Sphinx Moths

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Big Poplar Sphinx
Pachysphinx occidentalis
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University

White-lined Sphinx
Hyles lineata
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University

White-lined Sphinx Caterpillar
Hyles lineata
Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw
Colorado State University

I vividly remember the first time I saw one – a small winged creature whirring from flower to flower in the evening light, its long tongue dipping for nectar within tube-shaped blooms. I was mesmerized, and struggled for a closer look.

If you’re thinking that I must have seen a hummingbird, you would be making a very common mistake. A mistake, in fact, that has given this critter one of its many nicknames. The winged wonder I saw that summer night was a sphinx moth, also called a hummingbird or hawk moth because of their large size and bird-like characteristics.

In all stages of their life, these insects are large. Caterpillars grow to a robust 4 inches in length and adult wingspans can measure more than 5 inches. Sphinx moths are also some of the fastest insects on earth and have been clocked flying at over 30 miles per hour. Their size, speed, and flying ability reflect those of the hummingbird so closely that they are commonly misidentified.

Sphinx moths are a beloved sight in many Utah gardens. However, they also hold a bit of a devious surprise. The larvae, or caterpillar, of one common species of sphinx moth are well known by vegetable gardeners. They are large and bright green with a distinctive horn near their hind end. Like the adults, these larvae go by many names, the most common being the tomato hornworm. Hornworm caterpillars, unlike their adult counterparts, are not beloved by gardeners. They are voracious beasts with the ability to strip the vegetation off a tomato or pepper plant in one day.

Aside from our garden plants, young hornworms of other species feed on a variety of vegetation including willow, poplar and cottonwood trees. Adult moths rely on a host of flowers such as columbine, honeysuckle, larkspur and evening primrose. Here in Utah you might come across one of a handful of different species in the sphinx moth family including the five-spotted hawk moth and the white-lined sphinx. Look for them in the late summer evenings as daylight begins to fade. But be sure to look twice to avoid mistaking them for something they’re not.

And the next time you find a hornworm on your tomatoes, maybe just relocate the little bugger so that you can enjoy it once metamorphosis changes the beast into a beauty.

For more information and pictures of our native sphinx moths, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Photos: Courtesy Whitney Cranshaw, Colorado State University, Bugwood.org
            Images licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Additional Reading:

Cranshaw, W.S. 2007. Hornworms and “Hummingbird” Moths. Colorado State University Fact Sheet 5.517. Found online at: http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/insect/05517.pdf

Buchman, Steve. 2010. Pollinator of the Month: Hawk Moths or Sphinx Moths (Sphingidae). US Forest Service. Found online at: http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/pollinators/pollinator-of-the-month/hawk_moths.shtml

Wildlife Corridors

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Western Wildway Network
Copyright © Wildlands Network

Have you heard about the Yellowstone to Unita Connection or the Western Wildway Priority Wildlife Corridor and the Bear River Range Corridor? What we will talk about today is the critical importance of protecting, maintaining and creating wildlife corridors throughout Utah and the west.

Animals and yes plants and all other critters that live in ecosystems, such as birds, insects and amphibians, always suffer when their ecosystem and the ecosystems that are adjoining theirs, either through land or water corridors are fragmented and minimalized, if not lost altogether due to human activities. The ever expanding web of roads and highways, residential and commercial development, intensive agriculture, energy development and off-road vehicle trails in essence trap animals in an ever shrinking island of non-connected ecosystems. Its when species can’t move between ecosystems to mate, migrate, eat, pollinate, find new homes and resources. recycle nutrients, take refuge and more, that inbreeding can cause significant problems for flora and fauna. Sometimes even extinction.

Our politicians and agency folks, as well as developers, farmers and ranchers, businesses and everyday residents can all help to assure that we preserve, maintain and develop a network of these corridors connecting large and small ecosystems running from Canada, through the United States into Mexico.

One such large project, called the Spine of the Continent, is a geographic, social and scientific effort to sustain linkages, along the Rocky Mountains, so that plants and animals can keep moving. A local example, the Bear River mountains, located in northern Utah and southern Idaho, is a relatively narrow tract of forest land in the Uninta-Wasatch-Cache National Forest and the Caribou and Targhee National Forests. This mountain range and surrounding basin are a key component of the western United States biological corridor system. The Bear River basin corridor is a critical choke point for species migration in the western United States because it offers the only major link between the northern and the southern Rockies. Or more specifically, the link between the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and the high Unitas wilderness area.

Here’s how you can get involved:
We have dedicated organizations working on the protection, expansion and maintenance of wildlife corridors. I mentioned the Yellowstone to Unita connections. They along with the Bear River Watershed Council and others in our state are actively working on wildlife corridors. I spoke to Dr. John Carter, manager of the Yellowstone to Unitas connection about their program. They are doing great work to restore fish and wildlife habitat in the Yellowstone to Unitas corridor, through the application of science, education and advocacy. He invites you to check out their website at www.yellowstoneuintas.org.

