Cheatgrass

Click to view an article about cheatgrass, Photo Photo Courtesy NPS, Photographer Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org
Cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS, Photographer:
Tom Heutte, USDA Forest Service,
Bugwood.org

Click to view an article about cheatgrass, Photo Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert, PhotographerA grassland inundated by cheatgrass
Photo Courtesy NPS
Neal Herbert, Photographer

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

It’s difficult to visit a landscape in the West without encountering cheatgrass. While cheatgrass’ small stature might make it hard to notice, it’s impossible to forget its sharp, spiny seeds. One hike through a cheatgrass meadow can render a good pair of socks unsalvageable.

Although cheatgrass, a nonnative grass scientifically known as Bromus tectorum, is an annual grass- germinating, growing, producing seeds, and dying each year- it is particularly effective at colonizing disturbed areas because it grows and produces seeds much earlier in the spring than many perennial native grasses. Cheatgrass monopolizes water and nutrients by germinating and establishing itself during the previous fall and winter, when many native plants have become dormant. Over time, cheatgrass has become the dominant ground cover in many of Utah’s sagebrush ecosystems.

The dense, dry, fine stalks of cheatgrass, which sets seeds and dries out by June, are particularly flammable fuel for wildfires. Fire roars through the carpet-like cover of cheatgrass, and wildfires are now at least twice as frequent as they were in the 1800’s. This has caused a loss of sagebrush habitat that is particularly important to a wide diversity of wildlife. More frequent fires create an even greater challenge for rare species such as the black-footed ferret and desert tortoise to survive. Native grasses are slower to recover from fire, and cheatgrass is particularly effective at recolonizing burned areas. Utah State University researchers Dr. Peter Adler and Aldo Compagnoni have found that reduced snowpack and warmer temperatures promote the growth of cheatgrass, which could potentially increase its distribution and fire risk into previously colder areas of Utah.

Researchers and managers are continually working to find ways to control cheatgrass in Utah. Effective control usually involves a combination of mechanical pulling or tilling, grazing, burning, spraying with a chemical herbicide, and replanting with native grasses. USU researchers Dr Eugene Schupp and his former graduate student Jan Summerhays found that applying a pre-emergent herbicide to prevent the germination of cheatgrass seeds, as well as temporarily limiting Nitrogen in the soil, gave native grasses and perennials a better chance of establishing. When faced with such a large management problem in Utah and throughout the West, we can use all of the helpful tools we can get.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy NPS, Neal Herbert Photographers
and NPS, USDA Forest Service, Bugwood.org, Tom Heutte Photographer
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Beck, George. Cheatgrass and Wildfire. Fact Sheet No. 6.310. Colorado State University Extension. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/natres/06310.html

Cheatgrass. Range Plants of Utah. http://extension.usu.edu/range/Grasses/cheatgrass.htm

Fairchild, John. Cheatgrass: threatening homes, stealing rangelands. Utah Division of Wildlife Resources. http://wildlife.utah.gov/watersheds/links/cheatgrass.php

Opsahl, Kevin. USU study: Climate shift could trigger cheatgrass. Herald Journal . October 21, 2012. http://news.hjnews.com/allaccess/article_f1436aee-1a3c-11e2-935a-0019bb2963f4.html

Wildlife dispersal in late summer (Or, It’s time to leave the nest!)

Wildlife dispersal in late summer: Click to view larger image of Adult great-horned owl perched at dusk, hunting for its young, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Adult great-horned owl
perched at dusk,
hunting for its young
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Late summer is the time of change when the rich nature born of spring matures and enters the next stage of its life. Streams and wetlands may dry up in the heat. Wildflowers wither and produce seeds to ensure a plant’s survival into the future. And, young wildlife leave their place of birth to strike out on their own.

Prior to fledging, young red-tailed hawks build flight muscles by hopping and flapping their wings in the nest. Once they are strong enough, the young red-tailed hawks make excursions from the nest, often soaring together, calling to each other while they fly. This time of year, red-tailed hawk fledglings can still be seen perched atop telephone poles, even in the middle of town, calling to their parents and begging for food. As a bird that usually spends the entire year in Utah, the red-tailed hawk must prepare for its solitary, cold winter ahead.

