Great Basin Bristlecone Pines Utah’s Mountain Sentinels

Bristlecone Pine
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Bristlecone Pine Grain
Compared to a Dime
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

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

Utah’s cold mountaintops, like its hottest deserts, are rather inhospitable to most plants. Although more precipitation falls at higher elevations, colder temperatures prevent much of the water from being used by plants, since most of it falls as snow in winter. High winds also inhibit growth and can contribute to frost or wind damage to plants. Any plants that grow here must be especially hardy.

The Great Basin bristlecone pine is a grand sentinel of our rocky, high mountain ridges. Its shorter needles are grouped in bundles of five, and grow densely at the end of the branches, creating a ‘bottlebrush’ or ‘foxtail’. However, the growth of the wood is the most interesting aspect of the Great Basin bristlecone pine. For a tree, each ring represents one year of growth. Because of the colder temperatures and shorter growing season, each growth ring of a bristlecone pine is particularly small, usually around 1/32th of an inch. The tight growth rings result in especially dense, resinous wood that is resistant to decay and insects.

At higher elevations, a bristlecone pine’s growth form becomes more twisted and contorted by the wind. Over time, much of the tree may die, and the living portion may simply be a strip of bark up the trunk and just a few branches.

These adaptations allow the Great Basin bristlecone pine to live an exceptionally long life despite such harsh conditions. It is common for a bristlecone pine to live for thousands of years, and the oldest recorded specimen was aged at approximately 5,000 years old. That means it germinated from seed a few hundred years before the first Egyptian pyramid was even built! Bristlecone pines can even remain standing for thousands of years after they die. Growth ring patterns can be compared between living and dead bristlecone pines to reveal a chronology of our climate for the past seven, eight, maybe ten thousand years!

To see bristlecone pines in Utah, hike the Bristlecone Pine Trail in Bryce Canyon National Park or the Ramparts Trail at Cedar Breaks National Monument. Be sure to take only photos, and not wood or cones. Bristlecone pines will be around a lot longer than we will, and they could use all the help they can get.

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

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.


Additional Reading:

Lanner, R.M. 2007. The Bristlecone Book: A Natural History of the World’s Oldest Trees. Mountain Press Publishing Company.

Cohen, M. P. 1998. A Garden Of Bristlecones: Tales Of Change In The Great Basin. University of Nevada Press.

Utah’s Glacial History

Moraine with erratics
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

Little Cottonwood Canyon
Photo Courtesy & Copyright
Mark Larese-Casanova, Photographer

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

It is amazing to see just how much of an impact the large amount of snowfall from last winter still has on the annual cycle of nature. Of recent note, wildflower blooms in the mountains seem to be at least 2-3 weeks behind normal schedule. Hiking through snow in late July had me thinking about colder times when Utah’s mountains were covered with ice that flowed as glaciers.

The most recent period of glaciation in Utah occurred between 30,000 and 15,000 years ago when Utah’s climate was, on average, up to 30?F cooler. At times during this period, much of the western half of Utah was covered by Lake Bonneville, which contributed tremendous amounts of moisture as snow throughout Utah’s mountain ranges. As the snow accumulated at high elevations, its sheer weight caused it to recrystallize into ice. Once the masses of ice became heavy enough, gravity pulled them down slope, carving out characteristic U-shaped valleys.

At the top of the valleys, where the glaciers formed, we can often find large, bowl-shaped cirques. In the Wasatch Range, the Little Cottonwood Canyon glacier formed at the top, creating Albion Basin, and reached the mouth of the canyon where calved icebergs into Lake Bonneville. The Uinta Mountains contained such large glaciers that even many of the mountain peaks are rounded.

As temperatures warmed during the end of the last ice age, glaciers receded and left behind large piles of soil and rocks, known as moraines. Terminal moraines at the end of a glacier’s path, can act as natural dams to create lakes. Enormous boulders, known as glacial erratics, can often be found discarded along canyons.

While glaciers don’t currently exist in Utah, there are several permanent snowfields in shaded high mountain areas. So, if you’re feeling a little nostalgic and missing that extra long winter we had this year, you still a chance to hike up above 9,000 feet and cool your toes in the snow.

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

 

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright Mark Larese-Casanova
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.

Additional Reading:

Utah Geological Survey https://geology.utah.gov/surveynotes/gladasked/gladglaciers.htm

Parry, William T. 2005. A Hiking Guide to the Geology of the Wasatch and Uinta Mountains. University of Utah Press.

Stokes, William Lee. 1986. Geology of Utah. Utah Museum of Natural History.

