June Fireflies

Click for a larger view of a firefly, Courtesy Wikimedia, Bruce Marlin, Photographer, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
Firefly
Courtesy Wikimedia,
Bruce Marlin, Photographer
Licensed under
Creative Commons Attribution-
Share Alike 2.5 Generic license


Most people are fascinated by unusual displays of light. Meteor showers, solar eclipses, and the stunning Aurora Borealis, or Northern Lights, are grandiose in scale and mesmerize onlookers. But people are also enchanted with the small life-forms that create their own light.

Bioluminescence, the production of light by living creatures, is an incredible phenomenon produced by certain mushrooms, scorpions, millipedes, bacteria, snails, worms, beetles, and nearly half of marine life including single-celled plankton, jellyfish, octopi, and fish. Some are also fluorescent by absorbing light rays and then emitting them as a different color.

But today we will focus on fireflies, also known as lightning bugs, which are actually beetles.

How, and why, do these creatures produce their own light? Scientists are still learning how the process works, but basically it is a chemical reaction involving luciferin, a light-emitting compound, being catalyzed by an enzyme and reacting with oxygen to release cool, light photons.

The “why” part is primarily for locating mates. But other species could also use it to lure prey, as a method of escape, and to warn predators.

The nighttime hours of late Spring and early Summer months are prime time for firefly activity. They live around wetland areas where the soil is moist and will start flashing when the sky is dark. Females remain fairly stationary atop tall grass and watch for males who fly around flashing various light signals. When a female approves of a suitor’s signal, she will respond with her own glow pattern which allows the male to find her. After mating, the female will lay eggs in the moist soil or leaf litter where they won’t dry out. The eggs usually hatch in 3-4 weeks.

The larvae live in the soil hunting worms, snails or slugs. At this stage they may actually begin glowing. They live in the soil for one or two winters before pupating and undergoing metamorphosis into the adult stage. And the purpose of the adult stage is primarily breeding.

While we enjoy seeing these insect “shooting stars” it is critical to avoid trying to capture them since the Utah populations are small and fragile. (Photos are available online on many websites if one needs to see them closeup.) Walking on the soil can kill the eggs or larvae, and light from automobiles, street lights and flashlights can disrupt their ability to see the flashing of their prospective mates. While the “Firefly Citizen-Science Project” from the Natural History Museum of Utah indicates sightings at more than 50 locations, careless actions, as well as loss of critical habitat, are actually causing a decrease in populations across the country.

Let’s do our best to be good stewards of the earth and only “observe” the amazing firefly.

This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Image: Courtesy Wikimedia, Bruce Marlin, Photographer, Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license
Text: Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

Holly Strand, Firefly Light, Wild About Utah, 20 June 2013, http://wildaboututah.org/firefly-light/

Clayton Gefre, Sparks Fly: Researchers track firefly populations across Utah, The Herald Journal, http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/sparks-fly-researchers-track-firefly-populations-across-utah/article_270ac8b9-3d3f-5a01-9b5b-ac22e89a54bb.html

Natalie Crofts, New Website Tracks Utah Firefly Sightings, KSL, https://www.ksl.com/?sid=34439516

Utah Museum of Natural History, Firefly Citizen Science Project, https://nhmu.utah.edu/fireflies

Conserving Water

A Flowing Stream, Conserving Water Starts at Home, Courtesy and Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
A Flowing Stream, Conserving Water Starts at Home, Courtesy and Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
Liquid water is essential to life as we know it on planet Earth. With rising temperatures ahead, our water resources are critical to us all. Whether nations contain hot-desert areas or not, the appropriate management of water is essential. In fact, life-sustaining water is literally far more important and valuable than oil. While most Americans generally take clean water for granted, the current generation may see unprecedented changes in water policy, development of desalinization plants, and the distant transport of water through major pipelines. While the “amount” of Earth’s water remains stable, its accessibility and distribution may change dramatically. A current example is truckloads of water being hauled from California to the Crater Lake National Park system in Oregon.

As good Earth Stewards, what can/should we do to use water responsibly? Here are 25 ideas:

