City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

July 12, 2017

July 10th

Field on a Slope

7:30 p.m. To see other areas where the Cheat grass sea has not yet penetrated, I am jogging up canyon to milepost 2.0. I am also seeking one of the few canyon locations that has a field of cacti. Along the way at the Gambel’s oak forest near mile 0.4, a female American goldfinch (Carduelis tristis) drops out from behind the leaves, perches on a large oak branch. It cocks its head, listening to the branch, and then starts tapping it, looking it for insects.

Barney’s Hollow below picnic site 13 begins with fields that climb up to mile 2.3. The fields at milepost 2.0 like the Bonneville Shoreline Nature Preserve are covered with still green native Wild bunchgrass. There are four types of grass in this field, and I am only able to identify the one. The field is interspersed with white-topped weed Hoary cress and Mullein (Verbascum thapsus). At one end of the field, I find the first purple Fireweed (Charmerion angustifolium L.) of the season in the lower canyon. In the high Wasatch, fireweed is usually red.

Above mile 2.3, there is a hanging field of about 15 acres and an inclined nose of about 20 acres on the west side of the canyon. In the spring, the hanging field is covered in thick Kentucky bluegrass and the inclined field above it is covered in native Wild bunchgrass. It is a special place in the canyon below mile 3.4. In the deep winter, Elk using these fields as a transit point to cross the canyon road from Little Black Mountain to the western salient ridgelines. During winter, Wild turkeys also congregate in the oaks below these fields, sometimes in flocks of up to thirty birds, and there winter coyotes attack. They pause in these fields, and there hunters wait during the October and November seasons. Mule deer use this same crossing in the spring. Reaching the hanging field is moderately difficult. The hanging field is hidden behind a step two hundred foot embankment cut by the stream over the last few thousand years. The slope is covered with Cheat grass.

Moving up to mile 2.3, I decide to try a new route up from one of many side gullies along the Pipeline Trail. In a gully heavily shaded by large overhanging oaks, the grass is thick. About every fifteen feet are funnel webs of another non-native – Hobo spiders (Eratigena agrestis). At the bottom of each funnel, there is tunnel, but I have to inspect about 20 nests before I actually see one of the spiders at the mouth of its burrow. It is unclear from the webs what the Hobo spiders are eating, and I suspect their numbers are supported by large House crickets population seen on July 6th. But there are no crickets in the grasses in this small gully.

Eventually, I come to a small seep-pond about four feet in diameter and two feet deep. Western Yellowjacket wasps rest on the surface drinking, and in the wet mud at the side of the pond is the clear massive foot print of a Shira’s moose (Alces alcs shirasi). In the late spring to early summer, single moose are sometimes seen on making their way through the oak forest near the ridgelines or in open fields on the top of Salt Lake salient’s west and east ridges. Shortly after the pond, I am stopped from going forward by thickets of Gambel’s oaks, and am forced to retreat back to the trail and try again by my usual route.

Returning to the trail and going down-canyon for a two-tenths of mile, I work my way up to the hanging valley by the usual route. The field is still thick with green native grasses, but the its soil reveals its source as the ancient mud bed of ancient Lake Bonneville. This slope faces to the south and west, and despite being covered in still growing green grasses, the mud is baked to a cracked solid. Everywhere the tracks of spring mule deer have been hardened into a grey mudstone. The large leaves of spring’s Arrowleaf balsamroot are baked to a golden and dark brown. Like the gully, these fields are also covered in numerous Hobo spider funnel webs. Although covered in native grasses, these fields just beginning to be invaded. I count fourteen Starthistle plants spread widely across both areas. Above the hanging and inclined fields of native grass is a field of Plains prickly pear cactus (Opuntia polyacantha). It is too late in the season for them; their bright red blossoms have past; and the green is draining from their spiked leaves.

As the Sun gets low in the sky, the light turns golden as the grasses wave in a newly risen breeze. A flock of five American crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) float over the ridge to the west, slowly circle and descend into woods at Barney’s Hollow on the opposite, south side of the stream. They are settling down for the night. Crows are distinguished from Common ravens (Corvus corax) by their smaller size and square tails. Ravens have diamond-shaped tails and soar on thermals to cross the canyon, but crows flap their wings to power their crossing. Before landing, one crow comes over to inspect me, and finding nothing interesting catches up with its mates.

