Greater Sage-Grouse in Utah

Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Female Sage-Grouse Flying in Winter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Utah’s dry, sagebrush covered landscapes are home to one of North American’s largest grouse species, commonly known as the greater sage-grouse.

The females are attractive chicken-size birds with gently curved bodies. Their feathers show streaks of black, brown and gray. This pattern acts as a natural camouflage in their sagebrush habitat to help protect them from predators.

Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Male Sage-Grouse on Lek, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Males are distinguished from females by their majestic form and decorative feather patterns. They are often twice the size of females and can weigh over seven pounds. A thick layer of white plumage covers the males’ breast and wraps up around both sides of their thick necks. Their tails are a long spray of pointy feathers, which rise into a beautiful fan during courting season and provide the basis for their scientific name Centrocercus urophasianus derived from the Greek word “kentron” meaning spiny, “kerkos” meaning tail, and urophasianus meaning tail of a pheasant.

To help protect against predators their wing and back feathers have streaks of black, grey, and brown – similar to the females.

Buried under the male’s white breast feathers are two air sacs that remain concealed until mating season begins.
The greater sage-grouse are probably best known, by most, for their extravagant courtship rituals.

Around the beginning of March, the male grouse return to their communal mating grounds called a lek where they compete with other males to attract and breed with the females. The ritual is called lekking. The lek is in an open area where visibility is good – such as a dry lakebed.

Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dominate Male Sage-Grouse with Females, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
To show their dominance, the males raise their tail feathers in a magnificent fan, fill their breast sacs with air then thrust the air out of the sacs making a popping/bubbling sound as they strut around the lek in a regal fashion.

The females are attracted to the leks by the calls of the males, which can carry for over 1.5 miles. When they arrive, they roost among the males to watch their strutting performances. The hens may visit the lek several times during the breeding season before nesting.

During the courtship rituals, the females will begin searching for a nesting site. Most will choose to build their nests under the protective cover of a sagebrush bush. The female lines the bowl-shaped nest with dead grass and a few feathers. When she sits on her nest of 6-8 eggs, her camouflage colors go to work and make her nearly invisible from her surroundings. A potential predator may often pass by her as she sits motionless and in silence on her nest for a 30-day incubation period.

Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Week-old Sage-Grouse Chick with Transmitter, Courtesy & Copyright Todd Black, Photographer
Dr. Terry Messmer, Utah State University Extension wildlife specialist and director of the Berryman Institute explains, “Greater sage-grouse do not have a muscular crop and are not able to digest hard seeds like other upland game species such as the ring-necked pheasant… they depend on sagebrush for their survival. In fact, during the winter sage-grouse survive by only eating sagebrush. They are the only species that can gain weight during the winter by [consuming] sagebrush.”

Biologists estimate that since the European settlement of North America there has been a 50% decline of the sage-grouse sagebrush habitat and population.

In the late 1990’s, in an effort to reverse this trend, Messmer through Utah State University entered into a collaboration with the State of Utah and numerous other stakeholders to develop a community-based conservation plan. Its purpose was to bring local communities, agencies, and researchers together to determine the best methods to preserve sage-grouse, their sagebrush habitats, and benefit the local community – without having to list it for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

After two decades of hard work, the partners have witnessed a resurgence of the greater sage-grouse as their habitats have been protected, enhanced and expanded.

If you’d like to see greater sage-grouse, the largest populations are found in western Box Elder County, on Blue and Diamond Mountains in Uintah County in northeastern Utah, in Rich County, and on Parker Mountain in south central Utah. Just remember to bring your binoculars.

This is Shauna Leavitt for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: All photos courtesy of and used with permission of Todd A. Black.
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Additional Reading

To learn more about Utah sage-grouse conservation, please go to www.utahcbcp.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/

The Great Salt Lake–A Giant Among Us

A Giant Among Us, The Great Salt Lake: The Great Salt Lake Breach
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Courtesy U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
Water flowing through the Great Salt Lake breach in 2011, when lake levels were high due to above average snowfall in the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. The Great Salt Lake breach is an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
There is a giant among us with a profound influence on our past, present, and future. My first encounter with this giant was both buoyant and delightful as I floated in the brine on a lovely summer day. But I was oblivious to the Great Salt Lake’s immense value as an environmental, cultural, and economic resource.

A Giant Among Us–The Great Salt Lake

Much of what follows is taken from a very recently released collaborative study titled “Impacts of Water Development on Great Salt Lake and the Wasatch Front” which was a collaborative effort from four institutions(Utah State University, Utah Division of Water Resources, Salt Lake Community College, and the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources.)

A 2012 analysis by Bioeconomics estimated the economic value of the lake at $1.32 billion per year for mineral extraction, brine shrimp cyst production, and recreation. The abundant food and wetlands of the lake attract 3 million shorebirds, as many as 1.7 million eared grebes, and hundreds of thousands of waterfowl during spring and fall migrations. Because of this, it has been designated as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site. Due to its enormous surface area, it produces the “lake affect” which enhances our snow pack by an estimated 8%, a significant amount for both skiers and our available water. But our giant is shrinking.

Since the arrival of 19th Century pioneers water diversions for irrigation have decreased its elevation by 11 feet exposing much of the lake bed. Natural fluctuations in rainfall and river flow cause the lake level to rise and fall, but there has been no significant long‐term change in precipitation and water supply from the main tributaries since their coming in 1847.

The Great Salt Lake Breach 2015
The Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015

For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
To significantly reduce water use, a balanced conservation ethic needs to consider all uses, including agriculture, which consumes 63 percent of the water in the Great Salt Lake Basin. There are no water rights to protect our Great Lake, so water development currently focuses solely on whether there is water upstream to divert. If future water projects reduce the supply of water to the lake, (such as the Bear River Development Project, its level will (most likely) continue to drop.

We must look beyond the next few decades and decide how we value the lake for future generations. Lower lake levels will increase dust pollution and related human health impacts, and reduce industrial and environmental function of Great Salt Lake. We must be willing to make decisions now that preserve Great Salt Lake’s benefits and mitigate its negative impacts into the coming centuries.

John Muir, one of my favorite early American naturalists would most certainly agree with me. From his baptismal plunge into the Great Salt Lake. “I found myself undressed as someone else had taken me in hand and got myself into right lusty relationship with the brave old lake. I was conscious only of a joyous exhilaration….”
And where else could John and I have such a wonderfully buoyant experience?

This is Jack Greene reading for Wild About Utah.

2015 Great Salt Lake Breach at Lakeside, Utah
Gauge near the Great Salt Lake Breach
Credit: U.S. Geological Survey
Department of the Interior/USGS
Mike Freeman, Photographer
10 Nov 2015
A gauge to measure lake water levels stands dry in the lake bed of the Great Salt Lake. For the first time since it was opened in 1984, water has stopped flowing through the Great Salt Lake causeway breach, an area that allows water to travel between the southern and northern parts of the lake.
Credits:
Image: Courtesy U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), gallery.usgs.gov
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society & USU Office of Sustainability

Additional Reading:

Great Salt Lake, Utah, Stephens, Doyle W. and Gardner, Joe, USGS Science for a Changing World, http://pubs.usgs.gov/wri/wri994189/PDF/WRI99-4189.pdf

Great Salt Lake Footprint 2001 vs 2003 Comparison
Great Salt Lake Footprint Comparison
2001 vs 2003
Images Courtesy NASA
NASA’s Earth Observatory