City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

June 22, 2017

June 14th

Filed under: Foxglove beardtongue, Horsechestnut, Seasons, Western salisfy, Wild carrot — canopus56 @ 9:20 pm

End of the Vernal Season

6:45 p.m. This is the last day of the vernal season, or the time of the year in which plants grow at their greatest rate (Feb. 16th). An early heat wave near 100 degrees Fahrenheit has fallen on the city, and I have come to the canyon for a short run in the cool evening air. At the end of the vernal season, early spring flowering plants in the first mile have largely passed and their thickened ovaries grow pregnant with this year’s seeds. Wood rose blossoms are shriveled or have have dropped their leaves, revealing bulbous green spheres beneath. The largest of these are the infant berries of the chokecherry bushes. Western salisfy, also called Giant dandelion, has almost all gone to seed. Its blossom have transformed into a large compound head of achenes – larger version of dandelion weed seeds. The small floating seeds grow out equally spaced from an inverted saucer-shaped head. A result of the large floater seeds competing for limited space is that the giant dandelions’ spherical heads form geodesic dodecahedrons.

The base leaves of the Wild carrot (also called Fernleaf biscuitroot) plants that line the first mile have turned turned yellow and orange, and their blossoms have formed seeds that are turning from green to a light purple. Their fibrous tap roots extend beneath the surface for about a one foot, and they were widely used by First Peoples throughout the Intermountain west (Natural Resources Conservation Service 2011). Great Basin Indians ate the seeds and boiled the roots to make a drink. Other tribes used the first shoots in a salad (id). Modern city “foodies” also collect the plants.

A new delicate penstemon, Foxglove beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis) has appeared overnight along the road. This is an eastern native, and in the canyon, it first appears with white flowers that turn a streaked pink as the flowers age. This is a later spring replacement for the many failing flowers along the first mile. Horsechestnut trees now bear sprays of its spiked fruit, but these new fruits are miniature one-inch diameter versions of falls’ three inch spheres. This year’s growth has returned and the land is pregnant.

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In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 14th, 1852, he notes that “[t]he twilight seems out of proportion to the rest of the day.” On June 14th, 1851, he lists birds heard on a twilight walk including bobolink, swallows, fifteen whippoorwills, blackbirds, a robin and night hawk. He contrasts the evening song of the robin with crickets, and notes fish rising in a stream to feed on insects. On June 14th, 1852, he sees a wild rose bush. On June 14, 1853, he hears the season’s first locust and observes aphids on tree leaves. He sees white lily, blue-flag flower, mosquitoes, and fish in the stream. He sees hummingbirds and hears a cuckoo, a red-eye, and a wood thrush. On June 14th, 1854, he sees a cicada. On June 14th, 1859, he sees a grosbeak and a pout’s nest.

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A cousin of Foxglove beardtongue, Common foxglove (Digitalis purpurea), is the source of digitalis heart medication. Digitalis is commonly used to strengthen the contractions of the heart muscle in the aged.

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On June 14th, 1914, the Salt Lake Tribune describes various outdoor hikes around Salt Lake City, including to Big Black Mountain. On June 14th, 1908, the L. H. Murdock of the U.S. Weather Service reported a storm with one-half inch of rain and heavy snowfall in City Creek Canyon (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 14th, 1908, Mayor Bransford, City Engineer L. C. Kesley, Waterworks Superintendent Hobday and Street Supervisor Jake Raleigh discussed steps to abate current flooding from City Creek Canyon (Intermountain Republican). Raleigh defended his use of manure embankments to contain the flood waters (id).

June 14, 2017

June 7th

Clicking Cicadas

4:30 p.m. This is the fifth day of ninety degree temperatures, and I go for a short jog up to milepost 0.5 and back down the Pipeline Trail. Looking at the jet stream charts at the California Regional Weather Service and National Weather Service maps for the last few days, the jet stream has broken and disconnected over much of the western and central continental United States. A large high pressure zone has disrupted spring’s conveyor belt of cooling ocean air.

Going up canyon near mile 0.4, I check one of the blue paint mosquito tree holes, and inside is a one inch beetle that is colored with Frank Lloyd Wright’s bright Cherokee red. (Later, after checking my insect guides, I am unable to identify it.) Just past the turn-off from the road to the trail, I begin to hear an odd clicking sound coming from the trees, and I stop the Gambel’s oak grove mid-way between road and Pipeline Trail. The sound is all around, but I cannot see its cause. There are also some small birds in the trees that confuse the source, but after a few minutes, I notice two or three insects on the branches that look like a large cricket but they have clear wings. These are probably annual Mountain or Canadian cicadas (Okanagana canadensis). Cicadas come into two forms: annual hatching and the more famous periodic hatching that rise from the ground once every 17 years. I cannot get close enough to identify these tree dwellers with certainty. I suspect that since they are newly hatched, their wings are still too soft to make the loud clicking sounds.