Coming back downhill, there are several odd three foot diameter distorted purple rocks. They are covered in green and black lichens. The rocks and lichens make their own abstract sculptures.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 10th, 1851, he admires a sunset after a rainstorm. On July 10th, 1852, he notes again the peak of summer heat, and notes that soil has become dry. He sees white lelilot, a clover, in bloom, and he hears huckleberry bird, oven bird and red-eye. St. John’s worts are peaking. On July 10th 1854, he lists song birds active in summer including robin, warbling vireo, song sparrow, flicker, crows, and many others. On July 10, 1856, he finds an owl’s burrow and comes within six feet of a screech owl with its two young. On July 10th, 1860, he sees yellow Pennsylvania sedge grass.

* * * *

On July 10th, 2010, a 59 year old man, who enjoyed bicycling in City Creek Canyon, passed away (Deseret News). On July 10th, 2003, during the celebration of the Boy Scouts 90th anniversary in Utah, the Scouts reported that Irwin Clawson, at the age of 18, started one of the first Boy Scout Troops in Utah in 1911, and his first activity back in 1911 was to take his troop on overnight camping trips up City Creek Canyon (Deseret News).


July 11, 2017

July 8th

Filed under: Pleasant Valley, Starthistle — canopus56 @ 6:18 pm

Failed Grassland Restoration

4:00 p.m. It is the fifth day of summer heat over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I take a short jog to milepost 1.5. The City’s and Utah Conservation Corps attempted starthistle abatement at lower Pleasant Valley has failed. Their manual pulling and chemical application was initially successful, and their efforts resulted in a lush green field filling in with native grasses (Oct. 12th, Oct. 16th, Feb. 11th, May 17th, May 21st, June 10th). Now the treated field and slopes at lower Pleasant Valley are thickly covered with two foot high starthistle plants (June 16th). This year’s restoration budget to abate 100 acres of starthistle contaminated land in City Creek and Parley’s Canyons is about 86,000 USD (Utah Department of Natural Resources 2017a). A controlled burn may be needed to restore this area, as proposed in 2010, but homeowners adjacent to the canyon are resistant (Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities 2010a).

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 8th, 1854, he sees the light of a full Moon reflecting off rippled water, and he hears whippoorwills. He notes that shining rose (Rosa nitida) have completed their bloom. On July 8th, 1857, Thoreau counted the 126 rings in the stump of a sawed off white pine. Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on July 8th, 1858 during a camping trip, he describes summiting a mountain in a cloud. There he is surrounded by white with a blue patch of sky above. He sees snow banks in high mountains. Through July 19th, 1858, he continues his description of his camping trip in New Hampshire mountains.

* * * *

On July 8th, 1998, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on the status of the experimental off-leash dog areas, including up-canyon from Memory Grove in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On July 8, 1903, the National Guard planned a military tactics practice in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Telegram). On July 8th, 1891, the Red Bird mine, three miles up City Creek Canyon, reported high grade ore strikes in lead, gold and silver (Provo Evening Dispatch).

July 7, 2017

June 30th

Filed under: Black swallowtail butterflly, Cheat grass, Gambel's Oak, Starthistle — canopus56 @ 8:41 pm

Inedible insects and plants – a war

External Link to Image

Caterpillar of the Black swallowtail butterfly. (Author taken June, 2017, mouth end is down).

