Tree Talk

Quaking Aspen Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion's higher elevations Courtesy National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior
Quaking Aspen
Sleek stands of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides) grow in Zion’s higher elevations
Zions National Park
Courtesy National Park Service
U.S. Department of the Interior
The next time you take a walk in the deep woods or even a stroll through a local park, listen closely. You may hear the trees ‘whispering in the wind.’ We use this familiar phrase to describe the soothing sounds of a gentle breeze through the forest canopy; but it may delight and surprise many to know that this figure of speech is now a proven scientific fact. The trees are talking.

They don’t talk like you and I talk, of course. The spoken word is foregone by the plant kingdom, for now. Theirs is a much subtler form of communication. ‘The Wood Wide Web’, as the scientific journal Nature once dubbed it, is the woodland social network. Within it, trees send electric signals coursing through their roots in order to relay important messages to their neighbors.

Travelling at the speed of about a third of an inch every minute, these timber telegrams take quite a while to accomplish such a task; but what this system lacks in speed, it makes up for with complexity. A tree’s roots will often expand through the soil to an area twice the width of its crown, resulting in the ability of a single tree to grasp the roots of and pass messages to multiple far-away friends at once.

In undisturbed soils, these messages can be expedited symbiotically. Subsoil fungal networks, which intertwine with the roots of trees for nourishment sake, can relay messages much more quickly by connecting otherwise distant, unconnected trees to one another. This becomes quite important when the message pertains to danger: an invasion of damaging pests, for instance.

Usually, though, if a tree needs to get a warning out to its neighbors more quickly, it will do so by other means. When trees are attacked, they emit scent compounds through their leaves. These arboreal aromas can be registered by distant parts of the same tree, far-flung trees in the same grove, or, amazingly, even members of the animal kingdom, which trees will summon to their defense. Even more astonishing is that each scent is custom-catered. Trees will identify their attacker by its saliva and emit a corresponding pheromone meant to attract that attacker’s natural predators. Once they are warned of an invading pest, other trees in the grove may respond similarly.

The usefulness of a tree’s ability to communicate with its neighbors goes beyond emergency warnings or the spreading of other important information. Trees have developed a sophisticated redistribution system in which the strongest trees compensate for weaker ones by sharing their surpluses of sugar. In fact, this system is so efficient that, in the end, each individual tree is nourished at the same rate of photosynthesis. This means that every tree in a grove receives the same amount of sugar per leaf in its crown as every other tree, regardless of its own ability to photosynthesize. As it turns out, trees are highly sociable beings. They take responsibility for friends and family members and see to it that their loved ones are well cared for.

Not all groves are created equal, though. These natural behaviors can be inhibited by intensive thinning of wild groves or absent altogether in planted, monocultural forests. However, when granted enough space and time to be itself, even the most artificial forest can ‘return to its roots.’

So, whenever you find yourself following that wooded path into the forest, think of what secret messages might be coursing through the soil or floating invisibly upon the airwaves? Consider these possibilities, and your walks may now be a little more mysterious.

For Wild About Utah this is Josh Boling

Credits:
Photo: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Josh Boling

Sources & Additional Reading

Why Dippers Dip

American Dipper Ashley Tubbs, Photographer Photo credit: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
American Dipper
Ashley Tubbs, Photographer
Photo credit: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
Cinclus mexicanus is the only aquatic songbird found in North America, but it goes by several names—the American dipper, the water dipper, or the water ouzel. It is a grapefruit-sized bird that inhabits mountainous riparian areas. It has brownish gray plumage, stubby wings and tail, and ornithologists sometimes refer to it as “stocky,” “chunky,” and even “chubby-looking.” However, the dipper has no shortage of energy, and can be seen careening at low altitudes over mountain streambeds and crashing beak-first into fast-flowing water, always in the upstream direction.

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
The dipper hunts for food by diving into swift, shallow rivers and hunting underwater. It muscles its way upstream, picking off aquatic insect larva, crayfish, and even tadpoles and minnows. Several adaptations assist the dipper in this seemingly reckless feeding strategy. Nictitating eye membranes enable the dipper to see underwater, and specialized flaps of skin on the dipper’s beak seal its nostrils. Dippers produce more feather oil than less adventuresome songbirds, which keeps them warm and dry, even in near-freezing water. Perhaps most noticeably, the dipper has long legs and specialized, unwebbed toes to grip the stream bottom, hold steady in the current, and push along upstream.

The American dipper was once more commonly referred to as the “water ouzel,” after its European cousin, Cinclus aquaticus, but ornithologists changed the preferred common name to “American dipper” to better distinguish it based on a unique aspect of the bird’s behavior: American dippers dip.

