With Valentine ’s Day imminent, I must profess my love for wrens.
A recent snowshoe slog with friends in a nearby canyon brought us face to face with a glorious panel of 30 foot ice colonnades running down quartzite cliffs. We stood in awe of their crystalline beauty. Near the ice wall, small birds were flitting in and out of vertical crevices. I began counting- a dozen or more. There is only one bird in mid-winter that could fit the bill, a canyon wren. Possibly my favorite on the long list of wren species for their stunning beauty, and unique, descending melody to match their vertical realm, to sooth my nerves as I climb in their domain.
Never before had I seen more than a pair, usually solos. This was entirely new and totally unexpected, to have such numbers of mature wrens occupying the same space. I’ve since searched the literature and found nothing describing such behavior.
Moving on to another near favorite, the winter, or Pacific wren, is always a treat on winter outings. These smallest of the wren family remind me of feathered mice. They spend much of their time in thick brush or tree roots near or in the ground. Like all wrens, they are grand vocalists who release a rapid, lengthy string of phrases. Like all wrens, Pacific’s are very high energy in constant motion. They emit a tiny “chit” note when alarmed, similar to that of a ruby crowned kinglet, but unlike kinglets, very secretive darting in and out of their hideaways. I may have been the first to report them nesting in Cache Valley some 20 years ago. Now they populate most of our watered canyons in the Bear River Range.
Moving out to the valley wetlands, there are usually a few marsh wrens who overwinter. These nervous chatterers will build a spectacular conical nest of cattails and bulrush lined with cattail down come spring. It’s the male who performs the duty, actually building several to confuse predators and attract a female. She will inspect his architectural abilities, and if pleased, receive his seed, then insult him by dismantling a nest and rebuilding it to her liking.
I must travel down state to the St. George Mojave desert to visit another rival wren for the top spot. The cactus wren has a long rolling unmistakable muffled chatter. They are our largest wren species and no less nervous than the others. They too have an unusual nesting behavior, which involves a very prickly plant- the cholla. Their nest reminds me of the marsh wrens, only made of very different materials as cattail and bulrush are hard to come by where they occupy. Similar to the marsh wren, the male builds multiple “dummy nests” which he will continue, even after the female is sitting on the nest- expending nervous energy I recon!
I must apologize for two others as I’m out of space- rock wrens and the “jenny” or house wren- definitely worthy of note.
Happy Valentines Day to all wren lovers and others!
Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon- and we are Wild About Utah!
Images: Courtesy US FWS, Peter Pearshall, Photographer
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, USU Sustainability & Bridgerland Audubon Society
Every morning, me and my dog Sable go on a hike. It’s not a trek, but just an early morning walk up our favorite hidden canyon which lies in plain sight. We set off from our house right about 8 o’clock and drive up the hillsides to the canyon mouth. We weave out of our little town and into the next, winding up and up, past the houses that weren’t here 15 years ago, then 10 years ago, then 5. We rise higher than any business, home, or other building as we approach our morning trailhead. It’s good, that above all of the buildings we’ve constructed over the years, still lies the land eternal. I like that.
As we get out of the car, Sable springs and sprints immediately, starting up the berm just past the parking lot. She lives for the forest and the canyons. Up here, as nowhere in our small town’s limits, she can let loose off leash, be wild, go running after squirrels (which tree and evade her each time,) smell the logbook rocks of dogs before us, and be a very happy free dog. And if you believe that dogs smile as I know, then she beams radiant like the sun as she runs like the wind. I like that most of all.
At the top of the berm lies a retention dam, just in case anything should happen up our little canyon as to not damage the new homes below. But on top of this lies our first view of our valley floor home. Only from the edge of things can we first see them truly. The valley and the mountains on her other rim are a sweeping view in every season, in every weather, in every light or dark. I stand, breathe deep seeing the world below like an astronaut, and turn my back on this beauty, for that is the only way up the canyon.