  • Run kitchen-tap water into pitchers until it is hot before you start your dishwasher. Use that water later for your houseplants or garden.
  • If washing dishes by hand, use a container of rinse water rather than letting it run over dishes.
  • Try a Navy Shower: Get wet, turn water off, lather up, rinse. Two minutes of water use is all you’ll need.
  • Install a water-saver showerhead.
  • Keep a pitcher of cold drinking water in the fridge instead of letting the water run down the drain while waiting for it to cool.
  • Wash your car on the lawn.
  • Use a pistol-nozzle on your garden hose rather than letting it run open ended.
  • Use a bucket in your bathtub to catch water until it warms, then use it on plants later.
  • Water plants with runoff caught from rinsing fruit and vegetables under your faucet.
  • See if your community allows plumbing your gray water directly to your outdoor plants.
  • Use a broom, not water, to clean sidewalks and driveways.
  • Turn running water off while shaving, washing hands, or brushing teeth.
  • Water lawns only in the early morning or late evening, and preferably on windless days.
  • Compost fruit & vegetable waste rather than using the garbage disposal.
  • Consider replacing your lawn with water-wise plants. If you live in a desert, grow desert plants.
  • Run dishwashers and clothes-washers only with full loads.
  • Upgrade old toilets with the newer water-saving models
  • Make sure that lawn sprinklers never hit driveways, sidewalks, buildings, fences, etc.
  • Put your lawn mower on the “highest setting” to conserve water and strengthen grasses.
  • Check the policy in your area about using barrels to catch rainwater from your roof to use later on flower beds and gardens.
  • Never use running water to thaw frozen foods. Plan ahead, and defrost it in the fridge.
  • Fix plumbing leaks immediately.
  • Don’t use toilets as garbage cans.
  • Save money and resources by avoiding plastic water-bottles. Use your own refillable container for meetings, hiking, etc.
  • If you have a pool, cover it when it’s not in use to reduce evaporation loss.
  • For dozens of other water-saving ideas go to www.wateruseitwisely.com

A Flowing Stream, Home for Wildlife, Courtesy and Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
A Flowing Stream, Home for Wildlife, Courtesy and Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images:
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

Conservation Program, Utah Division of Water Resources,
https://conservewater.utah.gov/

Waterwise Utah, Utah Education Network & Partners, http://waterwiseutah.org/

Water Quality-Conservation, USU Extension, http://extension.usu.edu/waterquality/conservation/

Slow the Flow, Jordan Valley Water Conservancy District & Partneres, http://www.slowtheflow.org/

Bird Benefits

Western Tanager Courtesy & Copyright © 2010 Michael Fish
Western Tanager
Courtesy & Copyright © 2010
Michael Fish
Birds may not be as exciting as certain athletic events or blockbuster films, but have you ever considered the many benefits they provide to ecosystems and humans? They control insect and rodent populations; they eat weed seeds; they pollenate crops, flowers, fruits. They are a major food source, consider chickens, turkeys, game birds, water fowl, as well as their eggs. Falcons and hawks can help humans hunt for food. They are companion pets for many people…parakeets, canaries, parrots. They inspired the construction of airplanes.
Bird Houses Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Bird Houses
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Pigeons were often used to transport messages and medicines during war. Feathers were used as insulation for clothing and bedding as well as fashion accessories. Estimates of 20 billion dollars annually is spent by birdwatchers for travel, seed and feeders, binoculars and scopes, and so forth. Contests and competitions are done every year for racing pigeons and state fairs with a variety of species. They are beautiful subjects for photography and art forms. They are agents of seed dispersal, and some also feed on animal carcasses. Their waste products are used as agricultural fertilizer, and they are indicators of environmental health. In the 1990s, Mexico City’s air pollution problem was so bad birds fell dead from the sky. This initiated steps to improve air quality. There’s also peaceful serenity in listening to bird songs. Although some people may not appreciate the pre-sunrise songs of robins.

Two American Robins and a Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
Two American Robins and a
Northern Flicker Drinking from a Bird Bath
Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
So what can you do to help improve the bird habitat in your area? First, provide water year-round. A simple bird bath is a great start. Change water every 2 to 3 days in warm weather to prevent mosquito larvae from hatching, and use a heater in the winter. Place the water container about 10 feet from dense shrubs or other cover that predators might use. Select a variety of native plants to offer year-round food in the form of seeds, berries, nuts, and nectar. Try to recreate the plant ecosystem native to your area. Evergreen trees and shrubs provide excellent cover through all seasons if they are part of your local ecosystem. If your landscaping is complete, then put in bird feeders. Remove invasive plants from your wildlife habitat. Many out-compete the native species favored by birds, insects, and other wildlife. To find a list of invasive plants in your state, go to the cooperative extension office in your local area.

A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
A red-cockaded woodpecker has dinner outside its nesting cavity. Photo by USFWS.
Eliminate insecticides in your yard. Insects are the primary source of food for many bird species and are an important source of protein and fats for growing juvenile birds. Depending on your circumstances, leave standing dead trees, that are also known as snags, and they provide cavity dwelling places for birds to raise young and a source of insects for food. Many species will also seek shelter from bad weather inside of hollowed-out trees. Inspect your snags regularly though to make sure they do not present any safety hazards. Put out nesting boxes. Make sure the boxes have ventilation holes and drainage holes, and don’t use a box with a perch, because certain species are known to sit on a nesting box perch and peck at other birds inside the box.

And again, as a reminder, please keep your cats indoors. Domestic cats kill millions of birds every year. Birds help us, let’s help them.

