The Great Salt Lake’s Importance 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. The Great Salt Lake’s Importance

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:
The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
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/

Intelligent Squirrels

Intelligent Squirrels: Squirrel Courtesy Pixabay
Squirrel
Courtesy Pixabay
Primates of the northlands. I consider tree squirrels to be on par with many primates for intelligence and agility. Those who have bird feeders may agree with me as they vainly attempt to thwart squirrel’s from invading their feeders. We have red squirrels visiting our bird feeder regularly. I’ve outsmarted them for the moment, but they continue to work on the problem I’ve presented them and feel a failure coming my way!

I’ve watched red squirrels manipulate fir cones with their front paws with amazing dexterity. Like myself eating a cob of corn, it spun the cone rapidly while shredding the cone scales to access the seed. Their tiny toes grip the cone identically to my fingers gripping the cob of corn. I’m amazed how they can unerringly navigate their way from tree to tree through our forest. There are many examples of squirrel intelligence witnessed by animal behaviorists.

Arboreal squirrels often build dreys that look like bird nests. Dreys are made up of twigs , moss, feathers and grass. All the items surrounding the dreys provide support and insulation. Chimpanzees exhibit very similar behavior.

Squirrels make use of several vocalizations to communicate with each other, they also create scents to attract opposite sex or communicate. They can create signals with their tails as well, by twitching it to alert other squirrels on the presence of a potential danger.

Tree squirrels display fantastically acrobatic movements, phenomenal adaptability to urban environments, and possess very cute little faces to boot. The 7th International Colloquium on Arboreal Squirrels was held 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. Studies routinely come discover new, amazing behaviors, especially involving the squirrel’s signature behavior, that it buries caches of its food to access later. One experiment found that they’ll try multiple tactics to open a locked box. Another found that squirrels remember the location of their caches without using their keen noses to locate them. Another found that they’re able to quickly learn from their peers.

A 2010 study found that squirrels actually engage in deceptive, or paranoid, behavior. When squirrels are being watched, they’ll construct fake caches, pretending to bury a nut by digging a hole, patting it down with their front teeth, and scraping dirt or grass over the top of it while concealing the nut in a pocket near their armpit, and will make the real cache somewhere else. Even while watching, it can be difficult to tell when a squirrel is making a fake or a real cache. How smart is that?

A study was conducted at UC Berkley in which students were placed in a competitive game to act like squirrels. They hid caches of plastic eggs, and then 15 minutes later returned to find them. This is a very squirrel-like test: memory, deception, location, observation, paranoia. Most students couldn’t remember their own hiding places. Squirrels bury about 10,000 nuts per year, making many different caches, and may not uncover them for months. They may dig up a cache and bury it somewhere else, and do that up to five times. Squirrels, unlike UC Berkeley students, are engaged in this intellectually draining activity while also avoiding predators and braving the elements.

This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon. I’m Wild About Utah and its amazing squirrels!

Credits:

Picture: Courtesy Pixabay, Alexas Fotos, Photographer, https://pixabay.com/photos/squirrel-rodent-animal-cute-nature-5158715/
Audio: Courtesy UPR
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/

Utah Fox Squirrels, NHMU is studying Fox Squirrels, and we need your help!, Natural History Museum of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/citizen-science/utah-fox-squirrels

Types of Squirrels in Utah! (3 species w/ pictures), Bird Watching HQ, https://birdwatchinghq.com/squirrels-in-utah/



Holy smokes!

Ferguson Fire, Sierra National forest, California, 2018 Courtesy USDA Forest Service: Kari Greer, Photographer
Ferguson Fire, Sierra National forest, California, 2018
Courtesy USDA Forest Service: Kari Greer, Photographer
Holy smokes! Once again, our summer has become a smoke filled world we’re warned against breathing. I often wonder how our feathered friends are weathering the pall.

About a year ago, a mass die-off of song birds was witnessed over parts of the southwest tentatively attributed to the historic wildfires across California, Oregon and Washington, which
may have forced birds to rush their migration. But scientists do not know for sure – in part because nobody knows precisely how wildfire smoke affects birds. With increasing changes to
climate and rising temperatures, we do not have enough time to collect the data – things are changing faster than we can keep up with.

Enter eBird, a popular app for logging bird sightings. This platform, and the citizen birdwatchers who populate them, have become a critical tool for scientists trying to unravel the mysteries at the intersection of birds, wildfires and climate change. Researchers are increasingly relying on data collected by citizen scientists and birdwatchers to better understand the effects of climate change, including intensifying wildfire. The eBird app was created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology alongside the National Audubon society, to crowdsource data on the locations and numbers of bird populations globally.

A leading theory behind the south-west die-off is that widespread smoke pollution may have forced birds to start migration sooner than expected. Most of the birds seen dying were migratory. Migration had just started and they were trying to flee the smoke-filled areas and may have starved to death without an opportunity to add extra nutrients for their epic flights. Beyond the effects of smoke on migration patterns, the rise of megafires is also drawing unprecedented attention to the effects smoke may have on a bird’s delicate breathing. Birds and their lungs are certainly affected by smoke. Most of us have heard the phrase “canary in a coalmine”, which comes from the fact that birds are particularly sensitive to toxins in the air. The sensitivity could have something to do with birds’ unique respiratory system. While humans and other mammals use their diaphragm to inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, birds possess a far more
efficient system, essentially inhaling and exhaling at the same time. This allows them to get enough oxygen to fuel near-constant activity and to breathe at much higher altitudes than
mammals.