We begin our journey up, up, up. We meander along the trail past picnic tables and illegal fire rings. We move past small open fields where Sable leans into full sprint, and into the maple and juniper thickets, dense with the quieting effect of treestands, allowing our canyon to cease being just at the edge of town, and to become the morning wilderness heartbeat we both seek. If we hear a branch snap, we’ll both stop dead in our tracks, hold our breath, and listen long. I love these moments. A man and a dog, two species in one moment sharing how we approach the world of the unknown. Then, in our united journey, we set off again through the morning wild.
On our morning walks, we do not go far, certainly less than a mile. It usually takes us just 15 minutes to get to our turnaround point, a Forest Service gate meant to keep cattle from running into the retention dam and the town below. Sometimes when I am feeling slow or want to soak up the canyon a bit more, there is a small cavelet just off from the gate. I’ll go and sit on the rocks within, observing how the mosses grow on the seeping water and listen to the invisible birds around me.
From our turnaround gate, I always stop and let Sable run a bit further up trail before she comes back. She’s good at checking in, even after some of her more worrisome decisions of scaling the canyon sides into its cliffed faces in search of ground squirrel chatter. After she comes back, we turn back towards town in knowing silence, descending to the world in which we live.
Going down always takes less time, too little time it seems sometimes. On the descent, Sable is like a bobsledder: an unstoppable force of energy hugging the luge of the trail. It’s truly beautiful to see such athleticism paired with boundless joy in running. It must be the greatest fun to be a dog in the forest.
When we both finally pop out of the trees back at the retention dam, the town below opens into view. I don’t stop this time. I keep on trodding to the car with Sable. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the view of town on the way down, it’s that I don’t need to dip my toe in in order to be brave enough to plunge by now. Back to life’s duties and hullabaloo.
Driving down, I drop Sable off at home to sleep in the sunny backyard or chew on an elk bone for the day, and I head off to my own work. All day though, I can keep thinking back to our shared morning walk, not even half an hour, but worth its more than its weight in sunrise gold. All day I feel good and alive, and I know Sable does too from just a short jaunt. I know that she loves living in a beautiful, wild place just as much as I do. We both know the goodness in such places and in living in such places. Two species, one shared love for this land and our favorite hidden canyon which lies in plain sight.
My name is Patrick Kelly and I am Wild About Utah.
Images: Image Courtesy & Copyright Patrick Kelly, Photographer, all rights reserved
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org
The Henry Mountains of southeast Utah are famous for being the last mountain range in the contiguous United States to have been officially mapped. Indeed, before they were mapped, they were often referred to as the “Unknown Mountains.” Another relative unknown detail about this range is that it harbors one of only five genetically pure, free roaming bison herds on North American public lands.
In 1941, a seed herd of 18 American Plains Bison (B. b. bison) were transplanted from Yellowstone National Park to the arid desert of Utah’s Robbers Roost. A year later, five more bulls were introduced to the herd in hopes of sufficiently diversifying the gene pool and sustaining the herd. The bison must not have found Robbers Roost as appealing as Butch Cassidy had, though, because this new Wild Bunch set out for literal greener pastures that very same year.
The small herd forded the Dirty Devil River and travelled southwest toward the Burr Desert. The herd stopped here for a while, enjoying their newfound buffet atop the Aquarius Plateau. 21 years later, though, in 1963, the still small herd grew tired of the desert and abandoned it altogether for the higher, more verdant snow fed meadows of the nearby Henry Mountains. Here, the herd thrived and quickly swelled in numbers.
Today, the herd’s population is estimated to be between 300 and 400 animals, which ecologists and wildlife biologists regard as the maximum carrying capacity of their Henry Mountain range. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources has responded accordingly. In an effort to perpetuate the health of the herd and their range, the DWR began issuing “Once-in-a-lifetime” permits to hunters hoping to fulfill not only a tag but also a burning sense of adventure. The Henry Mountains, after all, were mapped last for a reason. They remain one of the most rugged and remote places in a state known for its rugged and remote places.
