Pickleweed Spendor

Audio:  mp3

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

Utah’s mountains and foothills blaze with the brilliant foliar colors of aspens, maples, sumacs and more. But autumn colors can be found in less likely habitats too, even across our flat, desolate salt pans. There the usually drab stage has been given a splash of deep, dusty rose color by its sole botanical performers, the pickleweeds.

Also known as glassworts or samphire, our two species of pickleweed are in the genus Salicornia. They belong to the same plant family as beets, chard and spinach., but you’d never guess that from their appearance. The ankle-high Salicornia’s leaves are reduced to tiny scales that hug the green, branching, cylindrical stems. Pickleweeds are halophytic, or salt loving. Due to their unique physiology, they can thrive in extremely saline environments that kill normal plants. Pickleweed roots filter out some of the salt before it can move into the plant. The remaining excess salt is stored in balloon-like cavities in their cells called vacuoles. When its vacuole is full, a cell ruptures, and newer younger cells continue to accumulate incoming salt.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

The common name, pickleweed, derives from the taste of the salt stored in the vacuoles of the succulent, crisp stems. You may be surprised to learn that gourmet websites report that pickleweeds are all the rage in Europe as a salad garnish or pickled vegetable.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of the Southwestern Canyon Country]

In the Great Basin, winter flocks of Horned Larks forage in the snow for Salicornia’s tiny oil-rich seeds as do other birds. The seeds’ proteins and oils are valuable dietary supplement in the sparse salt pan habitat where the picklweed’s unique physiological adaptations allow them to thrive. If your travels this fall take you by a salt pan, take the time to enjoy the rosy glow of the humble pickleweed or view pictures on the Wild About Utah website.

Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SALIC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicornia_oil

http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=129055

http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/tharrison/gslplaya99/pickleweed.htm

Men’s Hair and the Male House Finch

Audio:  mp3

Male House Finch

Male House Finch

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

A man’s vanity is nowhere more apparent than for the hair atop his head. As men age, their hair may whiten, thin or disappear. As a remedy, some men use dyes or hair growth potions.

But imagine this: What if the right food alone could restore the virile dark hair of youth?

There is a common songbird at your birdfeeder this winter that can do just this. It is the male house finch.

[House Finch Call - #3 Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

As with many songbirds, the female house finch is drab compared to the brightly colored male. He sports a showy brow and bib in colors that range from tomato red to orange to straw yellow. Like the tomato and carrot, these colors come from pigments called carotenoids. All birds with red feathers get these carotenoid pigments from their diet, ultimately from the plants that can produce them.

What does the red feather color mean for the house finch?

The ornathologist Geof Hill of Auburn University experimentally altered head feather colors of male house finches. To make red-headed males into carrot tops, Jeff used peroxide. Red hair die achieved the opposite transformation. He then let the guys compete for the attentions of females.

Jeff’s experiments demonstrated that plumage does make the male. The redder the male’s head, the higher his place in the pecking order. And the more females that he could attract. Conversely, redheads lost rank after bleaching. Among male house finches, blondes really don’t have more fun.

So now you can predict the likely winners and losers in the mating game from just a glance at the male house finches at your seed feeder. As is common in science, this discovery leads to new questions: What food makes the male’s head feathers red? Is it some red fruit or berry? Why do some males manage to get more carotenoid pigments than others? Do they instinctively know the right seed or fruit to eat? We humans must get our carotenoids from plant sources too, such as the carotine that we transform into Vitamin A for night vision. The produce aisle at the grocery store might be a much different place though if the right fruit or vegetable could transform our hair color too.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

House Finch, Utah Bird Profile, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/HouseFinch.htm

A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch , Dr. Geoffrey, E. Hill, Oxford University Press, September 2002
ISBN-13: 9780195148480, http://search.barnesandnoble.com/BookSearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=l88eD6dCpP&isbn=0195148487&itm=2

Turkey Vultures

Audio:  mp3

Swainsons Thrush

Turkey Vulture in flight
Cathartes aura
Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
Scott Root, Photographer
Licensed under CCL