 

Blackbears

Black Bear Sitting
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Mike Bender, Photographer

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

I have to admit that it didn’t make much sense to me that yesterday was the start of summer. While sitting in the warm sun, feeling like winter forgot to give spring a turn in the seasonal cycle, I though of the American black bear, another mammal that also probably wondered when the warm weather would finally arrive.

Black bears are native to most of North America, even into northern Mexico. In Utah, black bears are common throughout many of the state’s forests. Contrary to its name, black bears tend to be medium to dark brown in the western US, although its color can range all the way from blonde or cinnamon to black.

As black bears emerge from their winter slumber, they are particularly hungry from several months of living mostly off of fat reserves. This is an even greater challenge for females because cubs are born in January or February and survive on the mother’s milk until spring. So, when spring arrives, they are more than happy to feed on a wide variety of foods, including fruits, nuts, grubs and other insects, small vertebrates, and carrion. Bears are most actively feeding around dawn or dusk, but may feed at other times of day if they become habituated to human food sources.

Young Male Blackbear Climbing Tree
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Steve Maslowski, Photographer

Black bears have been known to attack humans, although usually very infrequently. Attacks most often happen when a black bear is defending cubs or food, or as a result of becoming accustomed to obtaining food from people.

Will the black bears be as hungry for summer as we are? It might be best to not take any chances while out exploring the mountains this summer. When not eating, be sure to carry all food, garbage, and scented items, such as toothpaste and chapstick, in an airtight plastic bag or securely store them in a vehicle or bear-proof container. I’d even recommend carrying bear spray just to be safe. And, don’t forget to hold on tight to those pic-a-nic baskets!

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

Credits:

Images: Courtesy US FWS: https://Images.fws.gov
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Burt, W. H. and R. P. Grossenheider. 1980. A field guide to the mammals. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 289 pp.

Safety in Bear Country https://wildlife.utah.gov/dwr/learn-more/bear-safety.html

Utah Division of Wildlife Resources Utah Conservation Data Center https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=ursuamer

 

Blackbirds in Our Wetlands

Blackbirds in Our Wetlands
Male Red-winged Blackbird
Photo Courtesy US FWS
George Gentry, Photographer

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

Now that spring finally seems to be arriving here in Utah, marshes, ponds, and other wetlands have sprung to life. It’s impossible to walk by a wetland without seeing countless birds rushing about collecting nest material, feeding, or advertising and defending territories.

Two birds most commonly seen and heard in Utah’s wetlands are the red-winged blackbird [Red-winged Blackbird call, © Kevin Colver]and yellow-headed blackbird[Yellow-headed Blackbird call, © Kevin Colver]. As their names suggest, both are black birds a little smaller in size than a robin. The red winged blackbird has a red shoulder with a yellow bar below, and the yellow-headed blackbird has a bright yellow head.

Both the red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds eat the same foods, which primarily include insects during the summer, and seeds at other times of the year. They also both prefer to nest in stands of cattails, bulrush, or other wetland plants emerging from standing water. So, how is it that two very similar species of birds can coexist with the same habitat preferences?

Male Yellow-headed Blackbird
Photo Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer

Well, competition and exclusion might be better descriptions than coexistence. While the red-winged blackbird can successfully nest in a variety of habitats near wetlands, the yellow-headed blackbird specializes in nesting in the emergent wetland plants. This could be a disadvantage for the yellow-headed blackbird if it wasn’t for the fact that it typically nests in groups, or colonies, and are better able to defend a territory from intrusion by the more solitary nesting red-winged blackbird. So, in wetlands where only red-winged blackbirds occur, they are able to nest in the preferred habitat. But, when yellow-headed blackbirds are present, they force the red-wings to nest in less suitable habitat, even in tall trees far away.

While red-winged blackbirds can often be seen year-round in Utah, the yellow-headed blackbird is usually only here for the summer breeding season. So, think of it as if we were red-winged blackbirds and our distant, out-of-state cousins came to visit for the summer. They get the most comfortable beds in the house, and they eat all of our favorite foods. But, come the end of summer, they head back south, and we can enjoy our homes to ourselves.

To see photos of the two blackbirds mentioned in this program, please visit wildaboututah.org.

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

Credits:

Audio: Blackbird calls courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Images: Courtesy US FWS: https://Images.fws.gov
Text:     Mark Larese-Casanova, Utah Master Naturalist Program at Utah State University Extension.
Additional Reading:

Miller, R. S. 1968. Conditions of Competition Between Redwings and Yellowheaded Blackbirds. Journal of Animal Ecology, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Feb., 1968), pp. 43-62.

Minock, M. E., and Watson, J. R. Red-Winged and Yellow-Headed Blackbird Nesting Habitat in a Wisconsin Marsh. Journal of Field Ornithology, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Summer, 1983), pp. 324-326.