Fittingly, quite unlike their more quintessential Plains Bison brethren, the Henry Mountains bison can be found almost anywhere in the Henrys between the desert lowlands and timberline. Apparently no one has told the herd that Plains Bison don’t typically like high elevations or steep mountain slopes. This unique proclivity of the Henry Mountains herd to cast off behavioral stereotypes works in their favor when hunting season rolls around and they abandon the high, open meadows for steep, wooded canyons and thick groves of aspen and evergreens.
This highly adaptive nature unique to the Henry Mountains herd made it an obvious candidate to serve as a seed population in early 2010 when 39 individuals were transplanted from the Henry Mountains to the Book Cliffs along the Utah-Colorado border. These 39 animals were to serve as a genetic supplement to a relatively new herd first reintroduced to the Book Cliffs by the Ute Indian Tribe in 1986. The now 600-strong Book Cliffs herd is well on its way to reestablishing the American Plains Bison’s historic range in the Book Cliffs.
The story of the Book Cliffs and Henry Mountains Bison give us reason to hope that one day soon, the American Bison might reclaim its territory, a historic range that once ran from Alaska through the Canadian territories and the Great Plains to the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico. And, if so, the role the Henry Mountains herd will play in that expansion may be a significant one.
I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah.
Photos: Courtesy US FWS, Ryan Moehring, Photographer
Audio: Includes audio from
Text: Josh Boling, 2019
A mighty tree has fallen- but its seed has been cast far and wide through his great works. I speak of a frequent Wild About Utah contributor, educator, and conservationist. On January 3rd, 2020, Ron Hellstern left us for the great beyond. He was the personification of Wild About Utah.
Ron’s legacy can be found in the thousands of youth who accompanied him in the classroom and field where they participated in many citizen science projects for birds, butterflies, countless tree plantings, restoring streamside environments, and competing in the Utah Envirothon, which Ron helped establish in Utah
He preferred the title “Redrock Ron” which Ron earned from his unflagging love for Utah’s red rock country, culminating with Zion N.P. His contributions there were many- writing curriculum for the park, Christmas bird counts, assisting with the state Envirothon competition which he convinced Zion to host, and much more. His greatest thrill were the many family hikes and campouts he reveled in, to have those near and dear with him to partake of its splendors.
Closer to home, Ron was synonymous with monarch butterflies, fireflies, and reforestation. He spent many years with students and others hatching, tagging, and releasing monarchs to help map their western migration patterns, adding new information to assist with their preservation. Ron was a relentless advocate for planting milkweed, the host plant for rearing the monarch’s chrysalis and caterpillars.
Once he discovered fireflies in a city marsh, Ron realized this rarity needed protection. As both a city council member and citizen, he convinced the city of their unique importance. The Nibley firefly park was the result. A few thousand folks showed up for its inauguration.
And “Trees are the answer” from Ron’s perspective. His plantings were notorious throughout our valley- from school grounds to open lots, his town recognized as a Tree City USA. Ron deeply appreciated all that trees provide for people, wildlife, protecting soil and our mountains watersheds. It seemed that whenever I visited Ron, he was planting yet another tree.
Ron was instrumental in establishing the first “Childrens Forest” with the USFS in Logan Canyon. He was the primary force behind his town of Nibley receiving Utah’s first, and yet only, designation as a Wildlife Friendly City through the National Wildlife Foundation.
As a member and major contributor to the Utah Society for Envioronmental Education and North American Association for EE, Ron’s influence as an extraordinary educator was recognized. He served on both boards where his influence was felt forming policy and programs on a state and international level. Ron was a relentless champion of classroom teachers in both of these acclaimed organizations.
Ron was a kindred spirit, the brother I never had. His presence will never leave me- every tree, monarch butterfly, firefly, trip to redrock country, Ron will be with me.
This is Jack Greene in behalf of our dear friend- Ron Hellstern
Images: Courtesy TBA
Images: Courtesy Morgan Pratt for Ron Hellstern
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, USU and Bridgerland Audubon Society