Sagebrush

Sagebrush near Raft River, UT
Sagebrush near Raft River, UT – Photo Courtesy and Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

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

I was always prone to homesickness when I spent long periods in the Eastern US and abroad. Returning to Colorado for visits, I would break off a small branch of sagebrush to pack in my suitcase. That way I could always take some essence of home along with me. Now I don’t need to do that. The desert air and cold winters here in Utah make it a sagebrush heaven.

The scent that has become so dear to me comes from the volatile oils of the sagebrush plant. Ironically, the smell that appeals so much to me repels most animals. The aromatic properties of the sagebrush are a by-product of chemicals that evolved as a pest deterrent and as anti-freeze. Sagebrush oils have a very bitter taste. Browsers, such as deer and elk avoid the plants, nibbling on sagebrush only in winter months when the concentration of oils has decreased. And even then, only as a last resort. The pronghorn– a North American native that co-evolved with sagebrush–can tolerate it better than other herbivores.

Within the sunflower family, sagebrush belongs to the genus Artemisia – a group of wind-pollinated plants spread mostly across the northern hemisphere. The 400 or so species in this genus include a variety of sagebrushes, sageworts, and wormwoods.

The Atlas of Vascular Plants of Utah lists 19 different species in the Artemisia genus. Among the most common, you’ll find sand sagebrush in the dunes and deep sand regions in southern Utah. Black sagebrush is found on gentle, rocky slopes and windswept ridges in dry, shallow soils, in the foothills and desert mountain ranges. Bud sagebrush is common in salt-desert shrub communities from 4-6000 ft. Almost everywhere, however, big sagebrush dominates. It occurs in valleys, basins, and mountain slopes, at elevations between 2,500 and 10,000 feet. In Utah, you’ll also hear big sagebrush called Great Basin, Wyoming or mountain sagebrush.

Humans have put the unique qualities of sagebrush and its relatives to good use. The volatile oils are toxic to many intestinal parasites, therefore early Americans used it to rid themselves of worms. Oils have also been used to combat infections and to treat internal wounds. Eurasian wormwood–an introduced plant in Utah–is the defining ingredient, in the liquor absinthe, and is used for flavoring in other spirits and wines, including bitters and vermouth. The spice tarragon comes from dragonswort, an Artemisa species found in both Eurasia and N. America.

Ecologists used to think that the presence of sagebrush discourages or suppresses other forms of life. Certainly, sagebrush desert steppes are generally poor in species. The truth is that few species can tolerate the temperature extremes, soil conditions and lack of water the way that sagebrush can. So the next time you see some, pick a leaf, crush it, smell it, and admire this tough but well-adapted Utah native.

Dr. Leila Shultz, a Utah State University expert on sagebrush provided the science information for this piece.

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 & Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah, http://earth.gis.usu.edu/plants/index.html

Mushrooms in Utah

Russula emetica
Courtesy &Copyright 2008 Michael Piep

Does the mere mention of stuffed or sauteed mushrooms start your mouth to water? Perhaps you start your day dreaming of morels, porcini, truffles or chanterelles. Alas, what is poor mushroom aficionado to do? Michael Piep of the Utah State Intermountain Herbarium tells me that tasty wild mushrooms can be as close as our own backyards.

From among the most delicate and delicious to the most deadly, Utah has them. Many people are astonished to learn that Utah is home to a diversity of mushrooms. Our state has several thousand species of fungi, from molds that inhabit that old jar of jelly to the delicious King Bolete of our conifer forests.

Adroit at camouflage, Utah’s fungal wealth can be discovered by the dedicated. What is better than a day spent searching the forests for edible mushrooms? Few activities compare to traipsing along riverbeds after morels in spring, all the while avoiding poison ivy. There is a reason they call it mushroom hunting.

Fungi can be both blessing and curse… Some are innocuous decomposers of dead plant material, or active partners in mycorrhizal relationships with plant roots, but others cause dread illnesses in both plants and animals…. the fungi do it all. In each of our state’s plant communities live unique species of mushrooms, as any avid mushroom hunter can tell you.
Of course, the fruiting or our devious little friends is weather dependant. So petition your local weather service for wet weather. Dry air and soils inhibit fruiting by mushrooms.

The next time you eat a slice of bread, uncork a bottle of wine, quaff a beer, or simply savor grilled mushrooms on your steak, thank a fungus. If you wish to explore more, contact one of the two mushroom societies in the state. There, your fellow mushroom lovers will be happy to help you get on the path to fungal enlightenment.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Michael Piep

Text: Michael Piep, Utah State University, Intermountain Herbarium http://herbarium.usu.edu

Additional Reading:

Bridgerland Mushroom Society will meet 18 February 2009 See http://herbarium.usu.edu/ for details

Mushroom Society of Utah http://www.utahmushrooms.com/

The Mushroom Journal, http://www.mushroomthejournal.com/

Utah State University: Intermountain Herbarium, http://herbarium.usu.edu

Fun Facts about Fungi, Utah State University, Intermountain Herbarium, http://herbarium.usu.edu/fungi/FunFacts/factindx.htm

The Christmas Bird Count

A Mountain Chickadee
One of 103 bird species found in the 2007
Bridgerland Audubon Christmas Bird Count
Photo Courtesy Bridgerlandaudubon.org

The Christmas holidays bring us a bevy of welcome annual traditions. Even now I can smell the cookies, hear familiar caroles and see the decorated tree. I hear the western screech owl too, for I also join in the Christmas Bird Count. These are exhaustive one day surveys of all the individuals of every species of bird that can be found in a locality. Christmas Bird Counts began 109 years ago in New York City as a holiday alternative to the excesses of the so-called “side hunt”. From that first inspiration, the Christmas Bird Count has spread to all 50 states, Canada, Mexico and beyond. Last year, most of the 2100 counts were in the US, totting up 57 million individual birds representing nearly 2000 species. Here in Utah, we reported 180 bird species. Provo holds honors as Utah’s first Christmas bird count, held in 1903. Today, hundreds of Utahns participate in 20 local counts, from Saint George north to Bear Lake.