4:00 p.m. It is natural for people when enjoying a late afternoon walk up the stream cooled canyon road to give more attention to mammals and birds than to the dominate plant community. Birds sing for beautiful songs us, and thus, we imbue them with more anthropomorphic sentience than they possess. Peregrine falcons and Red-tailed hawks soar and hunt like us with purposeful intent. Mule deer stare back with quizzical large-black eyes through which we feel we can see their souls. Coyotes watch us with the familiar intelligence of our domesticated dogs. Mountain lions in the canyon follow our motions, and we can see behind their cat eyes, a decision process to ignore us like our house cats or to begin hunting us as prey. People do not generally extend the respect given to these more conscious animals to the machine-like insects. We appreciate butterflies and bees and fear wasps and spiders, but otherwise our fascination with insects goes to the grotesque or brightly colored. Plants do not engage us like birds or coyotes, so in our perception they fall into the category of uninteresting background. But plants are the dominate form of life on land and in the canyon.

I need a boost before leaving on my daily jog, and today, I brew and drink a cup of coffee before leaving home like more than 100 million other Americans. Drinking coffee is recommended before exercise to enhance endurance (Hodgsen, Randell and Jeukendrup 2013). I am unconscious of the fact that the cup of coffee, a drink enjoyed by billions every day, is a brew of some 800 plant-created chemicals that are insecticides (Hartley 2009). Organic gardeners also recommend brews made from other common food plants that humans enjoy, like onions, garlic, and red peppers, because they also contain insecticides that kill certain insects on contact. Organic gardeners also recommend tea as a fungicide, but it is also consumed by another 100 million Americans each day without ill effect.

A caterpillar of the Black swallowtail butterfly (Papilo polysenes) lays on the road, severely dehydrated, and I help it to the cool of the roadside grass and then dose it with water. In its caterpillar phase, it is bright green with black strips and bright orange spots. Like other swallowtail caterpillars, it has a gland that emits a foul smelling odor that deters predatory birds. Thus, its clown-like outfit is to warn birds that no meal can be had. Conversely, the hungry caterpillar, like the others that have fallen on the road during the spring (April 13th, May 7th, and May 13th), landed here due to a defense of the surrounding trees, including the Gambel’s oak trees. Many canyon’s stream associated trees, including the oaks, the Rocky Mountain narrowleaf cottonwood trees, and the River birch trees, are covered in wax on their upper sides. This aids in conserving water under today’s hot sun, but it is also defends the trees against insects. Insects, like the swallowtail caterpillar, slide off even though they have evolved specialized feet to aid them in grasping the leaves (Hartley 2009). Other plants in the canyon have obvious defenses. The few Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) that exist in the lower canyon, viewed microscopically, are covered in small, barbed, poison-tipped silica spears, and this accounts of the strong skin rash that develops when they are brushed against (Hartley 2009). In the canyon, both Cheat grass and Yellow star-thistle set bristled seeds that makes them unpalatable to mule deer.

But in the Darwinian competition for survival, land plants are winning over animals.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 30th, 1840, he describes the wind by its effects on plants and his mood. On June 30th, 1851, he sees blue flag (Iris versicolor) and a small aster. He describes the smell of fresh shoots of fir-balsams. On June 30th, 1852, he cites as a marker of summer is when wild roses, morning glories, orchids, blue-flags, fireweed, mountain laurel and white lilies all bloom at once. On June 30th, 1860, he takes the temperatures of the air (83 degrees), spring water (45 degrees), river water (77 degrees), and the ground three inches beneath the surface. He notes that river meadows where light penetrates are at the height of their beauty.

* * * *

Most plants in City Creek Canyon taste bitter and are inedible. Typical advice given for foraging for wild foods is to taste a small bit of the plant and then wait to see if you become violently ill or if your tongue breaks out in a rash. In 2009 a speculative but provocative lecture series, British ecologist Sue Hartley describes how in the oceans, about half the plant biomass is consumed by animals (Hartley 2010; see Hartley 2009). On land, animals consume only about 20 percent of plant biomass, and this is because of the extensive chemical defenses that plants have co-evolved to deter animals from consuming them. Hartley explains that where animals can eat a particular plant specie, they usually have evolved a genetic resistance to that plant’s chemical defenses. For example, cabbage contains chemicals that make it partially toxic to domestic livestock and rabbits, but the human gut has evolved to tolerate its poison. Similarly, caffeine and tannin in tea and coffee plants are those plants’ biological insecticides and fungicides, and their poisons only incidentally and accidentally provide billions of drinkers with a desired pharmacological boost. In contrast in the canyon, Scrub jays, Rock squirrels and mule deer eat the acorns of Gambel’s oak trees. To humans, the oak’s acorns are bitter and inedible, but after leeching out its toxic gallotannins for several days and much labor, the acorns can be processed into a gruel or flour. Hartley notes land plants and animals co-evolve. Plants become toxic to prevent being eaten, animals gain resistance and eat more, plants increase the dose or develop and entirely new toxins to ward off animals. Hartley opines that since land animals can consume only small portion of the total terrestrial biomass, plants are winning to co-evolution race (Hartley 2010). In the canyon, plants do not sing, fly, or leap to our delight, but they and not us are in control.

