City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 24, 2017

June 23rd

Filed under: Cheat grass, Fire, Guardhouse gate, Jupiter, Stream, Western tent caterpillar moth — canopus56 @ 6:06 am

Canyon Habitat Overview

9:45 p.m. The heat wave has temporarily broken and temperatures fall in the eighties degrees Fahrenheit. I take only a short walk in the canyon’s summer late-evening twilight, and enjoy the coolness of night. The stream has gone down by two-thirds since the end of snowpack melt on June 4th. It must half again before the minimum flows of summer, at about 12 cubic feet per second, are reached. Now the stream runs only from underground water seeping from underneath both halves of Salt Lake salient. True darkness does not come until 10:15 p.m., and when it finally does arrive, bright Jupiter hangs over the road to the south like a guiding star. During the winter, Venus played that role (January 30th).

As I return to Guardhouse Gate, a large 4 inch moth is resting near the guardhouse lights. Its coloration is spectacular gradation of gray and ruddy brown, and it has large green frilled antennae the size of a woman’s pinky finger. It is a Western tent caterpillar moth (Malacosoma californicum). I have seen none of its characteristic tent colonies on trees in the canyon, but looking back through my photographs, I saw the caterpillar form of this moth on May 24th.

Reaching my car, city parking enforcement has left me a warning citation for parking at Guardhouse Gate after 10 p.m. Even five years ago, this would have been laughable, and throughout the winter this parking regulation was never a problem. But now the ridgelines are covered in early two feet tall dry cheat grass. A small spark could cause a brushfire that in the past have burned between 20 to 200 acres, or about one-third of a square mile. The city wants to deter summer nighttime revelers from entering the canyon in order to prevent them from starting campfires or lighting sparklers or other fireworks. Today, there are over 1,500 acres burning in Utah, about half of which I estimate are Cheat grass brush fires, and on arriving home tonight, the news reports a 100 acre grass fire in the Gambel oak chaparral above Farmington, Utah, about 20 miles north of the canyon.

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Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 23rd, 1840, he hears a young golden robin. On June 23rd, 1860, he notes that night hawks fly in a path similar to butterflies. He describes three types of cinquefoil. On June 23, 1852, he hears a bobolink and an owl. He sees mountain laurel and partridge berry (Mitchella repens) in bloom. He smells wild rose, sweet briar, blue geranium, and swamp pink. He notes that the undersides of leaves, particularly of the aspen, are lighter than the top side. On June 23rd, 1853, he sees leaf-heart and loose strife. On June 23rd, 1854, he sees three broods of partridges. On June 23rd, 1856, he sees baywings.

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City Creek Canyon is an undeveloped east-west trending canyon that extends 12 miles from Salt Lake City’s downtown business district. The canyon clefts the Salt Lake salient, an east-west trending spur of the north-south running Wasatch Front Mountain Range. The salient was created by an earthquake faults, principally the Pleasant Valley fault, deep below the canyon that is also perpendicular to the main north-south running Wasatch Fault. The canyon defines the northern end of the Salt Lake valley. A similar fault at the south end of the valley created the Traverse Mountains, another east-west salient that defines the boundary between Salt Lake County on the north and Utah County on the south. The difference between the Traverse salient and the Salt Lake salient is that limestone formations that are the bedrock of Salt Lake salient allowed water to flow down the middle of the ridge, and over geologic time, water flows carved out a canyon that clefts the salient in two. The canyon bottom begins at the city near 4,300 feet in elevation and rises to about 6,000 feet in elevation another 8 miles up canyon.

There are four principal habitats in the canyon. At the lowest elevations are grasslands mixed with sagebrush that covered the valley floor before pre-European colonization (Christensen 1963). These grasslands spread up both sides of the canyon walls and ridgelines through canyon mile 6.0 where water is insufficient to support the drought tolerant Gambel’s oak forest. It includes Bluebunch wheatgrass (Pseudoroegneria spicata a.k.a. Agropyron spicatum), Wild bunchgrass (Poa secunda), invasive Cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), and Big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata) (Christensen 1963, Rogers 1984).

