Bighorn Sheep

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Bighorn sheep used to be quite common in UT. They were a frequent subject of pictographs and petroglyphs indicating their importance to prehistoric people. In 1776 Father Escalante a Spanish Franciscan missionary-explorer, wrote about a site near the Colorado river in Utah “here wild sheep live in such abundance that their tracks are like those of great herds of domestic sheep.”

While not so common today, you can still see two subspecies of bighorn in Utah: Rocky Mountain bighorn and the desert bighorn. In 1997 twenty three California bighorn sheep were transplanted to
Antelope Island. Formerly thought to be a subspecies, the California bighorn is now usually considered to be a separate population not a subspecies of Rocky mountain bighorn sheep.

So what’s the difference between the Rocky Mountain and the desert bighorn sheep ? Rocky Mountain bighorns are noticeably larger–about 1/3 again the size of the desert bighorn. Not surprisingly, the desert bighorn is better adapted to arid environments. It can go several days without drinking free water and lose up to 10% of its body weight in water. Then it can make up for it in a single drinking spree. Since drinking sources are limited in deserts, a significant portion of water intake comes from plants. Prickly pear, pincushion and barrel cactus are often necessary parts of their diet. Rutting season for the desert bighorn lasts from July to December while the Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep is generally limited to November and December.

The geographic boundary between the 2 subspecies is hard to define but in general you can use I 70 as a rough dividing line.

By the 1960’s Utah had almost lost most of its bighorn populations due to overhunting, habitat loss and competition with domestic sheep. Now, thanks to transplants from WY, CO, NV and Canada, we have 800 sheep in 6 areas in the northern half of the state. There are 2800 desert bighorn found in a large number of sites in southeast Utah. Some of them are even the original Utah herds rather than transplants.

All bighorn are known for their surefootedness, remarkable eyesight, and preference for canyons, gulches, talus cliffs, steep slopes, and mountain tops. Look for them within 200 meters from “escape terrain” or landforms that are too rugged for both human and non-human predator.

On November 14-15, Friday and Saturday of this week, the Utah Division of Wildlife sponsors its annual Bighorn Sheep festival. Bring your binoculars to see rams running headlong into each other and bashing their heads in an attempt to win females. For a link to more information about this festival see wildaboututah.org

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.
For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Photo by Brent Stettler, http://wildlife.utah.gov/news/08-10/bighorn_festival.php

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Bill Bates, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, personal communication November 10, 2008)

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. 1999-2005 Statewide Management Plan for Bighorn Sheep. http://wildlife.utah.gov/hunting/biggame/pdf/bighorn_plan.pdf

Valdez, Raul, and Paul Krausman eds., 1999. Mountain Sheep of America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press

For more information on the bighorn sheep festival see:
http://wildlife.utah.gov/news/08-10/bighorn_festival.php

Burrowing Owls

Burrowing Owl Near the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society
Lyle Bingham, Photographer

This is Dick Hurren from the Bridgerland Audubon Society.

During a recent field trip sponsored by our group, we saw two small burrowing owls with long legs and round faces, standing by their burrow, near the road, on a large stone.

A car stopped close by and the owls disappeared under the ground. Not wanting to disturb them, we stayed in our car to watch the pair. A few minutes later, after the other car left, one of the owls was back on the stone surveying the area and the other reappeared soon thereafter.

Burrowing owls are one of the less commonly seen of the 14 owl species found in Utah. With many former grasslands and prairies, the preferred habitat of these owls, now cities and cultivated farms, these protected birds have tried to adapt.

As their preferred habitats disappear, they may take up residence in cemetaries, golf courses, airports, on the edges of farms or in deserts. But their numbers are declining precipitously.
Most inhabit holes built by other animals. Occasionally, however, they burrow their own holes. For both nesting and off-season living, their preferred holes are bare of vegetation with a nearby mound. They stand on the mound mornings and evenings and hunt primarily nocturnally. Burrowing owls are often common near prairie dog towns and love to take over old prairie dog holes for their own. Where natural burrows are sparse and in winter, they may resort to using dry culverts under roads.

