The Great Salt Lake: Important for Birds

Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater. Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater.
Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body.

This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.

In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.

These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.

Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.

At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.

So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.

Credits:

Picture:
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Strand, Holly, Important Bird Areas, Wild About Utah, October 21, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/important-bird-areas/

Strand, Holly, One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets, Wild About Utah, June 3, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/one-of-the-worlds-largest-shrimp-buffets/

Chambless, Ross, When the Great Salt Lake we know is gone, what shall we name it?, Commentary, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/08/19/ross-chambless-when-great/ [Accessed September 19, 2021]

Shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), https://whsrn.org/about-shorebirds/shorebird-status/

Drought Negatively Impacting Great Salt Lake Microbialites and Ecosystem, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 15, 2021, https://geology.utah.gov/drought-negatively-impacting-great-salt-lake-microbialites-and-ecosystem/

Chidsey, T.C., Jr., Eby, D.E., Vanden Berg, M.D., and Sprinkel, D.A., 2021, Microbial carbonate reservoirs and analogs
from Utah: Utah Geological Survey Special Study 168, 112 p., 14 plates, 1 appendix, https://doi.org/10.34191/SS-168

Riding, Robert, Definition: Microbialites, Stromatolites, and Thrombolites, Encyclopedia of Geobiology, SpringerLink, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature., https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-9212-1_196

Romero, Simon, Booming Utah’s Weak Link: Surging Air Pollution, The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/us/great-salt-lake-utah-air-quality.html

2015–2025 Wildlife Action Plan, Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 1 2015, https://wildlife.utah.gov/discover/wildlife-action-plan.html

Governor Cox Declares 2021 as Year of the Shorebird at Great Salt Lake, Declaration celebrates 30th anniversary of Great Salt Lake as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, Western Water News, National Audubon, May 12, 2021, https://www.audubon.org/news/governor-cox-declares-2021-year-shorebird-great-salt-lake
See also: https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/1182-cox-declares-2021-year-of-shorebird-great-salt-lake.html

Gov. Cox Issues Drought Executive Order, Governor.utah.gov, March 17, 2021, https://governor.utah.gov/2021/03/17/gov-cox-issues-drought-executive-order/


Written by Hall Crimmel & Dan Bedford, Filmed and Edited by Isaac Goeckeritz, iUtah EPSCor, Rachel Carsen Center Environment & Society,
Based on the book Desert Water; The Future of Utah’s Water Resources edited by Hall Crimmel and published by University of Utah Press, 2014

Carney, Stephanie, Vanden Berg, Michael D., GeoSights: Microbialites of Bridger Bay, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Survey Notes, Utah Geological Survey, State of Utah, January 1, 2022, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/geosights-microbialites-of-bridger-bay-antelope-island-great-salt-lake/

Hispanics

American Robin, Courtesy US NPS Will Elder, Photographer
American Robin,
Courtesy US NPS
Will Elder, Photographer

World Migratory Bird Day logo courtesy & © Environment for the Americas, EFTA World Migratory Bird Day logo from
Environment for the Americas
Connecting People to Bird Conservation and Inspiring the
Next Generation of Conservationists
Courtesy & © Environment for the Americas, EFTA

This WAU is intended to honor a very special demographic in our state. We have labeled them Hispanic, or more recently Latinx. I was blessed in my early Michigan years with neighbors of this ethnicity who enriched my live in many ways, including in natural landscapes. They planted a large garden to support their substantial family, some of the produce coming our way, even though they had little to spare. The family patriarch led his flock as minister for the West Side Gospel Tabernacle and found great joy in watching me spit out flaming hot red peppers.

We spent many summers swimming, fishing, frog and turtle catching, bird nest and baby mammal discovering, and reveling in a gravel pit, which had dipped into an aquifer creating some life-filled ponds surrounded by willow and cottonwood trees. This family was a major influence on whom I’ve become, with a special fondness for their rich culture and our natural surroundings.
As an educator, my Latinx students have shared their knowledge and talents on many occasions. Their leadership role for our Utah Conservation Corps Bilingual crews building trails, fences, and invasive plant control in our parks and forests has been a joy to be a part of. On one of our outings, a student revealed how saliva can quickly subdue the pleasantries of a stinging nettle encounter. I’ve found the senior members frequently have vast native plant knowledge from their homelands, so we have a lively exchange while they compare our local plant virtues with theirs found south of the border.

As seasonal faculty for a Colorado State University program, we recruit underserved college students from numerous campuses both in and out of country, many of whom are Hispanic. We take them into the national parks, beginning with Teton and Yellowstone. The students are engaged in various citizen science activities including pica and bat surveys, native plant restoration, and pollinator transects. They meet with park administration, and are invited to share thoughts on how to manage their parks in a sustainable manner.

