Pikas, Our First Haymakers

Pikas, Our First Haymakers
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.


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.


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

Autumn Colors

Autumn Colors: Fall Colors in Cache County Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society
Fall Colors in Cache County
Photo © 2006 Bridgerland Audubon Society

In autumn, our days shorten noticeably and frosty dawns become the norm across most of Utah. Now leafy plants must be preparing for winter. Their summer of intense metabolic activities must gradually give way to winter’s dormancy. Photosynthesis and respiration are gradually shut down as nutrients and sugars are withdrawn from leaves, to be shunted to the stem and roots for storage.

The brilliant autumn yellows of our aspens, ash trees and cottonwoods, as well as the crimsons of our maples and sumacs, are all indicative of leafy plants frugality with their valuable nutrient stores. The foliar pigment phytochrome first registers the lengthening nights, initiating the cascade of physiological events that prepare a tree for the icy blasts of winter. Before discarding their leaves, deciduous trees and shrubs rescue and store what they can of sugars and nutrients found in their leaves.

The key photosynthetic green pigment, chlorophyll, and its attendant enzymes are all broken down, their components moved to storage for recycling next spring. Essential nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, are likewise extracted from foliage for later reuse. With chlorophyll gone, the other colorful leaf pigments are revealed in all their glory. These accessory pigments have been there all along, they just have been masked by the dominant green of chlorophyll.

These accessory pigments serve several functional purposes for the leaf. Some pigments protect the leaf from sunburn, some scavenge free radicals, but most capture energy from wavelengths of light missed by chlorophyll. The multi-hued spectrum of sunlight, as revealed by a prism or a rainbow, not only allows us to see splashy fall foliage colors, it is the reason for their existence.

For the plant physiologist and chemist, then, the palette of colorful leaf pigments have complex functional explanations. More mysterious psychological stirrings accompany the aching beauty of our autumn foliage, but it gives an undeniable tug at my heart. Standing before a blazing yellow stand of aspens, I smile to think that recycling can be so beautiful.

Photo: Courtesy www.bridgerlandaudubon.org
Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society – Jim Cane, Linda Kervin

Additional Reading:
Utah Scenic Byways, http://www.utah.com/byways/fallcolorstour.htm
Utah Fall Colors, http://travel.utah.gov/Fallcolors.htm

Kokanee Salmon

Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Kokanee Salmon above Porcupine Reservoir
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto

A little over a week ago, I saw my first kokanee salmon run up Little Bear River just east of Porcupine Reservoir. This year, researchers counted over 10,000 fish within a mile of the reservoir. That’s a record number. My friends and I marveled at these wriggling flashes of color as they struggled upstream. It inspired me to spend the week reading about salmon. Here’s what I learned.

First of all it surprised me that salmon and trout are so close genetically. Along with whitefish and grayling, they form the family Salmonidae, but salmon and trout are the most similar. The main difference between them is that salmon generally migrate from their freshwater birthplace to the sea to get more and better food. And then they return to spawn in freshwater rivers and streams where there are fewer predators. And generally – although it’s not true for all – salmon spawn once and die while trout go through a number of spawning cycles.

The Pacific Sockeye salmon resembles a silvery rainbow trout during most of its life. But when it spawns, the male especially undergoes a miraculous transformation. His head turns green, his body turns a bright red, and his back grows a bump. And his jaw begins to hook until he’s got a pronounced overbite. There’s a lot of jostling over females during breeding, and the humpback and hooked jaw helps him intimidate other male fish so he can fertilize more female eggs. And the red color is considered highly attractive to the opposite sex.

White-talied Kokanee Salmon Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
White-talied Kokanee Salmon
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
The kokanee is an evolutionary branch of the sockeye. Both of them spawn in freshwater nurseries and then move to a nursery lake to grow for awhile. Then the sockeye salmon migrates to the ocean while the kokanee remain in the lake. After a few years they both return to the freshwater streams to spawn and die. The funny thing is, that if you take a sockeye and keep him in a lake, he doesn’t turn red when it’s time to spawn. That’s because red color derives from carotenoid pigments in the salmon’s diet and these pigments are much more prevalent in ocean food. So why does the kokanee turn the same red as the sockeye? It’s because the sexual preference for red was so strong that the kokanee actually evolved the ability to process carotenoid pigments with 3 times the efficiency of sockeyes.

White-talied Kokanee Salmon
Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto

Because it flexibly defines a lake as its ocean, the kokanee has become a popular fish for reintroduction into western lakes and reservoirs. In 1922, the kokanee was first introduced for sport fishing into Utah’s Bear Lake. Nowadays you can see them spawn in the Little Bear River out of Porcupine Reservoir, Sheep Creek near Flaming Gorge Reservoir, and tributary streams of Strawberry Reservoir.

If you hurry, you can still catch the last of the spawning kokanees, their bright red bodies an aquatic response to the flaming Utah maple on the surrounding hillsides.

Special thanks to Charles Hawkins (Watershed Sciences, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University) , Phaedra Budy (USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University) and Bret Roper (US Forest Service, Fish & Aquatic Ecology Unit, Logan, UT) for their comments on this piece.


Photo: Courtesy of and Copyright 2008 Mary-Ann Muffoletto
Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading
Aggies Help State with Fall Salmon Count 2008. Utah State Today. Sept 25, 2008. http://www.usu.edu/ust/index.cfm?article=30698

Coates, P. 2006. Salmon. London: Reaktion Books


Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. Kokanee (Oncorhynchus nerka). Wildlife notebook Series No. 10.http://wildlife.utah.gov/publications/pdf/newkokan.pdf (accessed Oct 3, 2008)

See also:

Kokanee Salmon in Strawberry Reservoir http://www.redrockadventure.com/fishing/Strawberry/strawberry_kokanee.htm

See bright red kokanee salmon at Sheep Creek, near Flaming Gorge http://wildlife.utah.gov/news/05-09/sheep_creek.html