The second habitat by elevation is Wasatch chaparral that is dominated by pure stands of Gambel’s oak trees (Quercus gambelii) (Hayward 1945; Christensen 1949). Such stands can be found around the base of and to the north of Ensign Peak. They continue below the western ridgeline of the Salt Lake salient to milepost 2.0.

The third habitat is Wasatch lower montane (Hayward 1945, p. 10; Hayward 1948; Rogers 1984). This habitat is a mid-elevation association between 4,500 feet and 8,000 feet above sea level that consists primarily of dwarf Gambel’s oak trees mixed with Norway maple trees (Acer platanoides), and Big Tooth maple trees (Acer grandidentatum) (Hayward 1948; Ream 1960). In City Creek Canyon, this habitat begins at the Guardhouse Gate and continues up to approximately milepost 4.0. On the shaded north facing slopes of the canyon, water-loving maple trees dominate. On the sun-exposed south facing slopes, Gambel’s oak trees that have deep water-seeking tap roots dominate. Between the two slopes and surrounding the canyon’s stream is a mixed community of oaks, maples, Box Elder trees (Acer negundo), Rocky Mountain narrowleaf cottonwood trees (Populus angustifolia), and Western water or River birch trees (Betula occidentalis). Bohs at the University of Utah has prepared an extensive list of plant species in City Creek Canyon near the Guardhouse Gate (Bohs 201).

The fourth habitat begins about 6 miles up canyon, or four miles above the Guardhouse Gate above Bonneville Drive, where the Wasatch oak community gives way to Wasatch upper montane habitat (Hayward, 1945). This habitat is includes Lodgepole pine (Pinus contorta Dougl.), Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesli) and Quaking aspen trees (Populus tremuloides) (Hayward 1945, Hayward 1948). On shaded north-facing slopes conifers dominate, and on sunny south-facing slopes Aspens dominate with some Utah juniper trees (Juniperus osteosperma.

The Gambel’s oak trees in the vicinity of City Creek Canyon are all dwarfs. Gambel’s oaks can grow to be mature trees thirty or forty feet in height, but where they are limited by water or other environmental stresses, then they reach only about ten feet in height (Christensen 1949). Christensen also noted that the seeds of these oaks while not germinate if they fall under the shade of an existing tree, but that does not limit the rate of their expansion. He observed many species distributing Gambel oak acorns, such as Western scrub jays, rock squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus), and Lewis woodpeckers (Melanerpes lewis) (Christensen 1949). In the canyon during the winter, I have also seen mule deer (Odocoileus hemionus) and Wild turkeys (Meleagris gallopavo) browsing for acorns. Thus, the oak’s acorns are widely distributed, and other constraints like lack of water must constraint its growth. Because the Gambel’s oak’s acorns are randomly distributed around the perimeter of copse, copses of these oaks have a characteristic inverted bowl shape. The oaks are found either in these bowl shaped groups on chaparrals or in uniformly covered broad sections of hillsides. The Gambel’s oaks around Salt Lake City are at the northern limit of that specie, and so, their development is under constant limiting pressure from northern Utah’s climate.

This journal primarily concerns the Wasatch lower montane habitat in the first two canyon miles above Guardhouse Gate within 500 feet on either side of the stream. Over the course of a year, all of the four habitats are visited.

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On June 23rd, 2012, Smith’s Food King, a dominant supermarket chain in the valley, decides to no longer sell fireworks because of the risk they pose to starting fires on valley benches and in valley canyons, including City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 23rd, 2010, the 31st Wasatch Steeplechase run over Black Mountain was run (Salt Lake Tribune). The Steeplechase was begun in 1979 by McKay Edwards as a summer solstice celebration (id). On June 23rd, 1918, the Salt Lake Tribune featured a photographic story-advertisement extolling the pleasures of automobile driving up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 23rd, 1899, a City Committee will investigate the lack of water on the east side due to problems in the distribution system for City Creek water (Salt Lake Tribune).