To do this, birds have tube-like structures called parabronchi, similar to human alveoli in the lungs, which are covered with sacs and capillaries for gas exchange. And as in humans, smoke damage can burst those bubbles, creating less surface area for gas exchange making it more difficult to breathe.

We can all help by joining eBird and reducing our heat trapping emissions. Go to our Bridgerland Audubon website for more information.

Jack Greene for BAS and I’m wild about Utah, but not its smoke!

Credits:

Nest Picture: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
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/

eBird, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://ebird.org/home

Hellstern, Ron, Wildfires, Wild About Utah, Oct 8, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wildfires/

Boling, Josh, Fire, Wild About Utah, Aug 13, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/fire/

Strand, Holly, Investigating the Causes of Wildfires, Wild About Utah, Aug 15, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/investigating-the-causes-of-wildfires/

Mack, Eric, California Wildfire Smoke Could Explain Thousands Of Dead Birds In The Southwest, Forbes, https://wildaboututah.org/investigating-the-causes-of-wildfires/

Bobolinks

Bobolink Dolichonyx oryzivorus Courtesy: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Bobolink
Dolichonyx oryzivorus
Courtesy: U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service
Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Many years have passed and yet I still have vivid memories of the skylark- a joyous bird of the English countryside whose aerial song lifts one’s spirit to mingle with this buoyant beauty. Thankfully, we have our own version of the skylark whose name reflects its unforgettable song.

Washington Irving called the bobolink “the happiest bird of our spring and added that his life seems all song and sunshine”. Emily Dickinson called the bobolink “the rowdy of the meadow for its bubbly, jangling song”. It was immortalized by nineteenth-century American poet William Cullen Bryant, in a poem titled Robert of Lincoln.
Singing on the wing, the bobolinks song can be over ten seconds long with more than one hundred phrases, a remarkable feet! Their lungs are much more efficient than ours. It can store oxygen in air sacs, and as air is exhaled to produce song, the air sacs deliver fresh oxygen to the lungs.

Bobolinks migration is no less remarkable. They return from the tropics each spring, having completed one of the longest migrations of any songbird in the Americas: roughly six thousand miles. Bobolinks fly from northern Argentina to the northern US and Canada. They cross all sorts of hazardous terrain and hundreds of miles of open water. Like many birds, they rely on cues from the stars and sun and from landmarks on the earth to guide them. Additionally, they can sense the earth’s mineral magnetite, thanks to iron oxide in bristles of its nasal cavity and in tissues around the olfactory bulb and nerve.

Alarmingly, like its European cousin, bobolinks have declined in numbers on its North American breeding grounds by over 60% since 1970. It is a Species of Greatest Conservation Concern in most U.S. states and Canadian provinces in which it occurs, and is listed as Threatened under the Species at Risk Act in Canada. Populations are predicted to decline by 30% over the next two decades from habitat loss aggravated by a changing climate.

People have shot Bobolinks as agricultural pests, trapped and sold them as pets in Argentina, and collected them as food in Jamaica. But the main reason for the Bobolink’s decline is land-use change, especially the loss of meadows and hay fields. To improve the Bobolink’s prospects, people can maintain its breeding habitat by mowing fields once nestlings have fledged, by preserving and better managing natural prairies through prescribed burns.

The skylark is facing a stark future in Europe as well. Only 10% remains compared to 1960 numbers. Farmers are being paid to create habit for this iconic bird, perhaps something we should consider for the bobolink.

One of the few breeding populations in Cache Valley exists in an area being threatened with a proposed housing development. We are hopeful the planners will allow this struggling bird species to continue on as their planning proceeds.

Jack Greene for BAS, and I’m wild about Utah’s bobolinks!

Credits:

Nest Picture: Courtesy US FWS, Steve Maslowski, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
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/

Bobolink Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bobolink/overview

Bobolink, Bird of the Week: September 18, 2020, American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org/bird/bobolink/?gclid=CjwKCAjwrPCGBhALEiwAUl9X058HMZvoFUELlV1kLrB2bv5wMytW2sDIUqOJgD7OYkHDilr3BfqVRRoCgkoQAvD_BwE

Bobolink, Species, eBird, https://ebird.org/species/boboli/L941919

Strand, Holly, Spring Migration, Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/spring-migration/

Renfrew, R.B., K.A. Peters, J.R. Herkert, K.R. VanBeek, and T. Will. 2019. A full life cycle
conservation plan for Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus). U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service., https://partnersinflight.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/A-Full-Life-Cycle-Conservation-Plan-for-Bobolink.pdf

The Bobolink Project, A research study developed by researchers at the University of Rhode Island, the University of Connecticut, and the University of Vermont. Administered by Mass Audubon, Audubon Vermont, and New Hampshire Audubon, https://www.bobolinkproject.com/

Bobolink Habitat, Advocacy, Our Projects, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/advocacy/bobolink-habitat/