The calls of great horned owls often echo through the late summer nights. The adult owl soars through an open field while the fledgling owlet is perched nearby, calling for food. The parent responds, and faithfully catches a mouse to feeds its young. Aside from their echoing calls, this all happens quietly and almost invisibly. A lucky observer might spy an owlet and its parent at dusk, but the great horned owl’s soft feathers ensure that their flight is silent, even when just overhead.

Some young reptiles disperse in summer, too, just like birds. Tiny garter snakes, no larger in length or width than a pencil, can often be found slithering across meadows or even lawns. Rather than laying eggs in a nest, the female garter snake retains the eggs in her body until they are ready to hatch. While young garter snakes receive no parental care after birth, the mother hedges her bets by producing upwards of twenty young in the second half of each summer. At least two need to survive over the mother’s life to maintain a stable population.

Fledging and dispersal in late summer is a time of great risk, though. It’s very common in Utah to see road kill of young marmots, skunks, raccoons, and mink, among others. Many inexperienced young animals are also taken by predators. In nature, survival to adulthood is relatively uncommon, so the great investment of the parents is essential for a species to survive.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Danilson, C.D. Post-Fledging Ecology of Great Horned Owls in South Central Saskatchewan. Master’s Thesis. http://scholarworks.boisestate.edu/td/505/

Great Horned Owls. All About Birds. Cornell Lab of Ornithology. http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/owlp/ghowl

Red-tailed hawk. Hawkwatch International. http://www.hawkwatch.org/blog/item/130-red-tailed-hawk-buteo-jamaicensis

Red-tailed hawk. Utah Conservation Data Center. http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/search/Display.asp?FlNm=butejama

Terrestrial gartersnake. Utah Conservation Data Center. http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=thameleg

Thamnophis elegans: Western Terrestrial Garter Snake. Animal Diversity Web. http://animaldiversity.ummz.umich.edu/accounts/Thamnophis_elegans/

Cryptobiotic Soil Crusts

Click to view larger image of Cryptobiotic Soil Crust, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Looking out over a Utah desert, we might see relatively few plants- perhaps some sagebrush, maybe a few junipers or Joshua trees, or even some small wildflowers or cacti. What is less noticeable, though, is the living soil crust that holds this entire landscape together. It’s not just sand, but rather an important and vast partnership between bacteria, lichens, algae, and fungi. These soil crusts are often referred to as ‘cryptobiotic’, which means ‘living in suspended animation’. This is a fitting description, considering that water can be so rare in Utah’s deserts.

Cyanobacteria, which is often called blue-green algae, is the backbone of cryptobiotic soil crust. Vast networks of long, microscopic filaments of cyanobacteria and fungi grow in length when they are wet, and leave behind a casing that literally binds the soil together. So, what might otherwise be loose sand not only is less likely to be washed away by water or blown away by wind, but also is able to hold much more water for plants.

Click to view larger image of Cryptobiotic Soil Crust, Photo Courtesy and Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Cryptobiotic Soil Crust
Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2009
Mark Larese-Casanova

Cyanobacteria is also extremely useful to desert landscapes for its ability to take Nitrogen out of the air and make it available to plant roots in the soil. Desert soils typically have relatively low nutrients, so this is especially important to desert plants.

In many Utah deserts, cryptobiotic soil crusts can cover up to 70% of the ground surface. Old soil crust can often look like small mountain ranges with black or white peaks inhabited by lichens or mosses. The little valleys in between the tiny mountains of crust are perfect spots for the seeds of desert plants to grow. Over time, the above ground crust can grow up to ten centimeters, or four inches, thick!

However, cryptobiotic soil crust grows at an alarmingly slow rate of about one millimeter per year. So, any soil crust that is disturbed can take a very long time to recover. Depending on the amount of moisture a desert receives, it can take anywhere between 20 and 250 years for soil crust to grow back.

Next time you’re out in the desert, kneel down and have a close look at the telltale peaks and valleys of cryptobiotic soil crust. If you bring a magnifying glass, you just might be able to see some of the lichens and mosses. Be sure to stay on trail, though, and whatever you do, don’t bust that crust!

