Sage Steppe

Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Mountain big sagebrush (Artemisia tridentata subsp. Vaseyana) in flower – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Three-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. - Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila ShultzThree-tip sage (Artemisia tripartite) with visible yellow flowers. – Photo Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz

Zane Gray’s “Riders of the Purple Sage” and Steve Tremble’s “Sage Brush Ocean” are book titles that may invoke excitement from your literary past. Or you may be traveling along the interstates and side roads of our great state as monotony sets in and drowsiness tightens your grip on the wheel while you nod your way through endless miles of this seemingly drab landscape.

In science jargon it’s referred to as sage steppe, the dominant landscape throughout much of Utah and the Great Basin. Much of this maligned biotic community has been degraded or lost through various mismanagement practices. Sage Steppe is considered an endangered ecosystem despite the seemingly large area it inhabits, primarily due to fragmentation. And the iconic Gunnison sage grouse has followed its demise having recently been placed on the threatened species list.
I just returned from spending a day of study in the field with 16 college students running transects for the Grand Teton N.P. The park is spending millions in sage steppe restoration work to reclaim this critical plant community.

Sagebrush is an important member of an ecosystem that helps support many birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, as well as an abundance of insects and microbes. One study found nearly 300 arthropod species directly living on just a few plants including- 72 spider, 237 insect, 42 of which were gall-forming, amongst many other species. Such diversity also indicates that sage is playing an important part in maintaining the health of the environment providing ecosystem services such as soil protection, water conservation and nutrient cycling.
Sage is well adapted to the demands of semi-arid deserts. It has tap roots that can go over 15 feet deep to suck up any ground water that might exist and forms extensive webs of surface roots in association with symbiotic fungal hyphae to efficiently gather any rain that might fall. Oftentimes, sagebrush grows in clonal communities with members that can live over 100 years!

Aromatic odors emanating from sage, especially following a downpour of rain, comes from a mix of chemicals including camphor, terpenoids, and a cocktail of other volatile compounds. Some of the chemicals have anti-herbivory action by killing the gut bacteria of carious browsers although pronghorn antelope seem to have evolved resistance to these toxins. Other browsers like cattle, sheep, and mule deer can only eat sagebrush in small doses or whan the leaves are young and tender.

It is this mixture of molecules that sagebrush produces which come into play for communication. Sagebrush is eaten by many mammals and insects. When sagebrush is browsed on by a pronghorn or grasshopper volatile compounds are released from the wound that warn other branches of the same sagebrush as well as the neighboring sage about the potential threat. The sagebrush in the area react to the warning by metabolizing toxins that make them taste unappealing and that cause digestive discomfort for future herbivores who try to make a meal of them.

Native Americans considered sage a sacred plant. It offered medicine, clothing, shelter, and was commonly used in their ceremonial sweat lodges. Last but not least, my lovely granddaughter was given the name Sage. So the next time you find yourself surrounded by our “sagebrush ocean” pay tribute to this vibrant and intricate community of life.

Jack Greene, a lover of sagebrush.

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy and Copyright Dr. Leila Shultz
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

I Love the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

https://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Roadrunner in a Tree

Click for a larger view of a Roadrunner in a Tree, Clark County Wetland Preserve, East of Las Vegas, NV. Courtesy and Copyright 2022 Keeli Marvel, Photographer
Roadrunner in a tree
Geococcyx californianus
Clark County Wetland Preserve, East of Las Vegas, NV
Courtesy & © 2022 Keeli Marvel, Photographer,
Utah County Birders

Click for a larger view of a Greater Roadrunner on a Joshua Tree, Beaver Dam Slope in Washington County, UT. Courtesy and Copyright 2013 Jeff Cooper Roadrunner on Joshua Tree
Geococcyx californianus
Beaver Dam Slope, Washington County, UT
Courtesy & Copyright 2013 Jeff Cooper
Neovistabirding.blogspot.com


“A roadrunner up in a tree? Couldn’t be!” was the comment I got upon describing this unusual sighting to some BLM employees in St. George, Utah. But sure enough, there it was, most likely a juvenile trying out it’s new wings as it’s lesser siblings scrambled through the desert scrub near a wet hollow. I too was amazed to see this quirky bird in a tree, but then stories I had accumulated from those who have lived in roadrunner territory bore testimony to its strange ways.

Their ungainly and rather comical appearance, combined with their eccentricities, have endeared them to many, and find myself no exception. And yes, as you have heard, they are very quick on their feet attaining sustained ground speeds of 17 MPH, not quite as fast as Canis Latrans, the wily coyote. Another peculiarity- for whatever reason, they have a propensity for running into buildings, perhaps hoping to corner their prey.

A member of the cuckoo family, the Roadrunner is uniquely suited to the hot desert environment found in southern Utah. This is because of a number of physiological and behavioral adaptations. Its carnivorous habits offer it a large supply of very moist food. It reabsorbs water from its feces before excretion. A nasal gland eliminates excess salt instead of using the urinary tract like most birds. An it reduces its activity 50% during the heat of midday.

Its extreme quickness allows the roadrunner to snatch a humming bird or dragonfly from midair. Snakes, including rattlers, are another favorite food. Using its wings like a matador’s cape, a roadrunner snaps up a coiled rattlesnake by the tail, cracks it like a whip and repeatedly slams its head against the ground until lifeless. It then swallows its prey whole, but is often unable to swallow the entire length at one time. This does not stop the Roadrunner from its normal routine. It will continue to meander about with the snake dangling from its mouth, consuming another inch or two as the snake slowly digests.

I can scarcely wait for my next encounter with the roadrunner!

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy and Copyright 2013 Jeff Cooper Jeff Cooper
Neovistabirding.blogspot.com

Text: Bridgerland Audubon Society: Jack Greene

For More Information:

Desert USA – The Roadrunner, http://www.desertusa.com/road.html (accessed 22 July 2008)
Animal Diversity, University of Michigan Museum of Zoology, Geococcyx californianus –
greater roadrunner, http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/site/accounts/information/Geococcyx_californianus.html