Jack Loves the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Kervin, Linda, USA National Phenology Network, Wild About Utah, July 2, 2009, http://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Hellstern, Ron, Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, http://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/

Greene, Jack, I Love the Four Seasons, Wild About Utah, May 3, 2015, http://wildaboututah.org/i-love-the-four-seasons/

Conners, Deanna, Why Earth has 4 seasons, EarthSky.org, September 20, 2016, http://earthsky.org/earth/can-you-explain-why-earth-has-four-seasons

Our Winterless Winter

Drought conditions across the United States as of January 2, 2018. Moderate drought (peach) expanded in size across Arizona according to the first United States drought monitor of 2018. Overall, much of the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States is in some form of drought. Climate.gov map, based on data from the National Drought Monitor project. Courtesy: NOAA Climate.gov Data: NDMC
Our Winterless Winter: Drought conditions across the United States as of January 2, 2018. Moderate drought (peach) expanded in size across Arizona according to the first United States drought monitor of 2018. Overall, much of the Four Corners region of the southwestern United States is in some form of drought. Climate.gov map, based on data from the National Drought Monitor project.
Courtesy: NOAA Climate.gov
Data: NDMC
I’ve been in this lovely valley over 30 years and have never experienced such a balmy January, and now February. The thaw began January first and never ended. As an avid cross country skier, I fear my days of low elevation skiing have ended over a month early.

And I’m well aware that my home state of Michigan is having an epic winter of extreme cold and snow. While we westerners are crying global warming, those across the Mississippi are saying “bring it on!”
So what do the computer models tell us about these phenomena as they predict our future in a warming climate? Our jet stream is acting might wimpy and limpey these days, which was what the climatologists saw coming in their modeling. I will attempt a brief explanation.

The jet streams are high-altitude, racing rivers of air that can influence the path of storms as they track over North America from the Pacific Ocean. The jet streams meander and shift from day to day, but during La Niña events, they tend to follow paths that bring cold air and storms into the Upper Missouri River Basin. Map based on original graphics from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center. Courtesy NOAA
The jet streams are high-altitude, racing rivers of air that can influence the path of storms as they track over North America from the Pacific Ocean. The jet streams meander and shift from day to day, but during La Niña events, they tend to follow paths that bring cold air and storms into the Upper Missouri River Basin. Map based on original graphics from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
Courtesy NOAA
The jet stream is highly impacted by the temperature differences between the poles and the mid latitudes where we reside. The greater this difference, the more robust the jet stream. The poles have been warming at a crazy rapid pace- several times faster than the lower latitudes. This has reduced the temperature differences which has two profound effects on the jet stream. First, with less energy to move it along, it stalls out so to speak and its patterns linger longer over our continent. Thus the prolonged extreme warm temps in the west, and prolonged cold in the east. A month ago my son living in Atlanta, GA called to say he was walking his dog in a foot of snow, a new experience for that southern boy!

Jet streams also "follow the sun" in that as the sun's elevation increases each day in the spring, the average latitude of the jet stream shifts poleward. (By Summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it is typically found near the U.S. Canadian border.) As Autumn approaches and the sun's elevation decreases, the jet stream's average latitude moves toward the equator. Courtesy NOAA
Jet streams also “follow the sun” in that as the sun’s elevation increases each day in the spring, the average latitude of the jet stream shifts poleward. (By Summer in the Northern Hemisphere, it is typically found near the U.S. Canadian border.) As Autumn approaches and the sun’s elevation decreases, the jet stream’s average latitude moves toward the equator.
Courtesy NOAA
The second effect is the deep trough that allows the cold to reach well into those once toasty southern states. These sags can be shown with a jump rope. As you slow the energy, or rate of whip moving the rope, it begins to sag, creating a deeper, slower moving trough that even I can leap over!

So our western part of the jump rope is stuck in an inverted trough (the upward swing of the rope), creating a high pressure system that has dominated our state and much of the west with very warm temps and very little precip. This does not bode well for our ski industry nor our water supply, which is locked in our scant snow pack.