* * * *

On June 30th, 2002, Great Salt Lake Audubon plans a bird watching hike up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 30th, 1996, coliform levels in City Creek Canyon stream have quadrupled in the last few years, and the City is considering replacing outdated restrooms in the canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 30th, 1919, Water Commissioner Clarence C. Nelsen opined that recent water shortages were caused by city residents wasting water (Salt Lake Telegram). Salt Lake City delivers 42,000,000 gallons of water, or 350 gallons per resident each day. Nelson notes that Los Angeles, a city five times the size of Salt Lake City, uses only 20,000,000 gallons of water each day (id). On June 30th, 1910, City Councilperson L. J. Wood gave his views on the proposed repeal of the prohibition of automobiles in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune):

“Another phase of the affair is that the people who cannot afford to hire conveyances and go to more distant places can easily take their lunches and other accompaniments for a day’s outing, and go up City Creek canyon, where they can be free from molestation by buggies, motorcycles and automobiles. It is now the poor people’s pleasure spot and should be kept free from any privileges that will change the present enjoyable features of the canyon as nature arranged it” (id).

In response, on July 1, 1910, a Salt Lake Tribune editorial argued that the road should be improved by adding paved pedestrian walkways and then opened to motorists. (In 2014, United States President Barrack Obama designated the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles in the Ashley National Forest as the San Gabriel National Mountain. He did so in response to complaints by low-income minorities that they had inadequate park lands on the Los Angeles Valley floor for recreation.) On June 30th, 1904, the water rights claim of Douglas A. Swan in City Creek Canyon was denied by the City Waterworks Committee (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 30th, the City Board of Public works approved specifications to lay a new iron pipeline up City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune).

June 23, 2017

June 16th

Partial Success in Treating Starthistle

3:00 p.m. The field at lower Pleasant Valley (mile 1.2) where the Utah Conservation Corps and the city watershed officials have done Starthistle abatement (May 17th, May 21st, October 16th) has both succeeded and failed. The horizontal field at Pleasant Valley has filled in with new native grass, Wild bunchgrass (Poa secunda), many smaller wildflowers and also the invasive Western salisfy. The lower field is an idyllic scene, but because the field has been sprayed with Milestone herbicide (Aminopyralid), the Peregrine falcons are not hunting here for Rocky Mountain deer mice as in prior years.

The green of the lower field climbs up the hillside, and this is also an area where the Utah Conservation Corps manually pulled starthistle weeds. I cross the field to the slope to take a better look, and to my surprise, the treated vertical slopes have three or four times the density of starthistle plants as compared to the slope’s pre-treatment state last year. Other treated steep slopes to the west of Pleasant Valley are in a similar condition. Limited to steep slopes, the abatement project is a failure. Probably only a burning with reseeding can rehabilitate such slopes, but citizens in nearby residential areas rejected a burn control approach proposed in 2010 (see Salt Lake City Department of Public Utilities 2010). Conversely, expensive manual pulling in conjunction with Aminopyralid spraying worked on horizontal fields (see Utah Watershed Restoration Initiative at May 21st).