In spring, burrowing owls migrate north from the southerwestern states, that is Texas, New Mexico, Southern California, and Arizona. As well as parts of Mexico and from as far south as Honduras. Some travel as far north as Canada to nest. Most burrowing owls fly back south by the end of September, with the last leaving in October.

Weighing less than 6 ounces, this long-legged owl stands just 8 inches tall. The female incubates from 3 to 11 eggs while the male ferries in food to her for that 30-day period.

Their diet is diverse, a smorgasbord of invertibrates such as scorpions, grasshoppers, beetles, moths and worms as well as vertibrates like kangaroo rats, mice, frogs, snakes and lizards.

Both parents tend to the young until they fledge, at 40 to 45 days. In the burrow, the young can make a buzzy rattle-snake-like sound. This helps deter animals and humans from reaching in the hole to disburb them.

Land owners find that providing space for burrows or by building artificial burrows gives them, that is the landowners, the benefit of a voratious preditor of insects and rodents.

We can enjoy burrowing owls, and help reduce their declining numbers, when we preserve open spaces, restrict free-roaming dogs and cats, and restrict using pesticides that kill owls and the insects and small animals they eat.

For Wild About Utah I’m Dick Hurren.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society, Lyle Bingham, Photographer
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Lyle Bingham

Additional Reading:

Winter Ecology of the Western Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia hypugaea) in Southern Texas 1999–2004
http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2007/5150/
http://pubs.usgs.gov/sir/2007/5150/pdf/SIR2007-5150.pdf

Utah Field Office Guidelines for Raptor Protection from Human and Land Use Disturbances, Utah, Laura A. Romin and James A. Muck, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Utah Field Office, May 1999,
https://fs.ogm.utah.gov/pub/MINES/Coal_Related/MiscPublications/USFWS_Raptor_Guide/RAPTORGUIDE.PDF

Burrowing Owl (Athene cunicularia), Hawkwatch International,
http://www.hawkwatch.org/home/index.php/Raptor-Nest-Survey/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=125&Itemid=35

Burrowing Owl, Utah Division of Natural Resources,
http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=athecuni

Burrowing Owl Preservation Society (California), http://burrowingowlpreservation.org/index.htm

Pikas, Our First Haymakers

Pikas, Our First Haymakers
Pika
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

“Make hay while the sun shines” is a venerable bit of farm wisdom that encourages cutting and drying of hay during fair weather. One, two, possibly three cuttings of alfalfa hay have been baled and stacked this summer by Utah’s farmers to feed dairy cows and horses this winter. More traditionally, ranchers have cut meadow or marsh hay to be piled in the lofts of their barns.

Utah’s first haymakers were not ranchers at all, however. These earliest haymakers cut hay for their own consumption. To see and hear these daytime haymakers, you must travel high into our mountains, to 9,000 feet or higher. Look for a boulder strewn talus slope or rockslide. Listen for this call….. if you hear it, you have found the pika, our first haymaker. That call was either declaring the pika’s individual territory or an alarm announcing you. These rounded relatives of our rabbits resemble a tawny-coated chinchilla or a plush, plump guinea pig. They have nearly circular small ears and no apparent tail.

All day long during the alpine summer, pikas are busy cutting grasses, sedges and wildflowers from neighboring meadows. They haul this back by the mouthful to tuck in crevasses in their stony stronghold to dry. These stockpiles are their winter larder. You see, unlike their alpine kin, such as marmots, ground squirrels and chipmunks, our pikas don’t burrow and they don’t hibernate. Unlike the snowshoe hare, pikas don’t get out much either once the snow flies. Under the snow pack, they simply dine on hay.

