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

Jack’s Cougar Encounter

jacks cougar encounter
Photographer: Larry Moats
Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
There are those moments in one’s life when time stops and moments become hours. So it was while trail running in the Wellsville mountains of northern Utah

Deep in the forest shadows materialized a form- a coyote! Well, that was the initial thinking. I stopped for closer inspection and began talking in a soft, welcoming tone so as not to frighten away my favorite song dog.
The animal form persisted- no frenzied running up the steep slope just beyond. Interesting.
I walked toward the figure to find the fright distance and for closer encounter. Eight steps in crunchy leaves and the animal began to move. Wow! A long tail emerges. The canine face transforms to feline. MOUNTAIN LION!!!

After 50+ years of trapesing through wild, rugged country in the western U.S., dream becomes reality- that of seeing this shadow being in real form.

Mesmerized, I continue a cautious approach. The cat holds its ground. Our distance closes to 50 yards when it begins a leisurely retreat. I continue singing praises to its magnificence. At one point I find myself emitting “Here Kitty, Kitty, Kitty” to which fortunately it doesn’t respond.

Mountain Lion
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
A large tom with striking colors- its lithe, fluid, soundless movement- poetry in motion, a marvel of artistic expression. It stops frequently, looking back to lock eyes with wonderment- perhaps its first close encounter with this strange being.

Eventually it gains the steep slope and picks its way upward. Occasional sunburst accents the rich tawny gold and well-muscled body. Eyes strain to follow its progress, fading into the dream it once was.

Cougars are solitary animals, making them a rare sight for humans. They usually hunt alone and at night, ambushing their prey from behind. Typically, cougars kill their prey with a bite to the lower neck. After making a kill, a cougar often will take the carcass to the base of a tree and cover it with dirt, leaves or snow, saving it to eat later.

Their main prey is deer, so cougars are often found close by. They can live up to 12 years in the wild but have lived up to 25 years in captivity.

Only 20 people in North America have been killed by cougars during the past 125 years, including six in California and 8 in Canada. No deaths have ever been reported in Utah. It is far less likely than dying from snake bites, avalanches, lightning strikes, hypothermia, or bee stings, or just about any other means. Children are particularly vulnerable when alone.

If approached by one, intimidation by intense eye contact, loud shouting, and any other actions to appear larger and more menacing is warranted.

This is Jack Greene writing and reading for WAU

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US FWS Digital Library
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Mountain Lion, Wildlife Notebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources,

http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/newlion.pdf

Starving Cougar Attacks Vernal Man, Hans Moran, Deseret News Nov. 12, 1997, http://www.deseretnews.com/article/594408/Starving-cougar-attacks-Vernal-man.html

Mountain Lion, National Geographic, http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/mammals/mountain-lion.html