Pickleweed Spendor

Click for a closer view of Pickleweed in Cache Valley, Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin
Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

Utah’s mountains and foothills blaze with the brilliant foliar colors of aspens, maples, sumacs and more. But autumn colors can be found in less likely habitats too, even across our flat, desolate salt pans. There the usually drab stage has been given a splash of deep, dusty rose color by its sole botanical performers, the pickleweeds.

Also known as glassworts or samphire, our two species of pickleweed are in the genus Salicornia. They belong to the same plant family as beets, chard and spinach., but you’d never guess that from their appearance. The ankle-high Salicornia’s leaves are reduced to tiny scales that hug the green, branching, cylindrical stems. Pickleweeds are halophytic, or salt loving. Due to their unique physiology, they can thrive in extremely saline environments that kill normal plants. Pickleweed roots filter out some of the salt before it can move into the plant. The remaining excess salt is stored in balloon-like cavities in their cells called vacuoles. When its vacuole is full, a cell ruptures, and newer younger cells continue to accumulate incoming salt.

Click for a closer view of Pickleweed in Cache Valley, Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin
Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

The common name, pickleweed, derives from the taste of the salt stored in the vacuoles of the succulent, crisp stems. You may be surprised to learn that gourmet websites report that pickleweeds are all the rage in Europe as a salad garnish or pickled vegetable.

[Kevin Colver recording: Songbirds of the Southwestern Canyon Country]

In the Great Basin, winter flocks of Horned Larks forage in the snow for Salicornia’s tiny oil-rich seeds as do other birds. The seeds’ proteins and oils are valuable dietary supplement in the sparse salt pan habitat where the picklweed’s unique physiological adaptations allow them to thrive. If your travels this fall take you by a salt pan, take the time to enjoy the rosy glow of the humble pickleweed or view pictures on the Wild About Utah website.

Click for a closer view of Pickleweed in Cache Valley, Courtesy and Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin
Pickleweed in Cache Valley
Courtesy & Copyright 2010 Linda Kervin

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.
Credits:

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Linda Kervin

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

http://plants.usda.gov/java/profile?symbol=SALIC

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salicornia_oil

http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=1&taxon_id=129055

http://people.westminstercollege.edu/faculty/tharrison/gslplaya99/pickleweed.htm

Men’s Hair and the Male House Finch

Male House Finch, Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Photographer Unknown
Male House Finch
Courtesy Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Photographer Unknown

Male House Finch, Courtesy US FWS, Gary Kramer, PhotographerMale House Finch
Courtesy US FWS, Gary Kramer, Photographer

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

A man’s vanity is nowhere more apparent than for the hair atop his head. As men age, their hair may whiten, thin or disappear. As a remedy, some men use dyes or hair growth potions.

But imagine this: What if the right food alone could restore the virile dark hair of youth?

There is a common songbird at your birdfeeder this winter that can do just this. It is the male house finch.

[House Finch Call – #3 Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country]

As with many songbirds, the female house finch is drab compared to the brightly colored male. He sports a showy brow and bib in colors that range from tomato red to orange to straw yellow. Like the tomato and carrot, these colors come from pigments called carotenoids. All birds with red feathers get these carotenoid pigments from their diet, ultimately from the plants that can produce them.

What does the red feather color mean for the house finch?

The ornathologist Geof Hill of Auburn University experimentally altered head feather colors of male house finches. To make red-headed males into carrot tops, Jeff used peroxide. Red hair die achieved the opposite transformation. He then let the guys compete for the attentions of females.

Jeff’s experiments demonstrated that plumage does make the male. The redder the male’s head, the higher his place in the pecking order. And the more females that he could attract. Conversely, redheads lost rank after bleaching. Among male house finches, blondes really don’t have more fun.

So now you can predict the likely winners and losers in the mating game from just a glance at the male house finches at your seed feeder. As is common in science, this discovery leads to new questions: What food makes the male’s head feathers red? Is it some red fruit or berry? Why do some males manage to get more carotenoid pigments than others? Do they instinctively know the right seed or fruit to eat? We humans must get our carotenoids from plant sources too, such as the carotine that we transform into Vitamin A for night vision. The produce aisle at the grocery store might be a much different place though if the right fruit or vegetable could transform our hair color too.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Photo: Utah Division of Wildlife Resources http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Southwest Canyon Country http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

House Finch, Carpodacus mexicanus, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=carpmexi

House Finch, Utah Bird Profile, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/HouseFinch.htm

A Red Bird in a Brown Bag: The Function and Evolution of Colorful Plumage in the House Finch , Dr. Geoffrey, E. Hill, Oxford University Press, September 2002
ISBN-13: 9780195148480, http://search.barnesandnoble.com/BookSearch/isbnInquiry.asp?userid=l88eD6dCpP&isbn=0195148487&itm=2

The Mud-Daubing Wasp

Female Sceliphron caementarium
completing nest cell
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2011 Jim Cane

Pupa of
Sceliphron caementarium
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2011 Jim Cane

The recession has slowed housing starts, but builders of clay dwellings remain busy. Millions of clay homes are built this and every summer in Utah. These dwellings can disintegrate in a summer cloudburst, so you’ll find them beneath overhangs like rock cliffs, or under bridges and the eaves of your house.