Along the Pipeline Trail, the blossom heads of Arrowleaf balsamroot plants that recently dominated the hillsides (April 29th) are all dried husks and full of seeds. The hot Sun has done more of its work. Along the road, the Western salisfy first seen a week ago (June 2nd) along the road, have exploded into a showy ball of white tufted seed.

Along the powerline, an American robin, a Lazuli bunting, a Song sparrow, and a Black-headed grosbeak, all rest in the afternoon sunlight singing loudly. There are several more buntings replying on the western hillside. Further down trail near mile 0.2, two more grosbeaks call from the oaks, and this corresponds to the position where they are heard when along the road.

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In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 7th, 1853 he records red clover, buttercups, cinquefoil, blueberries, and huckleberries. He hears quail and sees an oven bird and a night-hawk in its nest. On June 7th, 1854, he notes large sized green berries, blueberries, and choke-cherries. He hears honey bees. He sees a yellow-winged sparrow, a night-hawk, and the first fire-flies of the season. On June 7th, 1858, he observes that wind blowing across grass silences crickets. On June 7th, 1860, white clover has bloomed and he again hears honey-bees.

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In a June 7th, 2005 letter to the editors of the Salt Lake Tribune, Chuck Tabaracci related the saving of his dog after it had been swept away in the high waters of the canyon’s stream (Salt Lake Tribune). Two women lept into the stream to save the dog and where also swept downstream. All were saved and one woman suffered hypothermia and the second a concussion. Tabaracci also noted that people walking up the road refused to help the women and eventually they were transported to LDS Hospital by ambulance. On June 7th, 1913, the Commercial Club in a report, opposed building a highway up City Creek to connect with Morgan County (Salt Lake Tribune). On June 7th, 1893, City Council President Loofbourow proposed banning all of the new bicycles from the City (Deseret Evening News). He stated that, “I would encourage a movement to send them (all the bicycles) to the head of City Creek canyon and keep them there, as they are an intolerable nuisance” (id). A June 7th, 1887 Salt Lake Herald editorial proposed a system of reservoirs in City Creek Canyon in order to solve a shortage in the City’s water supply.

June 13, 2017

June 2nd

Evolution of Angiosperms

8:00 a.m. Some days are beyond beauty. This is the first official day of the five months in which cars are allowed in the canyon on alternating days, and I have decided to drive up to the end of the road to jog the uppermost canyon. It rained last night, the undergrowth and trees are all covered with thick layer of drops. As I drive up the road, the morning birds are active. With the windows open, I mentally tabulate a count as I slowly travel up the winding road. It comes to about 20 birds within earshot for every quarter mile. This suggests a population of some 800 smaller song birds along the five and three-quarters of paved road and the subsequent 2 miles of trail in a band for 50 yards on either side of the road.

Continuing the drive up canyon, Wild roses are open to Pleasant Valley, mile 1.1, and Wild geraniums are open to mile 5.0. Along the first mile, a new flowering plant, another weed, has sprung up to two feet tall seemingly overnight. It is Western salisfy (Asteraceae tragopogon dupon). Although a noxious invader, it is an admirable plant. To avoid the heat of the day, it folds closed into a pen-like tip, but now in the light morning sun, it shows sixteen thin yellow petals surrounded by hair-thin sepals. The center has a sharply contrasting black band. It lines the roadside and at Pleasant Valley, Utah Conservation Corps treated field, that removed yellow starthistle, is now covered with another invasive – salsify. A purple variant of this plant is also found along the first mile road.

At the water treatment plant at mile 3.4, the canyon narrows, and flashes of blue and black flittering into the Gambel’s oaks reveals a flock of Stellar’s jays. Stellar’s jays prefer the coolness of a montane habitat, and in contrast, their cousins, the Scrub jay, prefers the hotter lower canyon. But the Stellar’s jay is more territorial, and thus, more entertaining. When a hiker enters their territory, one will immediately swoop down to the trail and call with its repetitive “caw” in both curiosity and in complaint. The action of one will others of its tribe, and this provides the walker with an avian presidio under which one must pass inspection. Later in the afternoon, further up the trail at the end of the road, as I walk under a large moss covered log, a Stellar’s jay lands above me, its mouth full of moss intended for use as nesting material. It glances back for a quick inquisitive look and then proceeds on its business.