The parks have gained in many ways from their presence, and have adopted some of their ideas. Additionally, these students have added considerably to the parks databases from their inventories and pollinator transects. They especially appreciate our diverse collection of students, several of whom have become part of the park and forest staff following the experience.
For those Latinx students and others who have an interest in birds and education, I strongly recommend visiting the Environment for the Americas, an excellent program that connects birds and people from both sides of the border.

Last weekend I offered a Bridgerland Audubon bird outing for Latinx families and others behind the Logan River Estates trailer park. Although none joined us, there will be other opportunities in the future, for I’m fully aware they have interest from many past experiences.

This is Jack Greene for BAS, and I’m wild about Utah and how it has benefited from our Hispanic people.

Credits:
Pictures: Courtesy US NPS, Will Elder, Photographer
World Migratory Bird Day/Environment for the Americas logo: Courtesy & Copyright © Environment for the Americas
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Environment for the Americas, https://environmentamericas.org/
Other Environment for the Americas sites:

 
World Migratory Bird Day illuminates the dark side of light pollution, UN News, United Nations, May 13, 2022, https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/05/1118262#:~:text=World%20Migratory%20Bird%20Day%20is,the%20northern%20and%20southern%20hemispheres

Wolves and wolverines in Utah? Oh my!

Wolves and wolverines in Utah? Oh my! Endangered Yellowstone Grey Wolf with Radio Collar Courtesy US FWS, William Campbell, Photographer
Endangered Yellowstone Grey Wolf with Radio Collar
Courtesy US FWS, William Campbell, Photographer
Wolves and wolverines in Utah? Oh my! As I prepare for a 3 day trip with students to Yellowstone, a stronghold for what once was, these iconic critters come to mind. The last wolves were cleared from Cache Valley in 1869. A predator drive through our valley was mustered, where every able-bodied citizen was called to arms to rid us of these villains. A wolverine met its demise on the hill where the Logan Temple now stands.

Thank goodness, we have awakened to the value of predators in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and for their aesthetic and spiritual value. After all, they coexisted along with their prey for millions of years before our species came along and began tinkering.

There are well-documented visits by these two species in Utah, including actual tactile experience. However, established breeding populations are yet to be found. Both require vast, relatively undisturbed wildlands to thrive.

Since wolves were reintroduced in Yellowstone in 1995, the Utah DWR has been able to confirm 20 wolves in our state. Nearly all confirmed sightings have been consistent with lone, dispersing wolves.

Due to a recent court ruling, wolves in much of Utah are once again listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act except a small portion of northern Utah where wolves are not welcome. There is a statewide wolf management plan and personnel to manage them. Any wolves that move out of the small, delisted area are considered endangered and are subject to exclusive federal jurisdiction.

A wolverine was recently spotted in Rich County, now wandering the Uinta Mountains with a GPS collar around its neck. This is the first wolverine ever captured in Utah history. The wolverine is a male, between 3-4 years old, and biologists say he is in excellent physical condition. They are excited to learn more about this elusive animal with only eight confirmed sightings in Utah since 1979. We are on the southern edge of the wolverine’s typical habitat. This GPS tracking will allow us to understand and manage wolverines in Utah.

Now on to Yellowstone where both species are well established. Around a hundred wolves in 8 packs, and about 7 wide ranging wolverines may be found in the park. Climate-change models predict that by 2050, the spring snowpack needed for wolverine denning and hunting will make the greater Yellowstone ecosystem a critical part of its southern range. Wolverines are so rarely seen and inhabit such remote terrain at low densities that assessing population trends is difficult and sudden declines could go unnoticed for years.

I doubt we will see a wolverine on our visit, but wolf sightings are a good bet as we will be led by a park wolf technician, that is if we don’t succumb to hypothermia before a howl is heard!

Jack Greene for BAS. With confirmed sightings of wolves and wolverine in our state, I’m even wilder about Utah!

Credits:
Pictures: Courtesy US National Parks Service, William Campbell, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin, https://upr.org/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Wolves in Utah, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, Last Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2022, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wolves.html#:~:text=Are%20there%20wolves%20in%20Utah,20%20wolves%20in%20the%20state.