These free-standing mud homes are built by a few dozen species of solitary bees and wasps. Among them is the mud dauber, Sceliphron caementarium, a big leggy wasp found throughout Utah. The female wasp constructs hollow clay units one at a time, each the dimensions of a pitted date. The mother mud dauber gathers the wet clay in pellets. At the nest site, she draws the pellet into a ribbon of clay which becomes the next arch of the tubular nest. While working the clay, she audibly buzzes her flight muscles. This vibration visibly liquefies the clay for a few seconds. This strengthens its bond, much as workers in concrete do using large vibrating probes.

The mother wasp then collects spiders, often plucking them straight from their webs after a pitched battle. She permanently paralyzes each spider using her venomous sting. The venom is not lethal. Rather, it is paralytic, keeping the spider alive and fresh but helplessly immobile, a gruesome spider buffet for her grub-like larva to eat. Each hollow nest is packed with a half dozen spiders, one of which receives her egg. In a few weeks time, the growing wasp larva finishes eating its buffet and pupates, becoming dormant for the winter.

Nest building and provisioning by these wasps is a complex result of heritable instincts tailored to local circumstances by learning. It is also a rare trait among insects, most of whom simply lay their eggs and leave. Through observation and manipulative experiments, students of animal behavior have investigated mud-building wasps for well over a century. If you have mud daubers around your home, grab a cool drink, pull up a chair, and enjoy watching their home-making labors.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Text: Jim Cane, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

“The Wasps”, Evans, Howard E. and Eberhard, Mary Jane West, 1970. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press. 265 p. illus. http://www.amazon.com/Wasps-Howard-Evans/dp/0715360604

“Bees, wasps, and ants : the indispensable role of Hymenoptera in gardens”, Grissell, Eric. 2010, 335 p. http://www.amazon.com/Bees-Wasps-Ants-Indispensable-Hymenoptera/dp/0881929883

Utah’s Conifer Trees

Juniper Leaves & Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Two-needle Pinion Pine
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Norway Spruce Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

True Fir Needles
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Douglas Fir Cones
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Now that the leaves have fallen from the deciduous trees, we can fully appreciate Utah’s evergreen trees. Conifers are trees that bear their seeds in cones instead of producing flowers and fruits. Utah has five kinds of conifers; all with stiff, needle-like leaves that remain green throughout the winter. Traits of their needles and cones allow you to distinguish between our different types of conifers. Cones can be found still attached or scattered on the ground.

I will start with the junipers. These conifers have scaly, slightly fleshly leaves. Juniper seeds are embedded in a cone that resembles a green berry. The cones are round and densely fleshy. Junipers are widely adaptable here, from arid foothills to rocky alpine slopes.

Our pines collectively span this same elevation range. They are the only conifers that have cylindrical needles bundled in clusters of 2 to 5. The one exception to this is Single Leaf Pinon, which as you might guess has single, round needles. The count of pine needles is often diagnostic of their species. Pinons mix with junipers at low elevations; their oily, wingless seeds are the edible pinon nut. Bristlecone pines, found in southern Utah, can live for over 1000 years.

Spruces are conifers that many recognize from their own yards. The spruce needle leaves a peg on the stem when it drops, which gives their twigs a rough, nubbly surface. Spruces grow in a classic pyramidal shape.

Another montane group is the true firs. Their flat needle attaches smoothly to the twig. True firs have uniquely upright cones that gradually disintegrate without dropping to the ground. Crushed fir needles are wonderfully fragrant, redolent of tangerines or grapefruit. Perhaps that is why true firs are a favorite Christmas tree.

Douglas fir, despite its common name, is in a different genus than the true firs. Its cones are distinctive; having long, three-pointed, papery bracts that project out from amid the cone’s scales. Douglas fir is one of the west’s most valuable timber tress. Like the spruces and firs, it is a montane species.

Conifer trees are a great resource for Utah wildlife, providing food and shelter, especially in the icy cold of winter.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.

Credits:
Pictures: Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin
Text: Linda Kervin and Jim Cane

Additional Reading:

Sibley, David Allen. 2009. The Sibley Guide to Trees. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Johnson, Carl M. 1991. Common Native Trees of Utah. Utah State University Extension Service. Logan, UT. 109 p

Kuhns, Michael R., Utah Forest Facts, Conifers for Utah, http://extension.usu.edu/forestry/Reading/Assets/PDFDocs/NR_FF/NRFF015.pdf, USU Extension