This is Ron Helstern with Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images:
                Western Tanager, Courtesy & Copyright Mike Fish, Photographer
                Birdbath, Courtesy & Copyright © 2012 Linda Kervin
                Woodpecker, Courtesy US FWS
Text:     Ron Hellstern

Additional Reading

What Do Birds Do for Us?, Barry Yeoman, National Audubon, 13 Apr 2013, http://www.audubon.org/news/what-do-birds-do-us

The Benefits of Birds, Dr Rin Porter, National Audubon, 27 Mar 2015, http://www.thingscouldbeworse.org/home/benefits-birds/

Burning for the birds at Piedmont National Wildlife Refuge, Josh OConnor, regional fuels specialist, March 21, 2014
https://www.fws.gov/southeast/articles/burning-for-the-birds-at-piedmont-national-wildlife-refuge

The End of Royalty?

Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber Posted on February 14, 2017
Julian Pender Hume, cover Extinct Birds, accessed Errol Fuller, The Passenger Pigeon, pg. 74. As found on Flocks that Darken the Heavens: The Passenger Pigeon in Indiana, Annette Scherber
Posted on February 14, 2017

It was a spectacular scene that no living person has ever witnessed. John James Audubon said the sun would literally be blocked out for hours as the river of living creatures flew by from sunrise to sunset. Estimates place their population up to five billion. That’s FIVE BILLION. They represented 40% of all the living Class of Aves in North America and may have been the most abundant bird species in the entire world. They reached speeds over 60 miles per hour, and when flocks came to rest in forests their collective landings could topple large trees. They seemed invincible.

But in the 1870’s, European-Americans used shotguns which dropped dozens of Passenger Pigeons with each shot. They commercialized them as cheap food, sold their feathers to adorn hats, and cut down nesting-area forests.

As the birds began to disappear, measures were made to prevent their total loss. Several groups were captured and put in captivity, but breeding was unsuccessful. In 1901 the last wild “invincible” pigeon was shot. In 1914, the very last Passenger Pigeon died at the Cincinnati Zoo. They are gone. Five Billion then, zero now.

Monarch Butterflies, 250x353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterflies, 250×353, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We may be currently experiencing something of that depressing magnitude as we continue to record a consistent decline in the populations of once plentiful Monarch Butterflies. Adults may recall capturing the yellow-black-white striped larva from milkweeds in fields and along roadsides throughout Cache Valley. They would keep them in jars until the larva had its miraculous morphing, then release the dazzling orange and black flying flowers that everyone seemed to love. Unless humans take positive actions now, many newborn children may never have that butterfly-in-a-jar experience.

Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Tagged Monarch Butterfly, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

I started tagging and releasing Western Monarchs at South Cache back in 1995. A harmless tag was placed on the front wing in hopes of tracking it to its overwintering site. We did hundreds at first, but each year larva was more difficult to find. Nibley’s Becky Yeager reigns as the Monarch tagging Queen, and she works tirelessly to preserve the species.

In December, six of us decided to investigate the Monarch sites in California listed by the Xerces Society. We went to each site from Santa Barbara along the coast up to Santa Cruz. We should have seen a quarter million Monarchs, but barely observed two thousand total.

Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly, Tagged and Ready-to-go,
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

In 1997, California had 100 counting sites and observed well over one million Monarchs.
In 2016 they increased counting sites to 250, but the population has dropped to less than 300,000. If five billion pigeons can disappear, what are the odds of success for Monarchs?

Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Milkweed Host for Monarch Butterflies
Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

We can do something about this. Plant milkweed, the only plant where they lay eggs. Use fertile, native plants in your flower gardens. Stop spraying pesticides. Let the Cache Valley Wildlife Association tag whatever Monarchs you might collect this summer. And join us at the Logan Gardeners’ Market for a Mariposa Festival on May 20.

Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Monarch Butterfly Chrysalis, Courtesy and Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer

Credits:

Images: Courtesy &
Copyright Becky Yeager, Photographer
Text:     Ron Hellstern

For Information On Tagging:
The Monarch Program: http://www.monarchprogram.org
To tag butterflies found in Cache Valley, please contact Monarch Program volunteer Ron Hellstern at 435-245-9186. Please note that captive caterpillars or chrysalises are easiest to tag, as capturing adults can harm their wings.

Growing milkweed:

Monarch Watch, Propagation (Growing Milkweeds). http://www.monarchwatch.org/milkweed/prop.htm
Additional Reading:

Pyle, Robert Michael. 1981. National Audubon Society: Field Guide to Butterflies, North America. Alfred A. Knopf: New York.
Monarch Watch: Monarch Life Cycle. http://monarchwatch.org/biology/cycle1.htm

National Geographic: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus). http://animals.nationalgeographic.com/animals/bugs/monarch-butterfly/

NRCS Partners with Farmers, Ranchers to Aid Monarch Butterflies, Posted by Jason Weller, Chief, Natural Resources Conservation Service, on November 12, 2015, USDA Blog, http://blogs.usda.gov/2015/11/12/nrcs-partners-with-farmers-ranchers-to-aid-monarch-butterflies/