June 14, 2017

June 10th

Sego Lilies and Cheat Grass

6:30 p.m. The jet stream has reconnected over the Intermountain west to its usual spring route, and this has brought back strong, cooling breezes. This evening, I drive to the end of the road at North Terrace Hills Drive to walk up the trail from the Avenues to the south ridgeline of the Salt Lake salient that looks down into City Creek Canyon. I am looking for the Sego lily which blooms this time of year. One-quarter mile below where the trail intersects the road, I find patches of this Utah state flower (November 30th) among the parched Cheat grass. It is a bulb flower that rises from the hard ground sometimes without any leaves, and its four inch blossoms have delicate cream petals that are yellow at the base surrounded by splashes of dark red-purple. Against this central yellow backdrop, contrasting thick, white-colored stamens rise. I estimate about 80 lilies along are within a 100 feet along the trail for one-half mile below the ridgeline. Like most native desert wildflowers, it is a metaphor for beauty under adversity.

Also along the road are blossoming Canadian thistles (Cirsium arvense). Although a weed, its three inch light purple blossoms are a visually pleasing example of complexity in nature. Hundreds of small, spike like petals surround a central circular whirl of about 150 short, cylindrical, vertical stamens. The whirl pattern in its stamens betrays two counter-spirals of stamens that are arranged in left and right spiraling Fibonacci series.

Near the Sego lilies, there is a 10-inch diameter coyote burrow in the road bank to the west of the trail. That it sits along a heavily traveled mountain biking trail – perhaps between 50 to 100 people traverse this route each day – is unusual. It is not clear whether the burrow is currently occupied. The mouth of the burrow shows no recent signs of entry or exit, but there is contrasting excavated soil radiating below the entrance.

Below the ridgeline back over a mile to the trailhead, Gambel’s oak forest covers most of the land to the west of the trail, but the oaks only cover patches of ground to the east. Birds sing from their hiding places. I see Black-billed magpies at the trailhead and a Green-tailed towhee within the first quarter-mile. Near the ridge, Song sparrows, Black-headed grosbeaks, a hummingbird, and chukars are heard. From their calls within one-third of a mile of the ridgeline, I estimate 150 birds are present. None appear to be flying.

I reach the east-west running ridgeline and begin to climb another 150 feet to a small peak to the east of the intersection of trail and ridge. As with my last visit to this peak (January 5th), wind is blowing strongly from the north. The reason for the song bird’s grounding becomes apparent: in the steady wind, an avian farmer, a Cooper’s Hawk, hovers motionless about 20 feet above the ridge. The low Sun is filtered through clouds to the north, and its light sets the yellow molted breast feathers blazing. The hawk continues for hover for another minute, turns and glides off to the east just below the ridgeline.

From the peak, which bears a concrete and metal Salt Lake City survey corner marker indicating an altitude of 4,905 feet, or about 900 feet above the valley floor, there is a clear view down 20 miles of Wasatch Front Mountain Range from Grandview Peak and Little Black Mountain on the north, to Lone Peak on the south. In the evening light, the two sandstone geologic “U”‘s synclines that define Red Butte Canyon, Emigration Canyon, and part of Parleys Canyon are easily seen (January 9th). These sit on top of a larger deeper “U” shaped syncline of limestone that stretches from City Creek Canyon on the north and emerges again in Millcreek Canyon on the south. Perhaps this geology also explains why the streams in Red Butte and Emigration canyons reduce to trickle. Unlike City Creek and Millcreek with their limestone upper canyons, the surface bedrock of Red Butte and Emigration are porous sandstone. (Parleys Canyon contains two dams that hold back the stream.) Underground water may not be trapped along limestone layers. This is speculation, and another possibility is that Red Butte and Emigration canyons, unlike City Creek, were never reforested after the foresting and mining eras of the last half of the 19th century. Summer surface water may simply evaporate. To the west, the jet stream is marked by a fast moving line of clouds that extends from the southwest to the northeast.