Gray wolves again listed as endangered in most of Utah, A recent court ruling limits wolf-management options, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, March 1, 2022, https://wildlife.utah.gov/wolf/wolves.pdf

Podmore, Zak, (Report for America), A gray wolf is in Utah for the first time in years. The state is setting traps, The Salt Lake Tribune, June 3, 2020, https://www.sltrib.com/news/2020/06/03/gray-wolf-is-utah-first/

Wolverine captured, collared and released in Utah, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, March 14, 2022, https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/1380-wolverine-captured-collared-and-released-in-utah.html

Miller, Jordan, Wolverine spotted in Utah this month marks third publicized sighting this year, The Salt Lake Tribune, Oct. 20, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/10/20/wolverine-spotted-utah/

Tiny Owls

Tiny Owls: Northern Pygmy Owl Courtesy US FWS,  Bob Miles, Photographer
Northern Pygmy Owl
Courtesy US FWS,
Bob Miles, Photographer

Northern Saw Whet Owl Courtesy US FWS Dave Miller, Photographer Northern Saw Whet Owl
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Miller, Photographer

Western Screech Owl Courtesy & Copyright Lu Giddings Western Screech Owl
Courtesy & Copyright Lu Giddings

They just kept coming. Students, Auduboner’s, friends. They filled the parking lot at the mouth of Birch Canyon, an offshoot of Smithfield Canyon in N. Utah. About two dozen of us begin a march up the canyon as a full moon threatens to pop over the ridge high above us.

Tiny owls that don’t give a hoot were on the menu. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources bird survey coordinator Frank Howe leads the crew with his highly energetic dog bouncing around snow patches we crunch through. After a half-mile or so, Frank pauses by a stand of large cottonwood trees. He opens a Sibley bird app on his phone, explaining we will begin with a repertoire of songs and calls of small owls- northern saw whet, norther pygmies, and western screech owls, hoping not to awaken great horned owls, which might eat their lesser brethren.

We stand silent, awaiting an answer as he begins with the soft bouncing ping-pong ball song of the western screech owl. A few minutes pass and there it is! We are transfixed by its somewhat distant soothing call, then another deeper sound emitted by its male partner. The female slowly works her way in our direction. A few more minutes pass and she’s caught in Frank’s bright flashlight beam. Soft oohs and aahs are emitted by the viewers, most of whom have never heard, nor seen, this tiny owl being before. “This is a mated pair, beginning their courtship rituals and soon to be nesting activities.” Frank explains.

After a half hour of enjoying this fine little owl, we saunter on, hoping for a Northern saw whet or Northern pygmy. After another mile, and several toots without an answer, we begin marching back down bathed in moonlight and friendly chatter. Within a few hundred yards of the screech owl, Frank hails a halt and once again plays the saw whet recording. An immediate, barely audible answer follows. We catch a glimpse of bright owl eyes as they briefly land on a branch 30 yards away.

Frank explains both the saw whets and Northern pygmy’s will migrate to higher elevations for nesting in coniferous forests as the snow recedes. All three of these smallish owls are cavity nesters, preying mostly on small mammals, birds, and large insects. When they feel threatened, they will elongate their bodies to resemble a tree branch. The saw whet will even cover its front with a wing for added camouflage.

In a good prey year, the saw whet will kill several mice in quick succession and store them for later feeding. N. pygmy’s eat only the brains of birds they capture and the soft abdomen of large insects. They can carry prey twice their own weight. Bizarre behaviors for these little demons!

Thank you Frank for an unforgettable moonlight stroll!

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon and I’m wild about the Utah Wilds and its tiny demonic owls!

Credits:
Pictures: Northern Pygmy Owl, Courtesy US FWS, Bob Miles, Photographer
Northern Saw Whet Owl: Courtesy US FWS, Dave Miller, Photographer
Western Screech Owl: Courtesy & © Copyright Lu Giddings, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections as well as J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin, https://upr.org/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Northern Pygmy Owl, Overview, All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Pygmy-Owl/overview

Northern Saw Whet Owl, Overview, All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Saw-whet_Owl/overview

Western Screech Owl, Overview, All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Screech-Owl/overview

Northern Pygmy Owl, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesL-R/NorthernPygmyOwl.htm
Featured Article by Paul Higgins: http://www.utahbirds.org/featarts/2006/NorthernPygmyOwl.htm
Gallery Pictures: http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsL-R/NorthernPygmyOwl.htm

Northern Saw Whet Owl, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesL-R/NorthernSawWhetOwl.htm
Gallery Pictures: http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsL-R/NorthernSawWhetOwl.htm

Western Screech Owl, Utah Birds, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/WesternScreechOwl.htm
Featured Article by Eric Huish: http://www.utahbirds.org/featarts/2004/OwlBox/OwlBox1.htm
Gallery Pictures: http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/WesternScreechOwl.htm