I am also concerned that the use of Aminopyralid might be detrimental to the Peregrine falcons, Cooper’s hawks or Western screech-owls that utilize this field. Earlier this year, while with the Tracey Aviary bird count team (May 6th), I saw a Peregrine falcon hunting above this area, and in spring of 2015, a pair of peregrines would regularly sit on the power line wires above the field. One afternoon, one of the pair dived on the field, and then slowly rose beating its wings while grasping a fat deer mouse in its talons. The second falcon left its perch, swooped up from below of the first falcon and extended its talons. This startled the upper falcon and caused it to release its catch. The lower falcon, while flying inverted, expertly caught the mouse and flew off with its prize. Research later in this evening locates a 2007 United States Forest Service sponsored assessment of the effect of this herbicide on birds, principally by literature review (Durkin 2007). Since birds have a short-life span (Peregrines and Cooper’s hawks both live about twelve years), testing consists of applying a variety of doses of the chemical to test species. In the instant of Durkin’s review, a 2003 prior study force fed quail with a 50 percent lethal dose of Aminopyralid (id, pp. 96-97 and 4-1 to 4-6). The quail grew disoriented in the short term, but survived. In another study using high doses on hatchlings, success to viability declined up to 30 percent. Other lower dose studies did not find any significant effects. The consultant recommended exposure levels for humans, birds, and mammals based on prior works. Based on this limited study, my concern about using Aminopyralid around Peregrines and Cooper’s hawks were assuaged. Aminopyralid is not another DDT.

* * * *

Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 16th, 1852, he records a morning fog with singing birds, and he remarks on how evening mornings are now hot. In the night, he sees an aurora borealis to the north. On the morning of Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 16th, 1853, he hears robins, birds, other birds, and crickets. He sees sunlight reflecting off a stream that makes the stream appear as silver metal (compare Dec. 26th, in main text, above). He extracts a red squirrel from its underground nest. Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 16th, 1854, he sees fleabane. The Utah version is Utah fleabane, Eigeron utahensis. He sees white lily and two variants of wild rose. He hears a cherry bird. Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 16th, 1855, he sees young squirrels. Per Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 16th, 1858, he smells blackberry blossoms, and on June 16th, 1860, he notes summer thunderstorms are now a common occurrence.

* * * *

On June 16th, 1997, the U.S. Forest Service revives the Anschutz Ranch East Pipeline Environmental Impact Analysis after a consultation disputes Chevron’s claim that an existing pipeline has sufficient capacity to handle all loads for the next fifty years (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 16th, 1919, there was a large grass fire in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). On June 16th, 1915, bids were opened for the construction of the reservoir at Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 16, 1910, the Little Giant Mine petitioned the City council to open a mine in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Herald). On June 16, 1904, a bear destroyed a camp at the forks in City Creek Canyon, and Ben D. Luce and party hunted the bear (Salt Lake Telegram). On June 16, 1881, J.J. Branch, a former L.D.S. Church member who was present at Joseph Smith’s death, now turned evangelist, held a revival at a tent in Salt Lake City, at which he predicted that God would send a great flood from City Creek Canyon and destroy the City in retribution in retribution for the “wickedness and lying and blasphemy and abomination” of the L.D.S. church (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 16, 1897, George Crimson, a still living 1847 pioneer, relates his biography (Salt Lake Herald). In the spring of 1848, Crimson and his father built the first grist mill in City Creek Canyon, and sold the same to Brigham Young (id). He left for the California gold rush in 1849.

December 6, 2016

December 6th

Filed under: Bald-Faced Hornets, Gambel's Oak, Nests, Starthistle, Weather — canopus56 @ 8:07 pm

Orange Lichens

1:30 p.m. The cold pocket of arctic air has dropped temperatures into the low twenties and with canyon winds down into the teens. The flood retention pond at Bonneville Drive has started to freeze over, and the effect on the cattail patch that grows in the pond is immediate. Previously, the dried cattails stood erect, and now they have fallen over.

As I jog up canyon, the sky is overcast with the cloud bottoms only a few hundred feet overhead, there is a wind driving light snow out of the north. By the time I reach milepost 1.0, this changes and the snow drops vertically. This kind of overcast with falling snow and cold changes perception of the canyon; it makes the canyon seem more dramatic. A buttress that sticks out on the north-west canyon wall at mile 1.1 normally looks insignificant. In the diffuse overcast light, falling snow and severe cold, it looks like a grand mountain. Four mule deer are seen on the high on the south canyon wall; three more are seen back at mile 0.2.

