American Robin

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American Robin

American Robin
Turdus migratorius
Courtesy US FWS,
Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer

Robin with Chicks in NestAmerican Robin
Turdus migratorius
Courtesy US FWS,
Lee Karney, Photographer

Robin with Chicks in NestRobin with Chicks in Nest
Courtesy US FWS,
James C. Leopold, Photographer

The American robin with its abundance, red breast, and loud song is one of the most recognizable backyard birds in North America. For many of us the robin – or Turdus migratorius – is also thought of as a herald of spring. So why is it that we still occasionally see them in our wintry Utah backyards?

Seasonal bird migration can be triggered by a number of things, but the two main drivers are food supply and nesting habitat. In spring and summer the birds move northward to take advantage of insect hatches, budding plants, and the plethora of nesting sites. Then, as food sources dwindle in fall, the birds move southward to areas where the necessary resources are still plentiful.

The distances birds migrate in order to access these resources can range widely. Therefore, birds are generally categorized as being short-, medium-, or long-distance migrants. Robins are considered short-distance migrants. While their range spans all of Canada and the United States extending down into Mexico, most robins do not travel far from their breeding grounds in winter and may not leave at all. Only the populations that breed and reside on the edges of this range will migrate seasonally.

The robin’s varied diet and behavioral adaptability are the primary reasons these short-migratory or non-migratory patterns are possible. Robins are preferably ground foragers, feasting on insects and earthworms in the spring and summer months. Yet, during the fall and winter, robins eat a fruit-based diet. They track this seasonal food source in flocks, abandoning their summer individualistic and territorial behavior. These flocks – or roosting aggregates – also help them survive the cold winter temperatures. As a result, robins are able to cope with the ground freezing, the disappearance of their preferred food source, and the harsh winter weather.

Returning to our original question: is the American robin truly a sign of spring here in Utah? Is it strange to see this bird in our backyards during the winter months? The simple answer is no. Robins can be found year round almost anywhere south of Canada. While they may migrate nomadically, staying or leaving areas as weather and snow cover affect their food supply, there could be some keeping us company in Utah all winter.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Anna Bengtson.

Image: Courtesy US FWS, Lee Karney, James C. Leopold, Photographers
Text: Anna Bengston

Sources & Additional Reading:

American Robin Profile, Utah Birds

American Robin, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

American Robin, The Birds of North America Online

Studying Migration, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Migration Patterns, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Where Have all the Robins Gone?, Migration, Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Snow Depth Survey, The Great Backyard Bird Count

Winter Robins, The Great Backyard Bird Count

Public Lands – good or bad?

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Click to view Coyote Pups on the public lands of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, Courtesy US FWS

Coyote Pups
on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge

Courtesy US FWS 

This morning I spent some time skiing up Smithfield Canyon in the Uintah Wasatch Cache National Forest. Growing up in Michigan where public land was hard to come by, I have come to enjoy our “commons” where I’m not trespassing on posted private land, or required to pay a fee before entering.

With the Oregon Bundy-Hammond event taking center stage, it has forced me to do some reflecting on what is right and what is wrong regarding our public lands.

To begin with, I’m biased in two ways- both for the land and for the ranching culture- I have deep affection for both. In my 11 seasons as a Wilderness Ranger for the Logan Ranger District of the USFS and 6 seasons with the National Park Service, I have become well aware of how our public lands are managed- the good, bad, and the ugly. On our national forest the primary issue I was confronted with was livestock grazing. The damage done by cattle and sheep was significant, plus predator control seriously interfered with how natural systems operate in balancing herbivores with their forage supply. Health of the land was always of paramount concern, but due to forest managers having very limited resources, best practices for maintaining healthy ecosystems and watersheds was compromised.

Regarding the livestock industry, it excites me to see real cowboys on horseback rounding up their animals- the romance of the west. I would love to join them. Conflicting with these feelings is my relief that the land will begin to heal from damage that often occurs when utilizing sensitive areas unsuitable for these animals, especially in large, concentrated numbers. And as a back country recreationist, I prefer elk, moose, and mountain sheep, to domestic stock and the artificiality they represent.

There are many examples of ranchers that manage their livestock well, and place them where little damage occurs. There are even ranchers who are willing to sacrifice some of their animals who realize the value of large predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems.