Resuming the drive up the road and as the walls of the canyon close in, the canyon transitions from Gambel oak forest to deciduous maple and Box elder tree forest. The road becomes a single track. The heavy moisture on the leaves is heated by the first penetrating morning sun, and as a result, the air is thick with mist and dew. Shafts of light peak make it through the dense overgrowth and illuminate the mist into yellow tubes. Here, the canyon feels most like an eastern forest. Although the dense greenery only extends for a few hundred yards on either side of the road, the narrow canyon walls cut off any vistas, and this is what I remember of my boyhood eastern forests. The green goes on forever and the all sense of direction is lost. Here, stream bed widens and the stream slows. But then, near mile 4.5, there is an abrupt transition to a Rocky Mountain forest (Peet 2000) dominated by Douglas fir and Norway spruce. The stream narrows and the stream bed becomes boulders that are angular and freshly honed from bedrock. This change is also announced by great vertically upended limestone fins on the western wall of the canyon that have been turned by earthquake faults (Sept 1st). The Wild geraniums thin out, and the first Mountain bluebells, a cool weather plant, appear and become more frequent. The air thickens more and forest becomes medieval.

Along this stretch of road between Lower and Upper Rotary Park, the bird communities, mostly of American robins, Song sparrows, Warbling vireos, and Black-headed grosbeaks are spread out into distinct communities, unlike in the warmer first mile canyon. The distinct trill call of a community of Chirping sparrows is heard. I also hear a lone Mountain chickadee calling. This is where they have come, since the lower canyon is too hot for them. This segregation of birds into unique groups along the road gives me the opportunity to stop and study the distinct songs and calls of a group of Warbling vireos.

The sun rises further and the mist burns off as I reach the end of the road at mile 5.75, and the old mining road and trail that leads to the Treasure Box mine begins. I have not been here since the end of last summer (Sept. 8th), and it feels restorative to be in the most natural of the canyon’s regions. Leaving the car and proceeding up the trail, where the direct sun penetrates, a green canopy of maples and box elders closes in, while on shaded eastern slope, Douglas firs reach to trails edge. The air is heavy with the smell of wet leaves and chlorophyll. Crossing the first and second red metal bridges affords views up the stream, and it is a torrent of white, with only hints of blue water. The stream has become a silver ribbon. After the third metal bridge, the trail rises, the canopy deepens and the undergrowth becomes impenetrable. This stretch is as the lower canyon appeared around 1900. Shipler’s photograph of the lower canyon road taken around 1903, appears nearly identical to this morning’s rise in the trail (J. Willard Marriott, Id. 459448, see also Salt Lake Tribune, May 24, 1903). The chirping call of a Green-tailed towhee is heard.

For the next half-mile, the trail is about 150 feet east of stream, and the trail consists of sharp rocks that a month ago were another snow-feed branch of the stream. Geraniums and blue bells thicken along with young stinging nettle plants. All are so covered with last night’s rain water that my shoes quickly become soaked, but I do not care. A Mourning cloak butterfly with an odd color variant flies down canyon. Instead of the yellow-white trailing band, its trailing wing band is a dusky orange. Other now common butterflies appear uniformly distributed along the trail: Western tiger swallowtails and newly-hatched smaller Spring azure butterfly butterflies. The Spring azures flock in groups of three to six, and the harsh high-altitude light brings out a new property to their colors. Depending on the sun angle, their wings flash a deep medium blue, their streaked light blue, or flat light blue. The deep blue is new variation to their iridescence. There is a new unidentified one and one-half inch butterfly. It has forewings of patterned medium dark grey and rear-wings that are a grayish black. The colder air at this high altitude, along with their lack of exposure to humans, make insects sluggish. In the lower canyon, the Red-rumped central worker bumble bees are skittish. But here, the bees remain still when approached, and I am able to take a clear pictures of several.

Song sparrows, Warbling vireos, a Spotted towhee, Yellow warblers, and Lazuli buntings, another refugee from the lower canyons, are heard in profusion. But again, they rest in distinct communities in the spacious upper reaches of the canyon instead of being distributed uniformly along the trail. Jogging uphill feels good for the legs, but my progress is slow. I cannot resist the urge to stop and listen to each community of bird and to playback stock recordings of their calls, in part to assure to identification, and in part for the simple enjoyment of somehow communicating with them. At one point, the land between trail and stream widens, but is particularly lush with a low canopy. There I hear a single American dipper, the first of the season.