Pikas are strange little lagomorphs
(relatives of rabbits and hares)
that live in rocky areas and talus slopes
in alpine habitats in much of the
mountainous western US and Canada.
Photo © 2004-2008 Mark Chappell

In Utah, poke around for pikas amid high peaks along the mountainous central spine of our state, from the Uintas south to Brian Head, wherever peaks reach toward tree line and you can find. There you may find pikas making hay or loafing atop prominent stones in their rock jumbles, or contributing to the territorial calls of their talus slope choir. Their intolerance of heat keeps them from spreading downslope. Like the moose, they are one of the animals that will fare poorly with significant climate warming. For now, though, you can continue to peek for picas amid Utah’s glorious alpine scenery.

Credits:

Photo: Images of the Natural World, Courtesy & Copyright 2004-2008 Mark Chappell http://faculty.ucr.edu/~chappell/INW/

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

American Pika, Utah Division of Natural Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=ochoprin

Pikas in Utah, Video from Utah DWR, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=czMoUzBUkTE&feature=channel_page

“Damn Cute Pikas” Narrated by David Attenborough and posted by Paul Garita on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QVJuRgil0wQ&NR=1

American Pika, Nature Works, New Hampshire Public Television, http://www.nhptv.org/NATUREWORKS/americanpika.htm

Pika, Utah DWR Instragram Account, https://www.instagram.com/p/r7_haQtoZC/?modal=true

Important Bird Areas

Important Bird Area Sign
at the Deep Canyon Trailhead
Leading to the Hawkwatch Intl
Wellsvilles Site
Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society

Not all places on earth were created equal. Some places attract lots of birds, and some don’t. And some places support birds that are at more at risk of extinction than others. Those two simple statements are the basis of a worldwide effort to map Important Bird Areas or IBAs as they are called in the birding world. This effort has been led by Birdlife International which is a conglomerate of partnership organizations dedicated to the welfare of birds. To date, over 7500 IBA sites have been identified and described in over 170 countries.

In the United States, the partner for identifying IBAs is the National Audubon Society. Wayne Martinson and Keith Evans of the Wasatch Audubon Society have just completed a book about the IBAs in Utah called Utah’s featured birds and Viewing sites. Reading it, I learned that Utah has 21 different sites and more are under consideration. Many of Utah’s IBA’s are clustered around the Great Salt Lake . The largest ones in area are Gilbert Bay and the Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch.

Landowner permission is required for an area to be recognized in Utah. Furthermore, an IBA designation does not imply any oversight or management implications. It is merely a form of recognition of the unique nature of each site.

IBAs are designated to be of global, national or state significance. There are carefully-defined criteria for making the designation. To be considered globally significant, one of the following must be true for a given site:

  1. It must regularly hold significant numbers of a globally threatened species or
  2. It must regularly hold a significant population of narrow endemics or species with very limited distribution or
  3. It must regularly support exceptionally large numbers of migrating or congregating species

8 of Utah’s 21 IBA’s are considered of global significance. The globally significant sites include Gunnison Bay , Bear River Bay, Ogden Bay, Farmington Bay, Gilbert Bay of the Great Salt Lake, Deseret Land and Livestock Ranch, and the San Juan County/Gunnison Sage-Grouse IBA.

In the future, we’ll probably see more including Zion National Park based on the presence of Mexican Spotted Owl and California Condor, Parker Mountain based on Greater Sage Grouse , and Cutler Marsh-Amalga Barrens based on its large White-faced Ibis colony.

Each one of Utah’s important bird areas is an interesting subject in and of itself. You might just hear about a few of them in future episodes.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Important Bird Areas, Audubon Society, www.audubon.org/bird/IBA/

Globally Important Bird Areas of the United States, American Bird Conservancy, http://www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/domestic/sitebased/iba/

Globally Important Bird Areas in Utah, American Bird Conservancy, www.abcbirds.org/abcprograms/domestic/sitebased/iba/utah.html

Important Bird Areas(IBAs), BirdLife International, http://www.birdlife.org/action/science/sites/index.html