Turkey Vulture Kettle above LoganTurkey Vulture Kettle above Logan
Cathartes aura
Courtesy and Copyright
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

Turkey Vulture Kettle above LoganTurkey Vulture Kettle above Logan
Cathartes aura
Courtesy and Copyright
Andrea Liberatore, Photographer

On certain days in the spring and fall, the sky above my neighborhood looks like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’. As many as 60 large black birds swarm the sky, circling above the rooftops. On the busiest of days, people will stop their cars in the middle of the road to gawk at the sight. Some give a visible shiver when told that the birds are turkey vultures. But we have nothing to fear from these birds – in fact they should be embraced for the absolutely vital role they play in our environment.

There are lots of myths surrounding vultures, which in turn creates a misunderstanding about them. So let’s set the record straight on a few things. Vultures circle for two main reasons, neither of which involves waiting for a sick or wounded animal to die. The first reason is to take advantage of rising columns of air, called thermals, which generally occur in the mornings as the sun warms the air closest to the earth. Vultures are soaring birds and flapping their 6-foot wingspans takes a lot of effort, so they rarely do it. In fact these birds can fly for hours without a single flap. Circling within a thermal helps them travel higher and farther on much less energy.
The second reason vultures circle is to hone in on a food source. Turkey vultures are one of the few birds that have a highly developed sense of smell. Working together with their excellent eyesight, the birds soar and circle to pin down the location of their next meal.

Continue reading

Autumn Leaf Color Change

Audio:  mp3

Fall color in Logan Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Linda Kervin

In autumn, the days shorten noticeably and chilly dawns become the norm across most of Utah. Leafy plants now prepare for winter. Their summer of intense metabolic activities gradually give way to winter’s dormancy. Photosynthesis and respiration shut down as nutrients and sugars are withdrawn from leaves, to be shunted to the stem and roots for storage. But how do they anticipate the change in seasons so that they are ready for the rigors of winter?

Photosynthetic plants have a diverse array of pigments that they use to capture energy from most of the spectrum of visible sunlight. Chlorophyll is the most abundant, but its light gathering effectiveness is limited to a narrow band of the light spectrum. Plants employ many additional pigments to capture the energy available from other wavelengths of sunlight. These accessory pigments are brilliantly colored but masked by the sheer abundance of green chlorophyll.

Fall color in Logan Canyon
Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Linda Kervin

One of these pigments, phytochrome, serves as a timekeeper for the plant. When phytochrome absorbs energy in the red band of sunlight, it helps to activate a number of developmental processes in the plant. As the nights lengthen in the fall, there are fewer hours of sunlight to activate the phytochrome and so it transforms to inhibit those same developmental processes.

One result is that chlorophyll is broken down and its components are moved to storage for use in the following spring. Essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are likewise withdrawn from foliage for later use. With chlorophyll gone, the other colorful leaf pigments are revealed. Now maples, aspens, sumacs and more blaze for a few weeks of riotous glory.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Linda Kervin and Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Chemistry of Autumn Leaf Color, How Fall Colors Work, About.com: Chemistry, http://chemistry.about.com/library/weekly/aa082602a.htm

Why Do Leaves Change Color in the Fall?, Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D., About.com: Chemistry, http://chemistry.about.com/od/howthingsworkfaqs/f/fallleafcolor.htm

“Autumn: a season of change” (2000) by Peter J. Marchand, http://www.amazon.com/Autumn-Season-Peter-J-Marchand/dp/0874518709

Where to see autumn leaves in Utah:

  • U.S. 89, Logan Canyon, Brigham City to Logan, Logan to Bear Lake
  • State Route 39, Monte Christo Summit, east of Huntsville
  • State Route 190, Big Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City, including Guardsman Pass
  • State Route 210, Little Cottonwood Canyon, east of Salt Lake City
  • State Route 92, the Mount Timpanogos loop a.k.a. the Alpine loop, north, east of Provo
  • State Route 150, the Mirror Lake road, east of Kamas
  • U.S. 40, Daniels Summit, east of Heber City
  • Vernal, Red Cloud Loop (See Dinoland.com)
  • Flaming Gorge – Unitas, State Route 191 and State Route 44
  • State Route 132 Payson to Nephi, the Nebo Loop
  • State Route 31, the Wasatch Plateau, east of Fairview
  • State Route 12, over Boulder Mountain, between Torrey and Boulder (likely the most spectacular of all)
  • The La Sal Mountain loop, east of Moab
  • The Abajo Mountain loop, west of Monticello
  • The canyons of the Escalante River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, southeast of Escalante

List sources:
Aspens and Fall Foliage in Utah, Jeffrey Otis Schmerker, 2001, http://www.utah.com/schmerker/2001/fall_foilage.htm

Ogden Valley Business Association, http://www.utahfallcolors.com

Fall Colors Tour, Utah in the Fall is a blast of color!, http://www.utah.com/byways/fallcolorstour.htm

National Forest Fall Color Hotline, 1-800-354-4595,http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/r4/recreation/?cid=fsbdev3_016189

Cheatgrass

Audio:  mp3

Cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS, Photographer:
Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service,
Bugwood.org

A grassland inundated by cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS
Neal Herbert, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

It’s difficult to visit a landscape in the West without encountering cheatgrass. While cheatgrass’ small stature might make it hard to notice, it’s impossible to forget its sharp, spiny seeds. One hike through a cheatgrass meadow can render a good pair of socks unsalvageable.

Although cheatgrass, a nonnative grass scientifically known as Bromus tectorum, is an annual grass- germinating, growing, producing seeds, and dying each year- it is particularly effective at colonizing disturbed areas because it grows and produces seeds much earlier in the spring than many perennial native grasses. Cheatgrass monopolizes water and nutrients by germinating and establishing itself during the previous fall and winter, when many native plants have become dormant. Over time, cheatgrass has become the dominant ground cover in many of Utah’s sagebrush ecosystems.

The dense, dry, fine stalks of cheatgrass, which sets seeds and dries out by June, are particularly flammable fuel for wildfires. Fire roars through the carpet-like cover of cheatgrass, and wildfires are now at least twice as frequent as they were in the 1800’s. This has caused a loss of sagebrush habitat that is particularly important to a wide diversity of wildlife. More frequent fires create an even greater challenge for rare species such as the black-footed ferret and desert tortoise to survive. Native grasses are slower to recover from fire, and cheatgrass is particularly effective at recolonizing burned areas. Utah State University researchers Dr. Peter Adler and Aldo Compagnoni have found that reduced snowpack and warmer temperatures promote the growth of cheatgrass, which could potentially increase its distribution and fire risk into previously colder areas of Utah.

Researchers and managers are continually working to find ways to control cheatgrass in Utah. Effective control usually involves a combination of mechanical pulling or tilling, grazing, burning, spraying with a chemical herbicide, and replanting with native grasses. USU researchers Dr Eugene Schupp and his former graduate student Jan Summerhays found that applying a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent the germination of cheatgrass seeds, as well as temporarily limiting Nitrogen in the soil, gave native grasses and perennials a better chance of establishing. When faced with such a large management problem in Utah and throughout the West, we can use all of the helpful tools we can get.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert Photographers
and NPS, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org, Tom Heutte Photographer
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Beck, George. Cheatgrass and Wildfire. Fact Sheet No. 6.310. Colorado State University Extension. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06310.html

Cheatgrass. Range Plants of Utah. http://extension.usu.edu/range/Grasses/cheatgrass.htm

Fairchild, John. Cheatgrass: threatening homes, stealing rangelands. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. http://wildlife.utah.gov/watersheds/links/cheatgrass.php

Opsahl, Kevin. USU study: Climate shift could trigger cheatgrass. Herald Journal . October 21, 2012. http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/article_f1436aee-1a3c-11e2-935a-0019bb2963f4.html