 

I always join Bridgerland Audubon’s count in Logan, which has been running for 52 years. Last year, we finally topped 100 bird species in our allotted count circle of 150 square miles, the effort of 61 birders. That’s remarkable for a chilly winter’s day, considering that many of our feathered friends, such as hummingbirds, flycatchers and more have hightailed it south for the winter, but note that some northerly species, such as roughlegged hawks, view Utah as the balmy endpoint of their fall migration.

Christmas Bird Counts offer something for everyone, from novices to seasoned birders, and from simple feeder counts to backcountry walkabouts. I’ll be up in the predawn, listening for owls. Every count’s data contributes to long-term research about winter dispersal patterns of birds, their population trends, and impacts of troubles like West Nile virus, which is especially hard on crows, magpies and jays. If you like birds, join in the fun and make the Christmas Bird Count one of your holiday traditions.

All counts are scheduled between December 14 and January 5. Utah’s Christmas Bird counts are listed on our website: just search for Wild About Utah. Our Logan count is on Saturday, December 20. That evening, we’ll flock together for a big potluck and count compilation party.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy BridgerlandAudubon.org www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

Christmas Bird Counts in Utah, Utahbirds.org, Milt Moody, Webmaster, http://www.utahbirds.org/cbc/cbc.html

The 109th Christmas Bird Count: Citizen Science in Action, National Audubon Society, Inc. http://www.audubon.org/bird/cbc/index.html

Idaho Circles: http://app.audubon.org/cbcapp/findCircles.jsp?state=US-ID&start=1

Utah Circles: http://app.audubon.org/cbcapp/findCircles.jsp?state=US-UT&start=1

Bird vs. Window

The Cedar Waxwing is a fruit eating bird.
It can become intoxicated
eating the fermented fruit of
mountain ash, chokecherry
and other trees and bushes.
Courtesy Utah Division of Natural Resources

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

While working at my desk this fall, I was unnerved by the frequency of soft thumps caused by feathery bodies slamming into the windows of our house. One day I counted 20 hits in a single hour . We have designs etched into the glass, but they didn’t seem to deter the feathery missiles from their kamikaze flight trajectories.

Intense periods of frequent window strikes coincided with feeding frenzies on chokecherry and then crabapple fruit in our yard. Birds get intoxicated from the berries and their judgement flies out the window (so to speak) impairing flight control. Robins, waxwings and other fruit eaters that feed on fermented berries from mountain ash, crab apple or other trees and bushes are the most frequent crash victims.

Of course drunkeness is not the only cause of bird- window confrontations. Sometimes birds attack windows. This spring, I was startled by an angry-looking robin trying to attack me through the glass. But I was not the object of his rage. He was simply a male defending his territory against his own reflected image.

But back to collisions. Most accidents occur when birds see trees, sky, or clouds reflected on a glass but do not see the hard transparent window surface itself. Ornithologists estimate that in the United States alone well over 100 million birds are killed each year by window collisions. Sometimes the birds are merely stunned and recover in a few moments. Often, however, window hits lead to severe internal injuries and death. Strikes are most frequent in winter because birds are attracted to feeders placed near windows.

Luckily, there are quite a few things you can do minimize collisions. First, check your feeder placement. Pete Dunne, an ornithologist, found that feeders placed 13 feet away from a window corresponded with the maximum deaths. However, a feeder place within a meter of window actually reduced the accident rate. Birds focus on the feeder as they fly toward the window. If they strike the glass leaving the feeder, they do so at very low speed.

You may want to cover windows with netting or screens which will function as a sideways trampoline if a bird should hit them. You can also redirect birds by putting up awnings, beads, bamboo, fabric strips. Stickers or silhouettes will help if they are spaced 2-4 in. apart across the entire window. A single, black hawk-shaped silhouette in the middle of a bit picture window does not prevent crashes.

If you find a bird dazed from a window hit, place it in a dark container with a lid such as a shoebox, and leave it somewhere warm and quiet, out of reach of pets and other predators. If the weather is extremely cold, you may need to take it inside. Do not try to give it food and water, and resist handling it as much as possible. The darkness will calm the bird while it revives, which should occur within a few minutes, unless it is seriously injured. Release it outside as soon as it appears awake and alert. If the bird doesn’t recover in a couple of hours, you could take it to a veterinarian or wildlife rehabilitator.

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 Natural Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=bombcedr

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Dunne, Pete. 2003. Pete Dunne on Bird Watching: The How-to, Where-to, and When-to of Birding. HMCo Field Guides. http://www.amazon.com/Pete-Dunne-Watching-Where-When/dp/0395906865

Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bird Notes from sapsucker woods. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/notes/BirdNote10_Windows.pdf (Accessed Nov 30, 2008)

Leahy, Christopher. 1982. The Birdwatcher’s Companion. NY: Grammercy Books. http://www.amazon.com/Birdwatchers-Companion-North-American-Birdlife/dp/0691113882/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1228882143&sr=1-1

Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah, Ogden, UT http://www.wrcnu.org/