Between mile 1.2 and mile 1.6, lichens (Xanthomendozaon species.) growing on the Gambel’s oaks have turned from green to a dull and bright orange. With the falling snow and overcast light, this orange contrasts greatly with their host tree trunks. This color change can occur when lichens are exposed to nitrogen rich, polluted air, and such changes are used to track air pollution over time in over cities. Salt Lake City has some of the worst air quality in the nation, and the U.S. Forest Service surveys lichens at 128 plots throughout Utah, including one plot in upper City Creek Canyon. But Werstack et al (2016, pp. 43-44), researchers with the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station, conclude that Utah’s lichens probably overstate air pollution. This is because orange-turning lichens are also correlated with drought tolerance (id). The lichens may be turning orange because they are in a drier climate and not because the air contains more nitrogen dioxide. The Rocky Mountain Research Station is currently conducting studies to calibrate the density of orange lichens by precipitation, thus allowing western researchers to use these epiphytes to monitor air pollution.

At mile 1.6, the snow on the north-west hillside emphasizes yellow star-thistles. Dried tall grasses and the star-thistles have the same hue, and I do not ordinarily perceive them in the meadows. But the ground snow makes for a differing background that allows one to distinguish between hills that are covered in grass and those that are covered in these invasive thistles. It was undesirable plants that the Utah Conservation Corps are trying to eradicate from the meadow one-quarter mile down canyon from here (October 16th).

I take my time jogging back down the canyon. I have been inventorying bird and insect nests in the canyon since December 2nd, and today I am marking each nest’s location using the global positioning system. Hornet’s nests are temporary constructions meant to last a single season. On December 2nd, I find and photograph the largest in the lower canyon between picnic sites 4 and 5. It is twice the size of a basketball, and it precariously sits intertwined with the smallest upper branches at the top of a 100 foot tall Rocky Mountain cottonwood. After three days of snow, rain, and freezing temperatures, I cannot find it again. Apparently, winds have blown it out of the tree or ice formed on it, and the weight of the ice pulled the nest from the heights.

October 16, 2016

October 16th

“C” is for Conservation

5 p.m. There was a wind storm last night and the temperature dropped 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the early morning hours. Even so, the canyon is again packed with walkers, runners and bicyclists. The wind-tunnel up to mile 0.9 has stripped even more leaves from the trees and the fallen leaves now cover even more of the road. At mile 1.3, Pleasant Valley opens into a sea of dark golden brown. All of the Gambel’s oaks have turned and they are set off against similar dark red-brown groves on the south canyon slope.

Here, back on October 12th, students from the Utah Conservation Corps, a project of the Utah State University Logan, are resting after working on a starthistle restoration project in the meadow on the north side of the road. The yellow star-thistle (Centaurea solstitialis) is a roadside weed that produces small quarter-inch burrs. It was into starthistles and burdock that “burr boy” wandered into on September 5th. As an experiment, the Corps have cleared nearly a football field sized plot in the meadow and continuing up onto the north canyon slope. They hope to re-seed the plot with native plants and determine if the star-thistles can be abated. Over fifteen years, students in the Corps have restored over 40,000 acres of habitat and 3,300 miles of trails.

These undergraduate and future biologists, range managers, and foresters complain that while clearing the meadow, they were attacked by Western Yellowjacket wasps. The yellowjacket wasps, unlike the Bald-faced hornets whose nest is here in a tree on the south side of the road (Sept. 16th), build an almost identical paper nest underground, often in the abandoned burrows of rodents. But the door of the yellowjacket nest is at the top, and not on the side as with their tree-dwelling Bald-faced cousins. Disturbed by the clearing of the meadow, the yellowjackets came out in force to defend their home. Today, I unsuccessfully search the scoured plot for the entrance to their lair.

At the flood retention pond where the canyon road meets Bonneville Drive, the cattail grove and the surrounding tamarisk are turning brown and yellow, respectively.

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