I’m Jim Goodwin for Wild About Utah


Image: Courtesy Wildlands Network
Text:    Jim Goodwin, co-founder of the Utah Bioneers Sustainability Conference, http://www.intermountainbioneers.org/

Additional Reading:

Yellowstone to Unitas Connection, http://www.yellowstoneuintas.org/

Western Wildway Network, Wildlands Network, http://westernwildway.org/

Western Wildway, http://www.twp.org/wildways/western-wildway; The Western Wildway Initiative (Spine of the Continent Initiative© )-connects the world’s largest network of conservation lands. – See also http://www.twp.org/wildways/western-wildway#sthash.0P2Amv70.dpuf

Wildlife Mortality Along Utah’s Highways, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://www.slideshare.net/UtahDWR/wildlife-mortality-along-utahs-highways-april-2011

Pioneer Day Edible Native Plants

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Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

With Pioneer Days looming, let’s explore a bit of our local heritage.

Following several days of cold and snowy weather in early May, my friend and USU graduate student Ian Keller and I approached the Mormon Handcart outpost near Evanston Wyoming on Deseret Land & Livestock Company land. We braved the elements to deliver a seminar to 8 missionary couples on Mormon pioneer use of wild plants as they struggled toward the Promised Land of Salt Lake Valley.

Ian’s graduate work encompasses this topic. Some of what follows is from his good work combined with others later mentioned. And we must not overlook the origins of this knowledge which came from the native peoples, acquired through thousands of years of trial and error.

(I must add that following our seminar we feasted on a variety of sumptuous foods the missionaries had prepared from pioneer recipes!)

I’ll begin with a remarkable plant big sage brush or Artemisia tridentate, which was their constant companion for much of the journey.

Medicinal uses included treatment for headache, diarrhea, sore throat, vomiting and even bullet wounds. Tea made from leaves was used for hair tonic and a poultice for bee stings.

“Brighan Young advised gathering and drying it for winter medicinal purposes. From a pioneer journal- “We washed our hair in sage tea, sage tea is good to cure night sweats”. And from Phil Robinson, 1883- “Someday perhaps a fortune will be made of it, but at present its chief value seems to be as a moral discipline to the settler and as cover for the sage hen.”

Copyright © 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU

Another plant that rarely gets its due, the common dandelion.
For Dandelion Salad- “Gather the tender young plants of the dandelion. Wash and cut up into a salad. Serve with dressing oil, or just with salt and pepper.”— Ilene Kingsbury.

And from Larry A. Sagers, USU Extension Horticulture Specialist in the Thanksgiving Point Office-
Thistles that we now curse were once highly prized by the pioneers. One early pioneer wrote, “I used to eat thistle stalks until my stomach would be as full as a cow’s.”
The young leaves of stinging nettles were also used as greens. The cooking destroyed the irritating parts that affect the skin.
Camas bulbs for which Kamas, Utah, was named, were also used for food. The bulbs were eaten or a crude molasses was made from boiling the bulbs. Unfortunately, if too many of the bulbs were consumed they could cause severe illness. The bulbs also grow in proximity with death camas, so this particular plant involves certain risks to the user.

Tall Thistle
(Cirsium altissimum)
Aster family (Asteraceae) in flower
Photo Courtesy NPS,
Kelly Manktelow, Photographer

The pioneers also used grease wood sprouts and other plants to supplement their meager diet.
Gooseberries, strawberries, raspberries and currants grew in the mountains and were highly prized. Chokecherries were a favorite for preserves and jellies.
A recent book by Brock Cheney “Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers.” is a delightful book with many pioneer plant stories and recipes, as is Dr. Wesley P. Larsen’s “Field Folio of Indian and Pioneer Medicinal Plants”.

Perhaps your Pioneer Day’s activities will include preparing a recipe from one of these sources to garnish your picnic! And let us include the plants which garnished our pioneers with flavor if not survival during their epic trek!

Jack Greene, Smithfield Utah


Pictures: Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Copyright © 2002 Roger Banner, Intermountain Herbarium, USU
Courtesy NPS,
Kelly Manktelow, Photographer
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Brock Cheney, Plain but Wholesome: Foodways of the Mormon Pioneers, http://www.amazon.com/Plain-but-Wholesome-Foodways-Pioneers/dp/1607812088

Wesley P. Larsen, Field Folio of Indian and Pioneer Medicinal Plants,

Climb The Grand Teton…Virtually

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. Photo Courtesy NPS


Photo Courtesy NPS
K Kanes, Photographer
>>> Begin Tour
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Scaling “the Grand,” that picturesque mountain that hangs over Jackson, Wyoming, along with its battleship-gray sisters in the Teton Range, was a ridiculous thought that found harbor in the back of my mind in the spring of 1985 when I first glanced up at the peak.

Along with a dozen or so other neighboring peaks that rise above 10,000 feet, the Tetons form a ponderous, jagged stretch of rock that is the Lower 48’s most arresting mountain range. The soul of Grand Teton National Park, the Grand as it’s known harbors world-class climbs.

Some climbers tackle the mountain on their own, while neophytes such as myself are herded ever upward under the watchful guidance of one of Jackson’s two resident climbing outfitters, Exum Mountain Guides and Jackson Hole Mountain Guides.