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
The dipper bobs rapidly up and down by bending its legs—like deep knee bends. Dippers dip while paused on rocks between dives, they dip while feeding in the water, and they even dip while they’re still fledging in their nests.

So, why do dippers dip? There are a number of theories. First, dipping may help the birds visually isolate reference points beneath moving water, so that they can more accurately dive for prey. Dipping might also help to conceal dippers from predators against a busily moving backdrop. But the best theory about dipping is that it’s a form of communication between dippers within the noisy environment of mountain streams.

Ornithologists say dippers dip at different rates in different situations, sometimes as rapidly as 60 times per minute. Dipping could be used to convey messages such as “Go away, this is my territory,” or “Hi, I would like to mate with you.”

Unlike other songbirds of the United States, the dipper does not migrate to warmer climes in autumn—it stays put all year, usually moving only short distances to avoid iced-over streams or to take advantage of shifting forage availability.

Like the American dipper, I too am a year-round denizen of mountain streams. I enjoy fly-fishing all year, even when it’s very cold, and aside from trout, the dipper is the creature I most enjoy seeing while I’m fishing. I figure that if a 6-ounce bird with feathers and bare legs can brave summer’s roasting heat and winter’s bitter chill, then so can I. But more importantly, the American dipper is known as a “biotic indicator species,” meaning this bird is known to thrive in streams with clean water and robust forage, while it abandons streams which are impaired or polluted. So, when I see American dippers dipping and diving in my home waters, I know I’m fishing in a river system that is healthy and strong.

For Wild About Utah this is Chadd VanZanten.

Credits:
Photo credit #1: ashleytisme via Visual Hunt / CC BY-ND
Photo credit #2 and #3: PEHart via Visual hunt / CC BY-SA
Text: Chadd VanZanten

Additional Reading:

The Water Ouzel from The Mountains of California as quoted in The Wilderness World of John Muir, http://www.amazon.com/Wilderness-World-John-Muir/dp/0618127518/ref=sr_1_1?

American Dipper-Cinclus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=cincmexi

A Bird for All Seasons, The American Dipper, Norm Davis as read by Linda Kervin, Wild About Utah, Apr 21, 2009, http://wildaboututah.org/a-bird-for-all-seasons-the-american-dipper/

Waxwings and Crossbills Move South

Waxwings and Crossbills Move 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 Waxwings. 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

Climate Change and the Christmas Bird Count

Climate Change and the Christmast Bird Count: Bald Eagle on light post
Bald Eagle
Haliaeetus leucocephalus
Courtesy US FWS
On December 17th, I will join several others for an exciting day of counting bird species and numbers in our lovely, snowy valley. The numbers will be entered on a database that will be shared globally.

The Christmas Bird Count began on Christmas Day in the year 1900 when ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an officer in the nascent Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition—a “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than slaughtering them, which had been the past ritual.

The data collected by observers over the past 116 years has allowed researchers to study the long-term health and status of bird populations across North 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 strategists to better protect birds and their habitat and helps identify environmental issues, with implications for people as well.

Climate Change and the Christmast Bird Count: Frank M. Chapman, organizer of the first christmas bird count, Courtesy Wikimedia, Image in the public domain
Frank M. Chapman
Courtesy Wikimedia
Image in the public domain
 

Along with the fun it brings, the count has special significance for our changing climate’s impact on birds which is disrupting populations and their spatial distribution that are changing at an accelerating rate.

Audubon’s 2014 Climate Change Report is a comprehensive, first-of-its-kind study that predicts how climate change could affect the ranges 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 Climate Initiative, the organizational response to this threat, taps into its members’ love and commitment for birds to build population resilience and demand solutions to slow the pace of warming. Audubon is encouraging its members to take steps to address the climate change threat in their backyards and communities. Visit their website at audubon.org for how to take action.

The Environmental Protection Agency has included Audubon’s climate change work from CBC data as one of 26 indicators of climate change in their 2012 report.

In 2007, CBC data were instrumental in the development of Audubon’s Common Birds in Decline Report, which 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 Utah including our state bird, the California gull and our national bald eagle. Averaging the most recent 10 years, our valley has seen 16 species increase and 11 species decline. Of course we would need a much broader sweep to know the true story of these species, but our data may play a significant part in the overall analysis.

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

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy Wikimedia and in the public domain
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

17 Dec, Cache Valley (Logan) Christmas Bird Count, Bridgerland Audubon Society, http://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/cache-valley-christmas-bird-count/