City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

December 7, 2016

December 7th

Speckled Snow

1:30 p.m. December 2nd, 2016. Back on December 2nd, I am doing a very slow jog in order to closely scan the trees for birds’ nests. This is a good time of year to look for nests: the trees have lost all of their leaves and the low angle of the afternoon Fall sunlight brings out details that might otherwise be missed. I plan a survey route. I have on December 1st, I jogged the pipeline trail parallel to the road between guardhouse gate and Pleasant Valley at mile 1.2. Today, I will jog through the snow covered dirt road and trail along the south side of the canyon between mile 1.2 and the end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.7, then up the road to mile 2.2, and then back down the road along the pipeline trail that parallels the road on the north side back to mile 1.2. I will end up with another close look at the road between mile 1.2 and the gate.

Jogging along the dirt road and trail between mile 1.2 and 1.7 is hard going because the road is covered in six inches of snow, but it is rewarding. Overnight temperatures have dropped into the teens, and as a result, the surface of fresh snow is covered in the beginnings of surface hoarfrost. The hoar crystals are only between one or three millimeters in size, and this surface reflects the sun in hundreds of thousands of speckled flashes. Although the Moon is new, this same effect is spectacular under a full Moon.

The snow records the movements of unseen birds and mammals. I can easily follow how the deer have come down from the south canyon wall (November 25th), crossed the canyon floor, and started up towards their winter critical grazing fields on the north canyon ridgeline. The movements of smaller mammals that I have seen previous years are also revealed. A hair’s tracks cross the trail and climb up a slope towards the road, but is stopped by a thicket, reverses, comes back down, and then succeeds in its climb by an alternative route. Further on, the tracks of a fox are found and are distinguished by the clear imprints of its small claws. A small, very light bird has landed on the snow and barely made an imprint. It hopped once, turned to the left, and then took off again.

This small half-mile stretch of fresh hoar covered snow is a trivial and faint reminder of experiences in the high Wasatch Front Mountain Range where tracks of such snow can be found for one or two miles. Backcountry skiers hunt for this snow on slopes that drop a thousand feet or more. It has a unique sound and feel. It does crackle or crunch underfoot; it compacts with a distinct hollow thump, but still provides a firm foundation for both foot and thinner alpine backcountry ski. It provides support underneath but yields as if it were airs as one glides through it on skis.

Near the stream, I find river birches that show that spiders are still active despite the cold weather. A sunlit branch has three or four distinct spider threads along it, and since threads only last a day or so, they must have been laid after the recent snow storm. I search for some time, but I am unable to find the spider that laid them. I regain the paved road near mile 1.7.

Returning down canyon through Pleasant Valley, the south facing canyon slopes have lost their snow. Dried tan meadow grasses look like they have been combed by the hand of the wind.

After running the snow covered trails and through the cold shaded lower canyon, I am chilled but happy. Time for a hot shower at home, for a nap, and then for a relaxed and contented evening.

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October 1, 2016

October 1st

The Secret Language of Gambel’s Oaks

10 a.m. Light, weather, and other mysterious factors that speak a secret language known only to the trees of the Gambel’s oak woodland has caused those oaks’ leaves to turn. In just one day, between two to five percent of all the leaves on all Gambel’s oaks in Pleasant Valley have turned or are beginning to turn. This change is too coordinated and too purposeful to not involve communication. Do the oaks exchange chemical messages as the delicate ends of their roots intertwine underground? If so, how does this explain that clusters of oaks far removed from other oaks in the center of the meadow have also changed? Do these oaks exchange some scent, too faint for the human nose to detect, by which they all agree that it is time to go to sleep?

The leaves of the Gambel’s oak do not turn medium brown color in the same way that horse chestnut trees turn. The chestnuts at the Guardhouse gate turn brown from the outside in. The maples turn a uniform red and others a uniform yellow, and then their leaves fall to the ground. At mile 1.5 at the southwest end of Pleasant Valley, Gambel’s oak leaves first brown and curl at the outermost tips. Then suddenly, the whole leaf turns.

Paradoxically, at the northeast end of Pleasant Valley at mile 1.7, the Gambel’s oak leaves first develop brown spots distributed uniformly over the entire leaf. These grow, the leaf edges turn, and then the entire leaf goes. Around the bend in the road at mile 1.8, these spots also cover the red leaves of maple trees, but such spots are absent from both the oaks and maples lower in the canyon near the guardhouse. On closer inspection, the spots are raised dollops of infection, either fungal or bacterial, growing on the leaf surface. As the leaves turn, the leaves become susceptible to infection, and succumb. Also at the northeast end of Pleasant Valley are two crab apple trees, probably planted by the early Mormon pioneers. They are still green, healthy, and free of spots of infection.

September 23, 2016

September 23rd

Contrasts in Color

5:30 p.m. Yesterday’s storm and cold continues through most of today, and it still rains during this afternoon’s jog. The storm is driven by a low pressure system that has stopped directly over Salt Lake City and the canyon. The clouds that soaked me last night have had time to travel around the circular storm track, and I feel same clouds that soaked me last night have returned for another try.

Some trees respond immediately to the rain and cold. River or water birches (Betula accidentalis H.) turn a bright yellow almost overnight. At the guardhouse gate at mile 0.0, the horsechestnut trees begin to turn. Their leaves become brown around the fringes and the color works towards the center of each leaf. The Gambel’s oaks have begun to turn in response to the cold. When they turn, the leaves go directly to a shriveled tan color.

The rain and diffused overcast light emphasizes the brightest color leaves, and the canyon is a study in color contrasts. The deepest red comes from western poison ivy (Toxicodendron rydbergii) and a chokecherry tree hidden behind a clump of Gambel’s oaks at picnic site 10. At that location, a sole Box Elder tree has also half turned, and with one-half green and one-half yellow leaves, the tree stands out with a bright light green hue. The brightest red-orange comes from a few select maples. A light blue and light purple are found in a few remaining roadside weeds, including some tansyasters. The brightest yellows come from two immature narrow leaf cottonwood trees and clumps of dried milkweed stalks. Most larger cottonwoods have not yet begun to turn.

It rains continuously through the night and into the half of the next day.

 

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