continuing high temperatures. Most of the snow is gone from south facing slopes and the snow left along the road is saturated with water. It has remained warm, so no crust has formed on the snow’s surface, but everywhere the snow is covered with bits of bark, leaves and dirt from a high wind. There is no sign of the potential flood; the stream has not risen; but, for the remainder of the season the risk of avalanche in the high Wasatch Front Mountains will be high. At higher elevations, this water soaked layer will form a base on which further snow layers will accumulate, and this can form a fracture zone in which back country skiers can be swept to burial. At Guardhouse Gate, a chickadee is sings a bright note. The sky is overcast and gives off a uniform diffuse light. For some stretches of the stream, I see hints of the silver ribbon (Dec. 26th).

Where the snow bank is partially eaten away, the bunch grass is exposed, and the dried tan grass is mixed in with still growing green shoots. Although recently soaked in water, this time the tips of the oaks and maples do not turn red-tinged (Dec. 11th), and the trees make no start at growth in response to the water. Although I had thought that mosses had stopped growing, at the down-canyon end of picnic site 4, I find two trees where on the west side, they are covered in bright orange lichen and on the east side, they are covered in a thick mat of dark-green moss.

From this weather, at picnic site 9, the Bald-Faced hornet nest is reduced to the size of a large grapefruit. At picnic site 1, the hummingbird nest is dissipating. I can partially see through its weaving.

Another storm front is approaching, and at mile 1.3, the wind gusts at 30 miles per hour while six anterless elk graze on a west hillside about three hundred feet away. The Gambel’s oaks creak and groan. Leaves rustle, and a single leaf loudly tumbles across the surface of the snow. There is a fourth sound. Where the wind causes two small branches to collide, they make a subtle dull and hollow thud sound, similar to tone of musical wooden xylophone. In their resting state, it sound as if the branches of trees are empty of water.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on January 10th, 1957, he records a -8 degree F. temperature with heavy snows that have trapped him at home. He recalls summer. On January 10th, 1858, Thoreau prescribes the snow-covered beauty of catkins as a remedy for winter seasonal affect disorder. He notes that any sight of “catkins, birds’ nests, insect life” is welcomed in winter. He observes a sunset in which pink light is reflected off of snow.

December 26, 2016

December 26th

Filed under: Geology, Light, picnic site 4, Stream — canopus56 @ 9:02 pm

The Silver Ribbon

12:30 p.m. Where the road and stream turn nearly south for straight sections between picnic site 4 and picnic site 2, the Sun can align between the viewer and the stream. Between noon and 1:30 p.m., sections of the stream reflect the Sun and the stream appears as a metallic silvery strip. Compare to the Golden Ribbon (December 14th) and the Black Ribbon (December 16th).

The tracks of the elk and deer that descend to the valley and Memory Grove (Dec. 25) can be traced back along the south-west canyon wall and ridgeline all the way back to milepost 1.5, but only one female elk can be seen high on the shaded south canyon wall south and east of Pleasant Valley. Horizontal sandstone rock layers that permeate the first mile of the canyon below Pleasant Valley are emphasized by the heavy snow. Only the cliffs are brown, and these contrast with the snow drifts that covered the rest of the walls.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 26th, 1840, he wonders how fish living underneath winter ice must perceive the changing of the seasons. On December 26th, 1853 and again on December 26th 1855, he notes how a fresh heavy snow pushes and weighs down the trees. He describes a pine tree recently hit by lightening. On December 26th, 1854, he records a Christmas without snow. He observes how a squirrel has dug out the snow bound entrance to its burrow. He sees the occasional sprig of newly growing green grass in the middle of winter.

December 23, 2016

December 23rd

Filed under: picnic site 2, picnic site 3, picnic site 4, Sounds, Stream — canopus56 @ 7:09 pm

Stream Sounds

1:00 p.m. The canyon has warmed considerably under morning bright sunlight, but the beginnings of a large storm front arrives at noon and quickly hides the Sun. It is a Friday before the Christmas holiday weekend, and the canyon is filled with the conversations of about thirty people and the sounds of city rumble. Many are traveling to their weekend destinations, but the distant noise of their vehicles, planes and trains do not lessen the sounds from the stream.

Listening closely to stream sounds between picnic site 1 and picnic site 5, I hear that they fall into three categories. The first sound is a like gentle pouring rain, and it is produced where the stream falls over a small three to six inch uniform ledge across the stream bed. The second second is a “plonk”, and it is produced where two rocks constrict the flow from both sides of the stream. There, the stream has carved out a six inch depression at the rocks’ base, and the falling water takes air to the bottom which then escapes to the surface to make the depth throat-ed popping noise. The third sound is rare, and it is the sound of two rocks striking each other. In front of a larger rock, a small horizontal eddy has formed, and within it a smaller rock rests. The current repeatedly lifts the smaller rock and strikes it against the larger, and this creates a deep thud.