Do I support the Bundy takeover, or the Hammonds who violated the Bureau of Land Management laws in numerous instances? A resounding “NO!” in both cases. But I do wish them well in finding a way to maintain their ranching operations- perhaps by adding eco and/or cultural tourism or renewable energy options to provide additional income. Recreation and tourism has become our largest industry, contributing billions to the economy. More recently, renewable energy has manifested astronomical growth in the forms of geothermal, wind, and solar. Further, well managed rangelands can help remove, or sequester, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere- another potential market.

In the end, I wish both well- restoring health and access to our public lands; and preserving a flourishing ranching culture.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Image: Courtesy US FWS
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Kaste, Martin, NPR Around the Nation, Armed Protesters Occupy Malheur National Wildlife Refuge Center In Oregon,

Siegler, Kirk, NPR America, Who Will Blink First? Armed Occupation In Oregon Drags On,

Utah’s Petroglyph Garden

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Click to view Petroglyph Panel at the Fremont Indian State Park & Museum, Photo Courtesy Sevier County, Kreig Rasmussen, Photographer

Petroglyph Panel at Fremont Indian State Park & Museum
Photo Courtesy Sevier County
Kreig Rasmussen, Photographer

Hi, I’m Ru Mahoney with Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Utah’s culture is rich with vestiges of our pioneer history, and the landscape is accented by visible signs of the European settlers who forged our modern communities. But the tapestry of Utah’s cultural heritage is interwoven with much older threads, as indelible and enduring as the landscape itself.

In the 1980’s, in the southwestern quadrant of central Utah, the construction of interstate 70 unearthed a secret over one thousand years old. The valleys and canyons of what is now Sevier County, already known as a seasonal thoroughfare for the Paiute, had an even older history as home to the largest community of Fremont Indians ever discovered. Influenced by their Anasazi cousins to the southwest, the Fremont culture encompassed a diverse group of tribes that inhabited the western Colorado Plateau and the Great Basin area from roughly 400 to 1350 A.D. Archaeologists tell us they were a people of ingenuity in their engineering, aggression in their social interactions, and lasting creativity in their artistic expression. Divergent theories on their fate suggest they drove the Anasazi out of the Four Corners region and eventually migrated to further landscapes, or that northern groups of Fremont peoples joined with bands of Shoshone and became the Ute Indians of the Uinta. Whatever the truth of their ultimate fate may be, nowhere is their history more tangible than at Fremont Indian State Park just south of Sevier, UT along I-70. This year-round state park offers visitors a treasure trove of artifacts and curated exhibits in an excellent visitor’s center. But the most authentic interaction with these past peoples comes from exploring the surrounding landscape.

Driving the winding road into Clear Creek Canyon, ghostly figures begin to emerge; pictographs painted in shades of ocher and umber, and pale petroglyphs carved into the canyon walls, reveal an archaic and epic account of Utah’s ancestral past. A unique creation story, in which a shrike leads the Fremont people from a dark and cold underworld through the stem of reed into the warm world above, plays out across the canyon walls. A craggy outcrop of rock in the shape of an eagle is said to be watching over the reed to the underworld below to insure nothing wicked escapes into our world. A concentric lunar calendar and an abundance of zoomorphics speak of a cultural identity conceived in relation to the broader astrological world, and a reverence for anthropomorphized neighbors such as bighorn sheep and elk. Spider Woman Rock juxtaposes a powerful figure of Native American mythology with the pedestrian humility of a nursing mother. And Cave of 100 Hands is a visceral exhibition of a humanity simultaneously reminiscent and divergent from our own.

While the Fremont culture is believed to have died out or been absorbed by other modern groups, Clear Creek Canyon and the rock art sites of Fremont Indian State Park are significant among the modern Kanosh and Koosharem Bands of the Paiute who began using the area and leaving their own indelible marks on the canyon walls after the disappearance of the Fremont peoples around 1400 A.D. On the vernal and autumnal equinox (occurring in the third or fourth week of March and September each year) the eagle rock casts its shadow over the reed rock at dawn, breathing life into ancient tales of our ancestral history.

