Inverted woodpecker, a phrase I use to describe the feeding habits of the amazing nut hatch family. I first became aware of this lovely little songbird growing up in Michigan, where the white-breasted nut hatch was common fare in the north woods. Their little laughing notes were most welcome as I sat on my deer stand where I would watch them search bark crevices for yummy morsels of grubs, insect eggs or seeds they had wedged in for tomorrow’s snack.
Now having lived many years in Utah, it is the red-breasted nut hatch that has replaced this eastern cousin for the most part. Their “yank, yank, yank” vocalizations light up my life whenever and wherever they occur. They prefer conifers but will gladly substitute a deciduous tree, especially those with more furrowed bark. Where there is food or water, infrequently a white-breasted will appear, especially in our higher elevations, although I’ve had them join the red-breasted at our feeder during winter months – a rare treat.
If one spends much time in our Ponderosa pine forests in central and southern Utah, another family member can be found. Unlike the other two more solitary species, these tiny pygmies occur in small flocks and are very chatty. Highly social, the pygmy nut hatch appear to enjoy a food frolic as they fly from tree to tree for feeding and social interaction. Thus, Utah’s blessed with all three North American species of nut hatch.
If you observe them as they search the main stem of a tree, my inverted woodpecker title will be justified. Rather than moving from top to bottom of the tree facing up as do the woodpeckers, the nut hatch prefers head down from top to bottom. They also like hanging upside down on a horizontal limb. Why? Evolution keeps us mysteries well-guarded. I conjecture partitioning might be part of the answer: a phenomenon where bird species will utilize different parts of the tree to avoid competing for resources with other species.
As with all of life, I pay attention to how our shifting climate has been observed or predicted to affect their populations and distribution. As long as there are conifers breeding season, nut hatches are content. They can be found in dry Ponderosa pine foothills, in moist boreal bogs, around tree line in the mountains, and even in planted Christmas tree plantations. Audubon’s seven-year generated climate model shows an overall northward drift of the species’ range with more disruption and range loss in summer than in winter. The nut hatch is a habitat generalist in winter, so summertime climate is the chief concern going forward. However, whether the species adapts in the decades ahead will be determined in large part by the conifer forest health in a changing climate. The projection for species range change from 2000 to 2080 is 19% of summer 2000 range remaining stable and 58% of winter range projected to be stable. It’s my plan to follow them wherever they may go.
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This is Jack Green, reading and getting wilder about Utah as days pass.
Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, David Brenzinski, Photographer
Contains Sound: Courtesy Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society //Utah State University Sustainability
Eating the “humble crow”! Not literally- I hear they are rather tough and stringy. In my last reading titled “Wren Love”, I was confused by a flock of birds acting much like canyon wrens, but exhibiting a most unusual communal behavior. A later visit to the same ice covered cliff, only this time with optics, revealed them to be the gray crown rosy finch. I apologize for my carelessness!
As recompense, I must give this beautiful finch its due and to repay you, dear listener!
I first met this beauty above 13,000’ on my way to Mt. Whitney’s summit in the Sierra Nevada range. It was a pleasant surprise as I wasn’t aware this species existed until locating it in a bird guide a few weeks later. I was within ten feet and they showed little concern with my proximity. Many years later I met them again during a Christmas bird count high on a ridge in the Bear River Range of N. Utah. A bird of the mountains, I surmised.
This winter our local Audubon chapter donated seed for a USU research project on its cousin, the black rosy finch, long considered a variation of the same species until genetic studies proved otherwise. The gray crowns far out-number the black who have a highly restricted range. The black rosy-finch is one of the least-understood birds in North America. Its reproduction, demography, population status, survival rates, distribution, and migratory tendencies, all deserve further study. These data gaps limit not only our understanding of the species, but also the ability to conserve and manage this gorgeous bird.
Researchers have conducted serious studies less than once per decade since 1925, when the first nests were recorded. Between then and 2002, three researchers had documented only 23 nests. This least-known, least-accessible bird of remote high country, may prove a bellwether for a retreating alpine ecosystem. Its mountaintop habitats are especially vulnerable to the effects of a warming climate. You may join this study by googling the “Wild Utah black rosy finch” project.
Like the Black Rosy, the Gray-crowned Rosy-Finches nest in crevices on cliffs and talus among glaciers and snowfields above timberline, mostly in Canada and Alaska. They glean wind-transported insects on snowfields and meadows, particularly at the edge of snow patches. Later in the season they capture insects from vegetation including flying insects, as well as continuing to feed on seeds. Winter foods are mostly seeds taken from the ground, from stalks protruding through the snow, and at high elevation bird feeders. In the non-breeding season, they sometimes occur in large, mixed flocks composed of other rosy-finch species, namely black and brown capped.
If you are fortunate enough to encounter this remarkable beauty, you will have a good day indeed, and if a black rosy finch, please report it to Janice Gardner at (801) eight-two-one 8569.
This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon, and I’m Wild about Utah!
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
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