Farewell Autumn

Cache Valley Autumn Colors Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Cache Valley Autumn Colors
Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern
Many people enjoy Autumn as their favorite season of the year. Temperatures are comfortable, most pesky insects are absent, animal migrations are evident, and beautiful Fall colors on the trees and shrubs are stunning. But why do these deciduous plants change color? Consider daylight, temperature, and chemistry.

Spring and summer growth and leaf production are due to photosynthesis, a process where plants use light to synthesize the cell’s chlorophyll into transforming carbon dioxide and water to carbohydrates such as sugars and starch. The cells containing chlorophyll also give the plant its green color. But there are other pigments, besides green, within the leaves all year. Xanthophyll produces orange and yellow colors, anthocyanin develops shades of red. When daylight decreases and temperatures drop in the North, the leaves stop their food-making and the green chlorophyll breaks down, leaving the other pigments to dominate the new Autumn colors.

Soon after these vivid colors appear, the tree develops special cells where leaves are attached. Those cells allow the stems to break away from the tree, due to gravity or the wind, and creates a small leaf scar. Although we may not appreciate bare limbs all winter, heavy snows collected by leaves could cause massive breaking of branches due to the additional weight.

In Southern climates, some broad-leaf trees may keep their leaves and only experience changes during wet and dry seasons. Many stay green all year. And, of course, conifers like spruce, pines and firs, retain their needle-like leaves all year.

Now picture yourself in your favorite, quiet, outdoor setting in the Fall as I read a section from the beautiful writings of Aldo Leopold, found in his book “A Sand County Almanac”. It is titled November – If I Were the Wind.

The wind that makes music in November corn is in a hurry. The stalks hum, the loose husks whisk skyward in half-playful swirls, and the wind hurries on.

In the marsh, long windy waves surge across the grassy sloughs, beat against the far willows. A tree tries to argue, bare limbs waving, but there is no detaining the wind.

On the sandbar there is only wind, and the river sliding seaward. Every wisp of grass is drawing circles on the sand. I wander over the bar to a driftwood log, where I sit and listen to the universal roar, and to the tinkle of wavelets on the shore. The river is lifeless: not a duck, heron, marsh-hawk or gull but has sought refuge from the wind.

Out of the clouds I hear a faint bark, as of a far-away dog. It is strange how the world cocks its ears at that sound, wondering. Soon it is louder: the honk of geese, invisible, but coming on.

The flock emerges from the low clouds, a tattered banner of birds, dipping and rising, blown up and blown down, blown together and blown apart, but advancing, the wind wrestling lovingly with each winnowing wing. When the flock is a blur in the far sky I hear the last honk, sounding taps for summer.

It is warm behind the driftwood now, for the wind has gone with the geese.
So would I—if I were the wind.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Ron Hellstern, Photographer
Text:    Ron Hellstern, Cache Valley Wildlife Association

Additional Reading

Autumn Colors, Linda Kervin, Wild About Utah, http://wildaboututah.org/autumn-colors/

Red leaves in autumn: What’s in it for the tree?, Holly Strand, Oct 18, 2012, http://wildaboututah.org/red-leaves-in-autumn-whats-in-it-for-the-tree/

Autumn Leaf Color Change, Linda Kervin, Sept 23, 2010, http://wildaboututah.org/autumn-leaf-color-change/

Jack’s Urban Deer

Jack's Urban Deer: Click for a larger view of Mule Deer, Odocoileus hemionus, Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer

Mule DeerOdocoileus hemionus
Courtesy US FWS
Ryan Moehring, Photographer 
As I look out my front window, 7 mule deer are cavorting, feeding, with some lying down for a mid-day siesta. With the final week of the regular season deer hunt winding down, some have taken sanctuary from the nimrods to join the urban herd.

For our 30 years in Smithfield canyon, deer have been regulars, disappearing for the most part from mid-May to mid-June to give birth, as do the bucks, perhaps somewhat embarrassed with strange bumps forming on their crowns.
Spotted fawns begin adorning our lawn in mid-July. With enough speed to outrun all but the fastest predator’s, mom drops her guard a bit. Bucks begin parading their new, fully formed head gear.

As fall and winter approach, the neighborhood herd grows, with a few dozen hanging out when winter finally sets in. Their snow trails through the yard become conspicuous, further defined with sprinkles of fecal material. Out back the steep hillside across Summit Creek becomes a winter playground as small groups run repeatedly up and down and around. Apparently, their abundant stores of energy allow them to break winter’s lethargy. This is generally not the case for deer in the wilds where every calorie is conserved for winter hardships as snow deepens and temperatures plunge.