Looking at the lands around the peak, they are one-third green oak forest, one-third dried brown Cheat grass, and one-third still green native brome. It must have been an impressive spring sight of green meadows before the invasive grasses arrived. The peak itself is covered in Cheat grass about six inches deep, and because of this year’s heavy winter snow, an acquaintance reports stands several feet in height along the Bonneville Shoreline Trail below this peak. The cheat grass is read to burn, and within the last week across the state, six large cheat grass wild fires of over 1,000 acres have burned. Several smaller cheat grass fires of a few acres in size also occurred in Salt Lake Valley over the last week, but those were quickly suppressed. Although overgrazing immediately after the Euro-american colonization of the valley in 1847 quickly converted fire resistant native bromes and bunch grasses to non-native adventive grasses spotted with sagebrush (March 13th), cheat grass was not present in the valley or on the Avenues ridgeline. This weed grass was introduced in California in 1870 (id), and the grass followed along the railroads lines east (Monson and Kitchen, 1992, p. 24), but may have also traveled as a contaminant in feed grain (id at 33). Cheat grass was first collected in Utah in 1894 by M. E. Jones on Provo, Utah (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). How fast it overtook native grasses statewide is unclear, but in 1932, Pickford of the Intermountain Forest and Range Experiment Station noted that while Cheat grass, which he called Downy brome, was found in all areas of the north half of the state, it was only dominate in the Great Salt Lake area (Pickford, 1932; Monson and Kitchen, 24). Pickford found that Cheat grass was most dense (11 percent coverage) on plots that had been both grazed and then subjected to a grass fire, but it was absent from plots that had never been grazed or subjected to a burn. What makes Cheat grass different is the higher frequency of its burn cycle and the higher temperatures at which it burns (Monson and Kitchen, 24). There is a direct relationship between the level of the prior winter’s precipitation and cheat grass fires in the following summer (Monson and Kitchen, 24). One-hundred and twenty-three years later, this hot burning grass covers the Avenues ridgeline, more than half of the City Creek canyon walls of the Salt Lake salient, and much of the State. The state and federal agencies spend about 83 million USD per year fighting wildfires in Utah (Stambro et al, 2014, Chap. 9), and much of that total is related to cheat grass fires.

The peak is also covered in unidentified, one-half inch nymph crickets. When walking forward, every step raises five or six nymphs that jump forward to avoid being crushed. They are marvels of camouflage, and their dark brown, light brown, dusky yellow and dirty white colors perfectly match the surrounding dried grass. They move at the slightest provocation and it takes several attempts to locate one for a photograph. Even knowing where it is, I have to stare at the brown grass for fifteen seconds before I can make out the cricket’s outline.

Despite the invasives, the expansive view of the surrounding hills and mountains is inspiring, and I return home a happy and contented person.

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In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 10th, 1853, he notes honey locust, black willows and blackberries are in bloom. He hears a robin. On June 10th, 1856, he watches a huckleberry bird and finds a pigeon woodpecker nest with young. On June 10, 1857, he sees a snake. On June 10, 1860, he examines a bat suspended in the daytime forest.

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The Fibonacci series seen in the whirls of the center of a bull thistle plant reappears in many plant contexts, including how seeds are distributed around a pine cone (Klar, 2002) and how branches are radially distributed around on tree (Nelson 2004). The study of the arrangement of leaves on a plant is called phyllotaxis. There are several competing hypotheses for how leaves self-assemble themselves themselves in a Fibonacci series, and the prevailing theory is that these spatial patterns are the result of most-efficient packing solutions (Klar). Hormonal diffusion is also theorized but the actual mechanisms are unknown (id). Limited progress has been made in defining the theoretical mathematics of how a circle of undiffentiated meristem plant stem-cell tissue can transform into a spiral pattern and on identifying candidate biochemicals that control the process (Flemming, 2002).

Restoring areas contaminated with cheat grass has proven difficult and expensive in terms of both capital and labor (Barbour and Billings, p. 264; Monson and Kitchen). Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County have spent over 150,000 USD since 2008 trying to rehabilitate about 180 acres (0.3 square miles) in City Creek and Parleys Canyons that are contaminated with both Yellow starthistle and Cheat grass (see May 21st). The best strategy for restoration is reseeding following a cheat grass fire, but its effectiveness is limited to level areas (Barbour and Billings, 264-265) and not the steep slopes of City Creek Canyon and the Salt Lake salient. Although the city considered a controlled burn program in City Creek in 2010 (Gray and Harrison, 1999; Salt Lake Dept. of Public Utilities 2010, Salt Lake City Corporation 2010a), it was not pursued, and currently the Utah Conservation Corps is using the labor intensive method of manually denuding and spraying fields in lower Pleasant Valley, including along a steep slope (May 17th and May 21st).