Fremont Indian State Park is a notable destination for those interested in rock art sites, many of which are suited to families of all ages and mobility, including visitors with strollers and wheelchairs. Stop in the visitor’s center to borrow or purchase a guide to the petroglyphs and pictographs for deeper insight into the Fremont culture and an unforgettable glimpse into Utah’s past.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Images: Courtesy Sevier County, Kreig Rasmussen, Photographer
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Additional Reading:

Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Climate Change

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Click for a larger view of Frank M. Chapman, organizer of the first christmas bird count, Courtesy Wikimedia, Image in the public domain

Frank M. Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia
Image in the public domain

On December 19th, I will have joined several others for an exciting day of counting bird species and numbers in our lovely, snowy valley. Our numbers will be entered on a database that will be shared with the world. The Christmas Bird Count began on Christmas Day in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the nascent Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition—a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than slaughtering them, which had been the past ritual.

The data collected by observers over the past 115 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America. When combined with other surveys such as the Breeding Bird Survey, it provides a picture of how the continent’s bird populations have changed in time and space. This long term perspective is vital for conservationists. It informs strategies to protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

Along with the fun it brings, this year’s count will have special significance for our local Audubon chapter which was awarded a National Audubon grant for “spreading the word” on our changing climate’s impact on birds. Through the grant writing and implementation I have a heightened awareness of how bird populations and their spacial distribution are changing at an accelerating rate.

Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges of 588 North American birds. Of the bird species studied, more than half are likely to be in trouble. The models indicate that 314 species will lose more than 50 percent of their current climatic range by 2080.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.

In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which revealed that some of America’s most beloved and familiar birds have taken a nosedive over the past forty years.

142 species of concern are found in Utah including our state bird, the California gull and our the bald eagle, our national bird. Averaging the most recent 10 years, our valley has seen 16 species increase and 11 species decline. Of course we would need a take a much broader sweep to know the true story of these species, but our data may play a significant part in the overall analysis.
And please keep those bird feeders full as we enter the coldest month of the year!

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia and in the public domain
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Western Banded Gecko

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Western Banded Gecko, Courtesy NPS

Western Banded Gecko
Courtesy NPS

They might catch your eye as they dart under sagebrush. Or maybe startle you with their pushups on a boulder. Odds are, you won’t leave Arches or Canyonlands national parks without seeing a Western Banded Gecko.

These lizards can grow to six inches in length, though that’s on the large side, and half of that length might be their tail. Pale-pink and brown-banded translucent skin distinguishes Western Banded Geckos from all other lizards that live in the same desert surroundings, and their heads and bodies are speckled with light brown. The brown bands are vibrant in young Western Banded Geckos, and then change into blotches, or spots, with age.

The small scales that cover their body are soft to touch, and their slender toes leave no room for pads. Movable eyelids and vertical pupils also set them apart.

The Western Banded Gecko typically are spotted in rocky or sandy desert areas in the American Southwest. They are fond of open, dry deserts, desert grasslands, and catching the sun in the canyons. You can spot them, or one of the eight subspecies, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, as well as in Arches and Canyonlands.

Like other geckos, these lizards generally avoid the day heat and prefer the cool night air. They seek shelter during the day near or under rocks, burrows, and spaces beneath vegetative debris, and even trash piles if necessary. They frequent rodent burrows as they hunt insects, spiders, small arthropods, and baby scorpions.

The Western Banded Gecko stalks its prey, capturing and crushing it with its jaws in a final, fatal lunge. The small gecko is one of the few reptiles credited with controlling the scorpion population, by eating their young. The Western Banded Gecko can also mimic a scorpion, by turning its tail upwards, and waving it to repel predators.

In addition to this deception, Western Banded Geckos use other methods to divert predators. Be forewarned: if you plan on catching a Western Banded Gecko, be prepared to hear a squeak or chirp in disagreement. You may even see them detach their tail. Their tail has particular fracture planes, allowing the lizard to easily detach and escape, similar to other lizards. Blood vessels surrounding the tail rapidly close, so they can prevent blood loss. Regrowth of their tails happens quickly, as it is mostly made up of cartilage.

Though the tail serves as an easy escape route, it means a lot to a Western Banded Gecko: that’s where it stores its food and water. Their tail allows these animals to survive during lean times, up to nine months. As you can imagine, losing a tail puts their life in danger, so look but don’t touch.

For Wild About Utah and National Parks Traveler, I’m Kurt Repanshek.

Image: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek,
Text:     Kurt Repanshek,

Additional Reading: