White Pelicans and Team Fishing

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in s straight line towards the waters edge, looking a lot like a tank division in in an old WWII movie I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back And then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.

Wow, I thought. These pelicans are working together to to drive the fish into the shallow water’s edge where they can easily scoop the up And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish

I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one lane auto route at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on.

As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill. When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to to scoop up as much as 3 gallons of fish and water.

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans Fishing at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
American White Pelicans Fishing
at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitively designed fishing net.

Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.

Back at the refuge I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That’s a 30 mile trip each way!

Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew – a Pole, a Russian, a Scot and an Englishman- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn’t profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks. The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the pop was estimated to be as high as 20,000.

Jordan Falslev's Pelican Perch at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir, Click to view a larger image. Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Jordan Falslev’s Pelican Perch
at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir,
Click to view a larger image.
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers

Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn’t see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake have exposed a land bridge to Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.

You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. (Their wingspan is 10 ft. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in.) But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Music: Courtesy & Copyright © Anderson/Howe, Wakeman
Text: Mary Heers

Additional Reading

American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=peleeryt

American White Pelican (AWPE), Aquatic Birds, Great Salt Lake Bird Survey 1997-2001, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/waterbirdsurvey/awpe.htm

Larsen, Leia, As Great Salt Lake shrinks, fate of nesting pelicans unknown, Standard Examiner, October 11, 2015, https://www.standard.net/news/environment/as-great-salt-lake-shrinks-fate-of-nesting-pelicans-unknown/article_d2f8ff29-aee5-5a59-b377-62369934fdc9.html

Butler, Jaimi, The Great Salt Lake Is An ‘Oasis’ For Migratory Birds, Science Friday, September 21, 2018, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-great-salt-lake-is-an-oasis-for-migratory-birds/

Hager, Rachel, Great Salt Lake Pelicans Under Threat, Utah Public Radio, May 28, 2018, https://www.upr.org/post/great-salt-lake-pelicans-under-threat

Leefang, Arie, Gunnison Island, Heritage and Arts, Utah Division of State History, September 16, 2019, https://history.utah.gov/exploring-the-history-and-archaeology-of-the-great-salt-lakes-gunnison-island/

Hoven, Heidi, Gunnison Island: Home of up to 20,000 nesting American White Pelicans, Audubon California, National Audubon Society, September 25, 2017, https://ca.audubon.org/news/gunnison-island-home-20000-nesting-american-white-pelicans

Out Fishing

Out Fishing: Hatchery Brood Fish Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Hatchery Brood Fish
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
The minute I heard there was a well stacked community fishing pond just five miles down the road from where I live, I dusted off my old fishing pole, slipped out of the house, and threw my line into the Wellsville Reservoir. I had the place to myself. There was snow on the ground but the water wasn’t frozen. Within the first hour I felt the tug on the line and reeled in a 12 inch trout. I was hooked! I returned just about every evening to catch my limit of 2. I called all my friends who liked to eat fish, and started to consider adding fresh fish delivery to my resume.

About this time I heard that although trucks from the state hatcheries stocked the community ponds, the hatchery in Kamas delivered fish to high mountain lakes in the Unitas via airplane. A few phone calls later, and I was lucky enough to get invited to watch the loading of the fish.

It was 5 in the morning when I followed the Kamas hatchery truck out onto to tarmac at the Heber airport. A specially designed Cessna 158 was waiting for us. There – just behind the pilot’s seat- was a water tank neatly divided into 7 compartments. 7 levers stuck out from the dashboard that would open and close a portal on the belly of the plane.

Hatchery staff loading about 8 lbs of fingerling trout onto a scale before loading into a plane tank via a funnel. Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Hatchery staff loading about 8 lbs of fingerling trout onto a scale before loading into a plane tank via a funnel.
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
The crew got right to work. One pumped water into the plane’s water tank. Another netted about 8 lbs of fingerling trout onto a scale and dumped the lot into a funnel. Suddenly an especially feisty fingerling jumped out of the funnel and landed at my feet. I picked it up, cradling it in the palm of my hand, awed by the sleek beauty of this tiny trout that was exactly the size of my index finger. I wished it well as I tossed it back.

“Flush,” said the man in charge. And another man with a red bucket of water sent the fish through the funnel into the plane. Soon the pilot took off. When he got to his target lake, he would drop down and skim over the tops of the trees on the water’s edge. He would then open the portal in the belly of the plane and the tiny trout would flutter down like leaves into the water below.

If our feisty fingerling can avoid predators (mostly birds and bigger fish) it will grow to about 5 inches by September. When the water temperature drops to 30 degrees the fish become lethargic and stop growing. Next June, if the lake warms up to 50 degrees, the trout will grow 2/3 inch an month. At 60 degrees, the fish will grow an inch a month. But if the water temperature reaches 70, the amount of oxygen in the water will drop. Any higher and the fish will be severely stressed.

Growing up and backpacking with my family, I was always delighted to come across an alpine lake because it meant that I could take off my pack and stop hiking. But once I got hooked on fishing, I found myself agreeing with the poet Edgar Guest:

“A feller gets a chance to dream
Out fishing.
He learns the beauty of the stream
Out fishing….+

Now, as far as getting up to the high mountain lakes in the Unitas, one thing is for certain. The fish are already there.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Photos: Courtesy
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Wild About Utah Postings

Edgar Guest, 1881–1959, Biography, Poets.org, https://poets.org/poet/edgar-guest

Edgar Albert Guest, Out Fishin’, InternetPoem.com, 2018, https://internetpoem.com/edgar-albert-guest/out-fishin-poem/

Betancourt, Sarah, Flying fish: video shows Utah wildlife agency restocking lake by plane, The Guardian, July 13, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jul/13/fish-plane-video-utah-lake

Facer, Austin, Who says fish can’t fly?: Aerial stocking places fish in lakes via airplane drop, ABC4 Utah, July 12, 2021, https://www.abc4.com/news/digital-exclusives/who-says-fish-cant-fly-aerial-stocking-places-fish-in-lakes-via-airplane-drop/

Nibley Firefly Park

Nibley Firefly Park: Luci the Firefly from  The Mystery of Luci’s Missing Lantern by Melissa Marsted and illustrated by Liesl Cannon Courtesy & © Liesl Cannon, Illustrator
Luci the Firefly from
The Mystery of Luci’s Missing Lantern by Melissa Marsted, illust. by Liesl Cannon
Courtesy & © Liesl Cannon, Illustrator
Just imagine waking from a very long sleep into a bright May morning in Cache Valley. This is the story of Luci, a western firefly, told charmingly by Melissa Marsted and illustrated by Liesl Cannon in their new children’s book, The Mystery of Luci’s Missing Lantern. After completing her transition from a larva to an adult firefly, Luci notices she has no light. She flies up Logan Canyon looking for her missing lantern, where the animals she meets encourage her to keep looking. But its a bluebird on top of Mt. Naomi, the highest point in the canyon, who turns Luci around and sends her back to where she was born, the Nibley Firefly Park.

Author Melissa Marsted and Illustrator Liesl Cannon at the Stokes Nature Center Book Signing Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Author Melissa Marsted and Illustrator Liesl Cannon at the Stokes Nature Center Book Signing
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
There Luci finds her light. She sits down near the top of a tall blade of grass, and suddenly males fly by, flashing their lights, trying to get her attention. Luci discovers she can flash back. It’s a party – a big courtship dance.

You can see the story unfold if you visit the Nibley Firefly Park after dark. But please tread carefully. For fireflies, this is their Grand Finale. It has taken two years for them to grow from larvae to flying adults. Now they are choosing a mate. By July they will have laid their eggs in the nearby marshy ground and their life cycle will come to an end.

Any artificial light brought to the scene (such as flashlights and car headlights) seriously disrupts the courtship flashing. If you visit the Nibley Firefly Park this summer, please keep your light to the barest minimum, and – enjoy the party.

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Western Firefly Project: A Community Science Initiative, Natural History Museum of Utah, https://nhmu.utah.edu/citizen-science/fireflies

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Bills, Christy, Utah Fireflies, Wild About Utah,Sept 7, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/utah_fireflies/ AND
Bills, Christy, Fireflies, Wild About Utah, May 15, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/fireflies/

Hellstern, Ron, June Fireflies, Wild About Utah, June 19, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/june-fireflies/

Strand, Holly, Firefly light, Wild About Utah, June 20, 2013, https://wildaboututah.org/firefly-light/

Marstad, Melissa C, Author, & Cannon, Liesl, Illustrator, The Mystery of Luci’s Missing Lantern, Lucky Penny Publications, LLC, Mar 16, 2021, https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Lucis-Missing-Lantern/dp/1945243805

Tundra Swans

Tundra Swans Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Tundra Swans
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
A few months ago, I was driving a car on an interstate road trip when a picture of a coffee cup suddenly appeared on my dashboard with the question, “Need a rest?” I was a little startled to suddenly be getting questions from my car, but I must admit I felt a surge of relief when a large truck stop soon came into view.

I can imagine that the thousands of tundra swans following their traditional migration route must feel the same sense of relief when the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge comes into view: Below them lie 74,000 acres of wetlands where the Bear River flows into the northern arm of the Great Salt Lake. Plenty of room, plenty of fresh water, and plenty of food.. It’s hidden from view, but the swans know its there. Growing in the muddy bottom of the shallow water is a marvelous buffet of the tundra swan’s favorite food: Pondweed.

Tundra Swans in Flight Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Tundra Swans in Flight
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
In early March, when I heard the swans had started to arrive, I headed right over Ice was just beginning to melt and the first arrivals were sitting on the water and standing around on the ice. Of course I cringed to think about standing around on ice in bare feet, but these swans seemed perfectly content. They had already flown over 600 miles and had another 2,000 to go to get to their nesting grounds in the Alaska tundra. This was their time to rest and refuel. People who study the biology of swans tell us that eating pondweed is pretty effortless: the swan dips its flexible 3 ft neck into the water, locates a choice plant with the help of an extra underwater eyelid, and takes a bite. No need to surface; the swan swallows underwater. No need to chew; its gizzard will grind the cellulose into a digestible pulp.

Tundra Swans at Dusk Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Tundra Swans at Dusk
Courtesy & © Mary Heers
Quite unexpectedly, I ran across some other swans the next day who had left the main migratory route and were taking the backroads of Fairview Idaho to forage across the farmer’s fields. I had gone to visit of friend. “Corn,” she said. “They come every year.” Inevitably some corn is left behind by the harvesting machines and these swans were more than happy to clean up the spills. But a 6 o’clock they would lift off and fly to a small stretch of open water by the Fairview cemetery where they could safely spend the night.

I hightailed it to the cemetery, sat down by the water’s edge, and made myself as small as possible. I waited. Soon the sky filled with incoming swans, some in pairs, some in small groups. They flew in over me so low I could hear the thump of their wings beating and the Whirrzz of the wind through their wing feathers. At the last minute they lowered their large black feet and skidded to a splashy stop The water was soon thick with swans, but these excellent aviators, weighing over 20 lbs and with a wingspan of 6-7 feet, skillfully landed in an open space.

Tundra Swan in Flight Cygnus columbianus Courtesy US FWS Donna A Dewhurst, Photographer
Tundra Swan in Flight
Cygnus columbianus
Courtesy US FWS
Donna A Dewhurst, Photographer
Like many people, I first heard about swans when I read The Ugly Duckling. Hans Christian Anderson spent a year writing this story in 1842. Later in life, when people asked him why he never wrote an autobiography, he said he already had – when he wrote The Ugly Duckling. His message was clear: bullying a youngster just because he looks different is cruel. But the suffering of the young swan as he spent his first winter miserably cold and alone did not preclude a happy ending. Remembering this story is especially poignant today as we are emerging from our own winter of social isolation, and stepping into spring with high hopes for happier, healthier days.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Photos: Courtesy US FWS, Donna A Dewhurst and Tim Bowman, Photographers
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text: Mary Heers, https://cca.usu.edu/files/awards/art-and-mary-heers-citation.pdf
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Tundra Swans, All About Birds, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Tundra_Swan/overview

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Tundra Swan Pair Cygnus columbianus Courtesy US FWS Tim Bowman, Photographer
Tundra Swan Pair
Cygnus columbianus
Courtesy US FWS
Tim Bowman, Photographer
Strand, Holly, Til Death Do Us Part, Wild About Utah, February 13, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/tag/monogamy/

Tundra Swan, Utah Bird Profile, UtahBirds.org, http://utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/TundraSwan.htm
Other Photos: http://utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/TundraSwan.htm