We’ve witnessed a few humorous behaviors during our 3 decades of observation. Deer are very curious which occasionally works against their best interests. We had an especially aggressive rooster who became our “feathered” watchdog. A small deer herd passing through the front yard noticed the stocky cock guarding the front door and decided on closer inspection. The lead deer approached stretching his neck and tender nose to get a closer whiff. Old roaster rooster gave her a welcoming sharp jab to the nose which sent the herd bounding off.
On another occasion, our tomcat found itself taking refuge under the trampoline as 4 deer approached from a patch of forest. The cat’s movement piqued the deer’s curiosity. They surrounded the trampoline, bent down on front knees with noses poked underneath for a close-up. Poor tom was terrified- to be munched by a deer- what a horrible end!

Of course, we realize that not everyone is enamored with deer in their space. Deer can be a nuisance causing damage to landscapes and gardens. With proper fencing and plant selection, this can be managed. A greater concern is safety, vehicle-deer collisions. Here again, with proper signage, this can be minimized. I’ve experienced close encounters on my bike, so always go slow when deer appear near or on the roadway.
An excellent resource for landscaping is found at wildlife.utah.gov/habitat/deer-browse.php Blending a variety of native and ornamental plants into a home landscape can create a highly attractive environment for family, friends, mule deer and other wildlife species. Enhancing the home environment and replacing some of the lost wildlife habitat can be enjoyable and beneficial.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy US FWS Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Copeland, H. E., H. Sawyer, K. L. Monteith, D. E. Naugle, A. Pocewicz, N. Graf, and M. J. Kauffman. 2014.
Conserving migratory mule deer through the umbrella of sage-grouse. Ecosphere 5(9):117. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/ES14-00186.1
https://www.fws.gov/greatersagegrouse/documents/research/muledeer_mig_grouse_14-00186.pdf

Mule Deer, Species-Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=odochemi

Mule Deer, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/learn-more/mule-deer.html

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 
Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf

Irruptive Birds Migrate South

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing US FWS FWS Digital Library, David Menke, Photographer
Every winter, many of Utah’s breeding birds migrate south to avoid the cold. After the warblers, tanagers, and orioles leave each fall, we share the snowy winter with hardier residents, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos. But even hardier birds breed in the far north and venture south to Utah only during the most severe winters.

CEDW call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Many people are familiar with the high, thin calls of Cedar Wawings. Less frequently heard in Utah are the slightly lower calls of their close cousins, Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings(BOWA) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source Wikimedia.org, Randen Pederson, Photographer.
Bohemian Waxwings are slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, and a little fancier—their wing feathers include red, yellow, black, and white, and the underside of their tails is a rich cinnamon. Both species gather by the hundreds to eat berries, so you won’t miss a flock if there’s one nearby. Although waxwings are songbirds, the calls you hear don’t serve the same functions as true songs, advertising mate quality and defending territories. Instead, waxwings cooperate to find and feed on scattered fruit, their main winter diet. Unlike most birds, waxwings are able to smell, which may help them find their food. If waxwings eat berries that have begun to ferment over the winter months, they may become intoxicated even though their ability to metabolize ethanol is very high. The last time Bohemian Waxwings were abundant in Utah was during the winter of 2012-2013.

White-winged Crossbill(WWCR) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

If you look in a pine tree, you may see a flock of White-winged Crossbills. Last abundant in Utah during the winter of 2008-2009, this species of finch forages on the seeds inside of conifer cones.

White-winged Crossbill, Courtesy and Copyright Paul Higgins, www.pbase.com/phiggins/
White-winged Crossbill
Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins
More photos at pbase.com/phiggins/
and utahbirds.org Photo Gallery
As the name crossbill suggests, the lower part of its bill is bent to the right and the upper part to the left, allowing crossbills to wedge open pinecone scales and lift the seeds free with their tongues. In the winter, crossbills forage in flocks of ten to fifty. They quickly assess the quality of a tree’s cones, using visual and vocal cues from their flockmates, which are quiet when they are eating but chatter when they are not. When the volume of the chatter increases to a crescendo, all the crossbills in the flock know that it’s time to switch to a new tree. Unlike most songbirds, crossbills can breed at any time of year, as long as conifer seeds are abundant.

When the weather gets cold, keep an eye and an ear out for these winter nomads.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Andrew Durso.

Credits:

Waxwing Images: Courtesy US FWS, David Menke, Photographer
White-winged Crossbill Image: Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins, Photographer
Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Fitting the Bill, Andrea Liberatore, August 11, 2011, http://wildaboututah.org/fitting-the-bill/

White-winged Crossbill, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-winged_Crossbill/id

Cedar Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/id

Bohemian Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bohemian_Waxwing/id