Two bow hunters are walking out the canyon. They have successfully taken an elk. Each has one butchered hind-leg in their backpack. They left the remainder of the three-hundred pound carcass rotting in this watershed canyon. More waste of living things.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 23, 1837, he notes a only one robin in his winter landscape. On December 23, 1856, he observes that on the coldest nights, the ground will crack with an audible sound, and on December 23, 1860, he observes larks during winter.

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.

December 3, 2016

December 3rd

Filed under: Brown or Norwegian rat, mile 0.5, picnic site 4 — canopus56 @ 4:39 pm

Mystery Hole

Noon. On November 15th, 2016, I again check the mystery hole near milepost 0.5. Ten paces past the milepost 0.5 sign on the south side of the road is five inch diameter hole with well-worn, smooth sides. It is the burrow home of some type of a mammal, but which one? The hole is too large for a snake or for a squirrel. The hole was also dug in damp consolidated clay, a material that squirrels do not favor. The burrow may be part of a larger underground network of tunnels. About 75 feet north of this mystery hole, there are three raised, disturbed spots in the ground that may be other closed off entrances. I do not want to reach down into the hole to seek further clues, but last month, I covered the top with leaves, and there has been no movement. Even Sophie, my border collie jogging companion did not get a scent hit off the hole (Nov. 14th). The burrow is empty. Consulting my guides, the best prospect for the hole’s maker is the Brown or Norwegian rat (Rattus norvegicus), a common urban pest. Today, December 3rd, the mystery hole is buried under the snow. Will it be reoccupied in the spring?

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 3rd, 1857, he tells of turning over a rock and discovering an winter ant colony with eggs.

December 2, 2016

December 2nd

Filed under: picnic site 4, River birch — canopus56 @ 8:34 pm

Mystery Bark

2:00 p.m. Back on October 19th and after a wind storm, just before picnic site 4, I find three curious pieces of River birch bark without the tree trunk in the center. Each piece is cylindrical and about 4 or 5 inches in height. There is no evidence of a seam in the cylinder and the ends show no signs of have been cut by a tool. Picnic site 4 features several clumps of healthy mature River birches. How did these mysterious pieces separate themselves from a tree? It is incredulous that some prankster might have sliced the bark from a tree and then glued the ends back together. I hunt around and find the source. There was a fallen limb in the brush. Birch bark is more resistant to decay than the interior wood pulp. The wood has decayed leaving a tube of bark at the end. This bark then cleaves off creating the cylinder. The process repeats, and then strong Fall winds lofted the cylinders next to the road.

Today in December, all of this is buried underneath the snow, but I have one of the pieces on my desk as a curiosity to show friends. Tomorrow, I will return this mystery bark back to canyon.

December 1, 2016

December 1st

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Gambel's Oak, Insects, Nests, picnic site 4, Seasons, Weather — canopus56 @ 10:13 pm

Another Wasp Nest

1:30 p.m. It is the third day since the last major storm; temperatures have remained low; and as a result the trees are still covered with unmelted snow. Where the Sun does come out from behind scattered clouds, the melting process only just begins: it is so cold that a few isolated clumps of snow drop from tree branches. This is another marker for Fall: when it becomes so cold after a storm that snow does not melt from the trees for several days. Even though it is cold, a group of about 50 middle school children are on a field trip up the canyon.

Today, for the first mile, I travel slowly and systematically scan the leafless trees for birds nests. I find no additional nests beyond the hummingbird nest at mile 0.25 (October 27th), but I am rewarded by finding another large Bald-faced Hornet nest, about one and one-quarter the size of a basketball, across on the west canyon side from picnic site 4 at mile 0.5. Unlike the nest at picnic site 9 at mile 1.2, this nest is in an oak on the slope about forty feet above the road, and since it cannot be easily reached by people, the nest is still in excellent condition. This nest was probably the source of the carnivorous wasps seen feeding on a snake carcass near this location on August 20th.

I take the temperature of the stream in order to see what the trout must contend with. The air temperature is about 31 degrees Fahrenheit, but after immersing the inexpensive mercury thermometer into the stream, the mercury rises to 42 degrees Fahrenheit. In such water, a human would loose dexterity in less than five minutes and would become unconscious in more than thirty and less than sixty minutes.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on December 1st, 1850, he dissects a hemisphere of moss and describes its growth layers.

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