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy and copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

US Department of Interior. 2001. Biological Soil Crusts: Ecology and Management. Bureau of Land Management Technical Reference 1730-2., http://www.blm.gov/nstc/library/pdf/CrustManual.pdf
Rosentreter, R., M. Bowker, and J. Belnap. 2007. A Field Guide to Biological Soil Crusts of Western U.S. Drylands. U.S. Government Printing Office, Denver, Colorado., http://www.soilcrust.org/

Sandhill Cranes, Utah’s Meadow Dancers

Sandhill Crane Pair, Grus canadensis, Courtesy US FWS, Justine Belson, Photographer
Sandhill Crane Pair
Grus canadensis
Courtesy US FWS,
Justine Belson, Photographer
Hi, this is Mark Larese-Casanova from the Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

The grace of sandhill cranes draws our attention when we see them in the marshes, meadows, and fields across northern Utah. As one of the tallest birds in the state, the sandhill crane is hard to miss. They’ll glide low over farm fields, with their large slate-grey bodies and red caps making them difficult to mistake with any other bird.

Northern Utah is near the lower end of the sandhill crane’s breeding range, so we’re fortunate to see them. They’ll arrive to Utah beginning in March, and stay for the summer breeding season.

Sandhill cranes develop pair bonds for life, and their choice in mates is influenced by elaborate courtship dances. Crane dances are like awkward avian ballet, with an assortment of bows, flapping wings, and leaps into the air with wings outstretched. At times, sticks or plants are grasped with their long, dagger-like bills and tossed into the air. At up to four feet tall with a wingspan of five feet, the sandhill crane as it dances is quite a sight to see!

Sandhill cranes are often heard before they’re seen. Their loud, rolling trumpets fill the air, even for a couple miles. Males and females call in unison, as a loud duet that helps reinforce their pair bond.

[Sandhill Crane Call Copyright 2006 Kevin Colver, as found at https://collections.lib.utah.edu/details?id=1117102]

Once a suitable nest location is found on the ground or on shallow water, both the male and female toss plant material over their shoulders to build their large nest. As spring now fades to summer, sandhill cranes can be seen strolling through farm fields with their young colts, encouraging them to feed, and protecting them from predators. While the dance of the sandhill cranes has mostly ended, their elegance hangs in our memory until next year.

Cranes of the Swaner Nature Preserve by Michael Flaherty, Nesting cycle of Sandhills Cranes, Swaner Nature Preserve, Park City, UT

As Aldo Leopold wrote in A Sand County Almanac, “our appreciation of the crane grows with the slow unraveling of earthly history… And so they live and have their being- these cranes- not in the constricted present, but in the wider reaches of… time. A crane marsh holds a paleontological patent of nobility, won in the march of aeons.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Mark Larese-Casanova.

[End with sandhill crane call again http://content.lib.utah.edu/cdm/singleitem/collection/wss/id/100/rec/12]
Credits:

Images: YouTube video Courtesy and Copyright Michael Flaherty, Park City. UT
Audio: Copyright Kevin Colver

Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

References:
Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Sandhill Crane. All About Birds. http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/sandhill_crane/lifehistory

Leopold, A. 1986. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

National Wildlife Federation. Sandhill Crane. http://www.nwf.org/wildlife/wildlife-library/birds/sandhill-crane.aspx

Tekiela, S. 2003. Birds of Utah. Adventure Publications, Inc. Cambridge, Minnesota.

Utah Conservation Data Center. Sandhill Crane. http://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=gruscana

US Geological Survey. Sandhill crane summer distribution map. http://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/bbs/htm96/map617/ra2060.html

Photos:
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Grus_canadensis#mediaviewer/File:Grus_canadensis,_two,_Bosque_del_Apache_NWR.jpg

(or, would this one be better?)
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Grus_canadensis#mediaviewer/File:Sandhill_Crane_in_Love^_%28_Grus_canadensis_pratensis_%29_-_Flickr_-_Andrea_Westmoreland.jpg

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Grus_canadensis_in_flight#mediaviewer/File:Grus_canadensis_-Sacramento_River_National_Wildlife_Refuge,_Dayton,_California,_USA_-flying-8.jpg