For the next half mile, the trail begins to narrow travels next to the stream, and the trail crosses a series of rock outcrops. There the trail becomes broken rock interspersed with patches of stream feed marsh, and the stream water itself is so pure that individual rocks can be seen distinctly on the stream’s bottom. A few Spearleaf scorpionweeds (Phacelia hastata) that have delicate light purple, fuzzy blossoms, hide in sun sheltered spaces. Along the broken rocks, I notice the small, 5 millimeter, dried-out shells of snails covering the trail. Over a 100 feet of trail, I count about the same number of shells. On picking one up and to my astonishment, there is a miniature live snail in each shell. I am unable to identify them.

Next, the trail starts to rise towards the first of four hanging meadows, and in the first of which stills with Louis Meadows SNOTEL weather station. Aspen trees first appear, a sure sign of a Rocky Mountain meadow ahead. Mountain bluebells surround the trail on both sides, and a few Western blue elderberry trees (Sambucus nigra ssp. cerulea) rise from the surrounding bluebells. Each elderberry is heavily festooned with white, lacey panicles. In the autumn, as their dark fruit ripens, these are a favored trail snack.

As I crest the lip of Louis Meadows hanging valley, the SNOTEL station comes into view. It sits in the middle of field of Mountain bluebells the size of two football fields, and the field is surrounded by a grove of waving aspen trees to the west and Douglas firs to the east. It is an idyllic sight; one that I feel privileged to experience. I begin to feel giddy and overwhelmed by biophilia.

While my heart feels love, my intellect says my expansive feelings are not the effect of altitude at just 6,700 feet (2,042 meters), but of ultra-violet radiation. The 10 a.m. summer Sun is high in the sky, and its warmth penetrates all clothing. The exercise of hiking in Western summer mountains is a relaxing experience. The cool air makes hard, fast hiking enjoyable, but at the same time ultra-violet relaxes the muscles and the mind. Pictures taken here today all are blue tinged from the uv light. With every 1000 meters in altitude, uv light increases in intensity by 10 percent. An internet uv intensity calculator suggests this morning’s ultra-violet index is 12.

As I nearly reach the trailhead and the car, the only other hiker in the canyon today, a young man in his twenties, overtakes me, and he can only mutter, “That is so unbelievably beautiful!” as he passes by. Words escape us both. We have been closer to creation and the other world of the upper canyons of the Wasatch Mountain Range.

Driving out the lower canyon and back to that other reality of my human social and economic existence, the Mosquito Abatement District surveyors are examining their blue painted tree holes (November 7th). They are taking a census in order to estimate the canyon’s mosquito population.

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In Thoreau’s “Journal” on June 2nd, 1853, he travels through a thick fog and notes that birds are still making song. He sees cherry birds and yellow bluebead lily, an eastern plant, and red sorrel. On June 2nd, 1855, he describes a moth cocoon opening. On June 2nd, 1858, on a camping trip to a mountain top, he examines a snow bird nest, and hears a chewink, a wood-thrush, and night-hawks. On June 2nd, 1859, he finds a grossbeak nest in a blueberry bush. On June 2nd, 1860, he sees bats and a king-bird.

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Fully preserved angiosperms first appear in the fossil record about 130 million years ago and by 90 million years ago, flowering trees had dominated the forest canopy. Pamela and Douglas Soltis at the University of Washington with Mark Chase at the Royal Botanical Gardens used modern gene mapping to reconstruct the evolutionary phylogenetic clades of flowering plants (Soltis, Soltis and Chase 1999). Soltis and Soltis review state-of-the-art flowering plant clades as of 2004 (Soltis and Soltis 2004).

Magallon and Sanderson at the University of California at Davis used the rate of diversification of woody plants in the fossil record to estimate the age of the major families (Magallon and Sanderson 2001, Fig. 4). Members of the Sapindales family, which includes maples seen in the canyon, appeared about 60 million years ago. The Rosaceae family members in the canyon, which include Western serviceberry, apple trees, chokeberry, ash trees, and Woods rose, evolved relatively recently, about 45 million years ago (id). Modern oaks appear about 35 million years ago. In Utah around 35 million years ago, the Farallon Plate had passed through Utah, crustal spreading behind the plate cracked Utah’s surface, and the spreading generated Utah’s volcanic era (January 7th). The volcanic breccia at milepost 1.0 of the canyon was forming (id).

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On June 2nd, 2002, teenager Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Federal Heights home and was hidden on the south slope city side slope of the Black Mountain-City Creek ridge for two months (Salt Lake Tribune, March 15, 2003). The hiding place was not found by a 2,000 person search organized by the Laura Recovery Center (id). On June 2nd, 1915, the City Commission approved plans to build a 5,000,000 gallon reservoir at Pleasant Valley (Salt Lake Herald). On Decoration Day (May 30), a picnic was held in City Creek as reported on the social page of the Deseret Evening News.

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