To me, an Easterner by birth, the 13,770-foot tall Grand Teton is a breathtaking, and incredibly tall, mountain. But climb it? Not only am I usually most comfortable with both feet firmly planted flat on the ground, but the thought of only a thin rope and a precarious hand- or toe-hold between me and an incredible long way down scared the hell out of me, quite frankly.

The view from atop the Grand Teton is incredible. To the west, the Jedediah Smith Wilderness stands. To the north, Yellowstone National Park. To the east, Jackson Hole, with the moraine that is Timbered Island so very well defined.

Now, if you haven’t climbed to the roof of Grand Teton National Park, or can’t, you can still enjoy the view.

A new virtual tour produced by the park staff takes you from the Jackson Hole Valley to the summit from the comfort of your living room or office. No cold or pelting rain, no thunder claps or lightning strikes, just a nice mix of interactive still photos and video cuts that take you to the top.

This virtual mountaineering excursion—or eClimb, as the park dubs it—provides an introduction to the features, geology, history, and excitement of scaling the granite ledges and spires that form the Grand Teton massif: the highest peak in the Teton Range and second highest mountain in Wyoming. This web-based tour introduces viewers to the various elements (rocky terrain, plants and wildlife) that exist in Grand Teton’s forest and alpine communities.

As an eClimber you can control images and sounds at each stop along your virtual tour, and you can activate videos to explore the human and natural history related to each location along the climbing route. By hovering your mouse over a photograph, hidden images will be revealed through the click of a button.

eClimbers can also use videos to imagine scrambling over boulder fields and wedging through rocky alcoves as they experience the thrill of climbing and drama of a mountain rescue in a virtual landscape.

To find this virtual climb, go to Grand Teton’s website (www.nps.gov/grte) and click on  “Grand Teton eClimb” near the bottom of the home page.

For Wild About Utah, this is Kurt Repanshek with National Parks Traveler

Image: Courtesy USGS, www.usgs.gov
Image: Courtesy and Copyright Kurt Repanshek, www.nationalparkstraveler.com
Text:     Kurt Repanshek, NationalParksTraveler.com.

Additional Reading:

Grand Teton National Park

Grand Teton eClimb


National Parks Traveler: Climb The Grand Teton…Virtually!




Fitting the Bill

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White-winged Crossbill
Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins
More photos at pbase.com/phiggins/
and utahbirds.org Photo Gallery

Red Crossbill (female)
Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins
More photos at pbase.com/phiggins/

Few among us would choose to eat a steak with a spoon or soup with a fork. And in the world of birds, it’s the same story – you need the right tool for the right job – and you can tell a lot about a bird by paying attention to its beak.

Physiologically, beaks are a specialized extension of the skull and are coated in keratin – the same material that makes up our fingernails. And like our fingernails, the cutting edges of the beak can be re-grown as they are worn down by use.

Birds use beaks for a multitude of tasks including preening, weaving nests, and defending territories. However it is the task of eating that seems to dictate beak shape and size. Envision the hummingbird, for instance. Its long, thin beak – and corresponding tongue – is designed to reach deep into flowers to collect the nectar within. A hummingbird beak would not work for a woodpecker or a great horned owl. Likewise an eagle’s beak needs to be sharp and strong for tearing flesh, and wouldn’t suit the lifestyle of an ibis or a sparrow.

One Utah native, the aptly-named red crossbill, has one of the most unique beaks around. When closed, its curved top and bottom bills overlap crossways in what looks like an awkward and uncomfortable pose.

French naturalist Count Buffon, first laid eyes on a crossbill in the mid-1700’s. The bird was collected in the Americas, then shipped abroad for examination. Without observing the crossbill in its natural habitat, Buffon labeled its beak “an error and defect of nature, and a useless deformity.” More than 50 years later, Scottish-American naturalist Alexander Wilson observed a crossbill in the wild and determined that its beak ‘deformity’ was in reality a magnificently adapted tool. The crossbill’s diet consists mainly of the seeds of conifer trees, and it turns out that the bird’s curiously crossed beak is perfectly adapted to prying apart the scales of pinecones to get at the seeds within.

Members of the finch family, these birds are often seen in flocks and occasionally visit backyard feeders. They are easily identified by their unique beaks, which serve as a reminder that the right tool for the right job can sometimes seem a bit unconventional.

For more information and photographs of crossbills, visit our website at www.wildaboututah.org. Thank you to Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting the research and development of this Wild About Utah topic.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Paul Higgins(phiggins)www.pbase.com/phiggins
Text:    Andrea Liberatore, Stokes Nature Center, logannature.org

Additional Reading:

Benkman, Craig W. 1987. Crossbill Foraging Behavior, Bill Structure, and Patterns of Food Profitability. The Wilson Bulletin 99(3) p. 351-368

Conniff, Richard. 2011. The Species Seekers: Heroes, Fools and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth. W.W. Norton & Company: NY

Pearson, T. Gilbert (ed.). 1936. Birds of America. Garden City Publishing Company, Inc. Garden City, NY