Many students from around the state have been working on a resolution with their state legislators which addresses this climate weirding. Bill HCR7 now resides in the House Natural Resources Committee, where it will probably be heard before you hear this. It may even have been on the House floor by then, and on to the Senate. The students are filled with hope that our state leaders will hear their testimonies in behalf of a future we all wish them to have.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy NOAA
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

https://www.climate.gov/news-features/features/missouri-river-flood-drama-likely-took-direction-la-ni%C3%B1a

Emma Penrod, Some Utah lawmakers deny climate change, but OK a bill recognizing its impacts after hearing pleas from students, Salt Lake Tribune, Feb 15, 2018 https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2018/02/15/some-utah-lawmakers-deny-climate-change-but-ok-a-bill-recognizing-its-impacts-after-hearing-pleas-from-students/

Emma Penrod, Some Utah lawmakers deny climate change, but OK a bill recognizing its impacts after hearing pleas from students, Salt Lake Tribune, Feb 13, https://www.sltrib.com/news/environment/2018/02/13/wary-of-saying-humans-are-responsible-utah-lawmakers-postpone-vote-on-two-climate-change-resolutions/

Rebecca P. Edwards, Concurrent Resolution on Environmental and Economic Stewardship, Utah State Legislature, HCR007

Wildlife In Winter & Climate Change

American Dipper Peter Hart, Photographer Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
American Dipper
Peter Hart, Photographer
Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Last Saturday 3 intrepid young families joined us for a morning with the Stokes Nature Center slipping and sliding along a canyon trail to discover animal and plant adaptations to survive the winter. We marveled at the American dipper as it enjoyed plunging in icy water hoping to capture its prey. The dipper remains dry due to a super-sized uropygial gland used for waterproofing its feathers as it preens combined with a thick layer of super isolative fur like feathers. Its temperature actually drops in extreme cold reducing radiated heat loss.

Water reptiles and amphibians were in deep sleep in their mud cocoons. They manage winter through slowing metabolic processes which greatly reduces their need for oxygen, nutrition and waste elimination. What little oxygen needed can be absorbed through their skin without breathing.

Animals such as bears can go into an alternate, light hibernation state called a torpor. Torpor is like hibernation, but in this condition, the bear can be awakened easily. I was reminded of this fact from a friend tagging bear cubs in Book Cliffs of eastern Utah. She would enter the bear din very gingerly trying not to awaken a grumpy mom! Ground squirrels are also among animals who torpor, however they shift between hibernation, torpor, and being awake.

The common poorwill, an uncommon bird in Utah Mountains, is the only bird that goes into true hibernation. It hibernates during extreme temperatures — when it is either too hot or too cold — and at times of food scarcity. The common poorwill can even hibernate while they are incubating eggs, proving to be not only a true survivor, but also a riveting multitasking animal.

Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Grouse Snow Angel Exiting Subnivean Cave
Courtesy US FWS & Wikimedia, Tamarac Refuge, MN
Snow is an excellent insulator where many of our more active animals spend most of their winters in subnivean (beneath the snow) environments. Mice, voles, and shrews retreat here for protection from cold temperatures, bitter winds, and hungry predators. Food is right at hand: grass, leaves, bark, seeds, and insects are free and unfrozen. These tiny mammals create long tunnel systems complete with air shafts to the surface above. Perhaps you’ve seen the pocket gopher tunnels revealed as the snow retreats- a snaking ridge of soil creating some interesting, artistic patterns.

Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.Photographer: Steven HintCourtesy WikimediaLicensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Short-tailed weasels, also known in winter as ermine, have a long, slender body shape that allows them to invade subnivean tunnels to prey upon smaller mammals.
Photographer: Steven Hint
Courtesy Wikimedia
Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
It takes only six inches of snow for mice, voles, and shrews to have a sturdy roof over their heads and roomy living quarters below. Add another two inches and the subnivean zone remains within a degree or two of 32°F, regardless of the temperature and weather conditions in the outside world.

Living under the snow is not without risk. Owls can hear mice and voles running around underground from thirty yards away. With balled-up feet, they crash through the top crust and all the layers of snow to grab their prey. Foxes and coyotes detect by scent. With an acrobatic pounce, these predators will dive right in for their meal. Suffocation is a hazard for those left behind in a collapsed tunnel.

So what happens to these little critters in a low snow-no snow winter becoming more common in a changing climate? I’m guessing a much higher rate of mortality which may not bode well for those bigger critters- hawks, owls, fox, coyote, etc., who munch them.

This is Jack Greene and I’m Wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Images: Peter Hart, Photographer, Photo credit: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Courtesy Wikimedia Steve Hint, Photographer, Licensed under Cc-by-sa-3.0
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Larese-Casanova, Mark, The Shape of Wildlife in Winter, Wild About Utah, Jan 26,2012, http://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Mackay, Barbara, The Subnivean Zone: Shelter in the Snow, Northern Woodlands, Dec 29, 2014, http://wildaboututah.org/the-shape-of-wildlife-in-winter/

Peering into the secret world of life beneath winter snows, National Science Foundation,
https://www.nsf.gov/discoveries/disc_summ.jsp?cntn_id=136986

Snow Tracks, National Wildlife Refuge System, https://www.fws.gov/refuges/features/SnowTracks.html

Glacier National Park:
Winter Wanderings, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/winter-wanderings.htm
Winter Ecology Teacher’s Guide https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/Winter%20Ecology%20Teacher%20Guide%202010.pdf
Subnivean Samba: https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/subnivean-samba.htm
4-6, Unit Five, Activity 1: “Snug in the Snow” https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/4-6-unit-five-activity-1-snug-in-the-snow.htm
Winter’s Coming!, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/classrooms/winters-coming.htm
Winter Ecology, Preparing for your Trip, 3rd-5th Grade Field Trip, https://www.nps.gov/glac/learn/education/upload/3rd-5th-winter-field-trip_GNP.pdf

Rocky Mountain National Park:
Winter Ecology Teacher Guide, https://www.nps.gov/romo/learn/education/upload/Winter-Ecology-Teacher-Guide-for-web.pdf

Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve:
Lesson Plan, Prepare for Cold Air!, https://www.nps.gov/teachers/classrooms/prepare-for-cold-air.htm

Helping you share Utah’s natural world!, Utah Nature Explorers, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/index

Porpora, Alex, Butts, Neicca, Larese-Casanova, Mark, An Introduction to Nature Journals, Utah Master Naturalist Program, https://extension.usu.edu/utahnatureexplorers/pdflessonplans/generalnature/naturejournaling/Nature%20Journaling.pdf

Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count (CBC) and Climate Change

Cache Valley Christmas Bird Count Courtesy Audubon.org Camilla Cerea, Photographer All Rights Reserved
Christmas Bird Count
Courtesy Audubon.org
© Camilla Cerea, Photographer
All Rights Reserved
It might be worth checking one’s mental state if they were to spend many hours in frigid temperatures hoping to find a bird. There are many of those crazies in our valley here in northern Utah. Citizen Scientists they call us. After all, we do follow strict protocol that defines boundaries, time and what is legitimately called a bird siting or sounding. Yes, there are errors in counts when a flock of European starlings darken the sky, or when trying to identify a distant raptor, that is scarcely more than a black dot in the heavens.

Called the Christmas Bird Count, this event is the longest citizen science program in the world, where data has been collected since 1899. Here in Cache Valley it began in 1955. It occurs throughout the state and world with many countries participating. Visit your local Audubon chapters if you care to be involved. Wasatch, Salt Lake and St George all have chapters. Bear Lake, Vernal and Provo also do counts. And I am sure there are others in your area if you inquire.

Along with the fun it brings, the count has special significance for our changing climates’ impact on birds, which is disrupting populations and their spacial distribution are changing at an accelerating rate.
The data collected by observers over the past 118 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North America and Central and South 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 better protect birds and their habitat, and helps identify environmental issues with implications for people as well.

Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive study that predicts how climate change could affect the range 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 half of their current range by 2080.
Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report 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 our state, including our state bird, the California gull and our national bald eagle.

If you aren’t up to braving the elements, Project FeederWatch and Great Backyard Bird Count are other options you may find by googling. I’m hoping for good visibility and temperatures above zero as I prepare my optical instruments and hot chocolate.

And please keep those bird feeders full as we enter the coldest month of the year!

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy Audubon.org, Copyright © Camilla Cerea, Photographer, All Rights Reserved
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Project FeederWatch is a winter-long survey of birds that visit feeders at backyards, nature centers, community areas, and other locales in North America. FeederWatchers periodically count the birds they see at their feeders from November through early April and send their counts to Project FeederWatch. FeederWatch data help scientists track broadscale movements of winter bird populations and long-term trends in bird distribution and abundance. https://feederwatch.org/

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time. http://gbbc.birdcount.org/about/

Audubon’s 118th Christmas Bird Count will be conducted this coming season, with all counts held between the dates of Thursday, December 14, 2017 through Friday, January 5, 2018.
http://www.audubon.org/conservation/join-christmas-bird-count
http://www.audubon.org/conservation/science/christmas-bird-count

58th Cache Valley (Logan) Christmas Bird Count: 16 Dec 2017
http://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count/

Regional Christmas Bird Counts
http://www.utahbirds.org/cbc/cbc.html