* * * *

On June 10th, 2006, students at the Design Workshop recommend daylighting City Creek Canyon stream from the mouth of City Creek, along North Temple, all the way to the Jordan River (Salt Lake Tribune). Daylighting means raising the creek which now traverses the city’s center in underground pipes back to the surface. (Prior U.S. Corps of Engineer and City proposals recommended daylighting City Creek beginning at 700 West.) On June 10th, 1898, the National Guard plan exercises in City Creek Canyon (Deseret Evening News).

June 8th

First Loud Cricket with Metamorphosis

7:00 p.m. True night does not come until after 9 in the evening, and the start of the estival season is one week away. It the sixth day of late spring heat in the nineties, the jet stream is forcing its way into the Intermountain west, and the jet stream traveling southwest to the northwest over adjacent Nevada. This has brought high winds to the canyon. The leaved trees whip back and forth under its hand. In response to the days of heat, invasive Cheat grass (Bromus tectorum) that covers the hillsides on both sides of the Salt Lake salient have dried to an early season brown. The hills are a patchwork of brown Cheat grass and other later maturing bromes that are still green. Cheat grass is susceptible to burn in quick moving, high temperature fires, and authorities are worried over a bad fire season. Utah normally has 400 grass fires per year. Under the force of the wind, small birds restrict themselves to short thirty foot flights between trees. At the pond at picnic site 5, I startle a grounded Song sparrow, while a Black-headed grosbeak performs its trill call overhead.

As the wind starts to die down, I hear the first loud cricket – just one – of the season. I suspect that these also may be the cicadas heard yesterday in the tops of Gambel’s oaks (June 7th), and their wings have hardened overnight. In two months, large choruses of crickets will fill the canyon night air (August 15th and August 18th). Large mosquitoes (sp. Culiseta), possibly Marsh mosquitoes (Culiseta inornata), fly through the shadowed evening light.

* * * *

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 8th, 1851, he notes white pines have stamen blossoms. On June 8th 1853, a pair of hawks swoop on him as he walks near his nest. He notes that white pine is in flower. On June 8th, 1860, he notes that the summer afternoon shower season has begun. Red oak leaves have fully developed.

* * * *

Whether cricket or cicada, this clicking insect is a newly hatched pupae that has likely undergone some form of metamorphosis. In complete metamorphosis (holometabolous), such as that which occurs in butterflies, the egg hatches a larvae caterpillar, the caterpillar weaves a pupal sack, and then an adult emerges. In incomplete metamorphosis(hemimetabolism), an insect egg develops into an miniature adult, the nymph, and as it expands, it sheds its exoskeleton as it grows. In the canyon, incomplete metamorphosis is seen in crickets and Box elder bugs. Among the vertebrates, frogs and salamanders also undergo metamorphosis. Since insects, numerically, are the most diverse type of animals, 45 to 60 percent of all animals on the Earth undergo metamorphosis, and our mammalian form of infant development is a relatively infrequent mode (Jabr 2012). The evolutionary just-so story by which metamorphosis arose is that an intermediary stage of development allows the larval and nymph stages to exploit different food niches from adults in the same habitat. Truman and Riddiford suggest that natural selection acted on the hormonal mechanisms of ancestral species to create the radically different developmental stages (Truman and Riddiford 1999).

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On June 8th, 2003, the Salt Lake Tribune reported the experiences of many Salt Lake Valley residents in how they use the local canyons, including City Creek Canyon. The Outdoor Industry Foundation is conducting a study of dispersed recreation use in Utah, and it finds that 81 percent of Utahans engage in outdoor activities (id). On June 8th, 1951, The Audubon Society scheduled a trip up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 8th, 1950, City tests of City Creek Canyon water show a high degree of purity and low coliform count (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 8th, 1933, the Wasatch Mountain Club scheduled a hike from Rotary Park in City Creek to Mueller Park (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 8, 1906, a committee of the City Council recommended that a permit to allow Henry B. Anderson to harvest 24 cords of cedar wood in City Creek be denied on the grounds of a need to protect the watershed (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 8, 1895, the Utah Forestry Association reported on its activities in reforesting stands of trees in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). The Association also resolved to compile data on the extent of deforestation, rainfall and its impact on flooding (id).

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