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.

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

Mirabilite Mounds and The Great Salt Lake

Mirabilite Mounds in the Great Salt Lake Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Mirabilite Mounds
in the Great Salt Lake
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Back in October 2019, the ranger at the Great Salt Lake State Park began to notice a white mound forming on the sand flats behind the visitor center. The white mounds turned out to be hydrated sodium sulfate – known as mirabilite- which was being carried to the surface by the upwelling of a fresh water spring. Since the 1940’s geologists have known that in this area, 30 inches below the surface, there was a 3 – 6 foot thick shelf of mirabilite. They knew about the fresh water springs What was new was cold air. Since this stretch of sand was no longer underwater, the mirabilite carried to the surface stayed there as crystals, piling up on each other, puddling and spreading out. One mound rose to the height of 3 feet.

Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
Mirabilite Springs in the shadow of the Kennecott Smelter stack
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Phorographer
When the mounds started to form again this winter, I jumped at the chance to to go and take a look. I must admit at first I was a little underwhelmed at the size, perhaps because the Kennecott Smelter Stack nearby dominates the view, rising to 1,215 feet – roughly the same height as the Empire State Building. But the park ranger got my attention when she told us that mirabilite mounds have only been seen in four places in the entire world – the Canadian Arctic, Antarctica, Central Spain, – and Utah. Just seeing them turns out to be a rare winter treat. When the air warms to 50 degrees, the mirabilite will crumble into a fine white powder and disappear.

Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty (1970) Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970)
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
My mind flashed back to a trip I’d made to the other end of the lake ten years ago. I’d just graduated from the docent training class at the Utah Museum of Fine Art, and a friend and I wanted to celebrate by having High Tea at the center of the Spiral Jetty, a 1,500 foot, long, 15 foot wide coil of black basalt rock – a stunning example of land art jutting out from the northern shore. We’d been warned that it might be underwater, but when we arrived we were delighted to find we could easily walk to the very center of the spiral as the lake water gently lapped at the edges of our shoes. We clinked our tea cups, and toasted the greatness of the lake.

Suddenly I wanted to see the jetty again, so I hopped in my car and drove to the remote site. I saw the Spiral Jetty was now high and dry. Drifting sand had already started to bury parts of it. The water’s edge was now over 300 yards away. I thought of the millions of migratory birds that would be arriving in the spring to rest and feast on the tiny treasures of the lake, the brine shrimp. I hoped a smaller lake would still be enough for all of them.

The recent words of the director of Friends of the Great Salt Lake, Lynn de Freitas, rang in my head: “The Great Salt Lake is a gift that keeps on giving. Just add water.”

This is Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy & Copyright Mary Heers, Photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text & Voice: Mary Heers, Generous Contributor, Utah Public Radio
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading

Mirabilite Spring Mounds Near Great Salt Lake Marina, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, https://geology.utah.gov/popular/general-geology/great-salt-lake/mirabilite-spring-mounds/

Mirabilite, Mindat.org, Hudson Institute of Mineralogy, https://www.mindat.org/min-2725.html

Tabin, Sara, Rare salt formations return to Great Salt Lake’s shores; take a tour while they last, The Salt Lake Tribune, Jan. 13, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/news/2021/01/14/rare-salt-formations/

USGS 412613112400801 The Great Salt Lake at Spiral Jetty, Site Map for the Nation, U.S. Geological Survey(USGS), U.S. Department of the Interior, https://waterdata.usgs.gov/nwis/nwismap/?site_no=412613112400801&agency_cd=USGS

Case, William, GEOSIGHTS: PINK WATER, WHITE SALT CRYSTALS, BLACK BOULDERS, AND THE RETURN OF SPIRAL JETTY!, Survey Notes, v. 35 no. 1, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, January 2003, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/spiral-jetty/

Board & Staff, Friends of the Great Salt Lake, https://www.fogsl.org/about/board-staff

Salt Lake Brine Shrimp, https://saltlakebrineshrimp.com/harvest/

Beaver Tail Slap

Beaver Tail Slap: Beaver swimming Courtesy NPS,  J Schmidt, Photographer
Beaver swimming
Courtesy NPS,
J Schmidt, Photographer
When I first saw a beaver in Cache Valley I thought I’d seen an alligator. I was sitting in the front of a canoe when a large head shot past the bow followed by a black tail that flew into the air and came down on the water with a resounding slap

“What was that?” I asked
“I don’t know,” my friend answered
“I think it was an alligator,” I said
By then then creature had disappeared and we paddled on.

I found out later that tail slapping is a common beaver behavior. Its a warning shot before the beaver dives for cover.

Intrigued, I set out to learn more. It came as a surprise to me to find out that when a beaver builds a dam, it is actually building a home. Inside a sturdy wall of sticks, rocks and mud, the beavers build a living space above the water line. It’s dry – and its safe because it can only be entered by swimming through underwater tunnels. Not a problem for a beaver who can swim underwater for as long as 15 minutes.

When the surface of the pond freezes over, the females will give birth. Its an extended family life – an adult pair, the yearlings, and the new kits. When winter is long, and with so many mouths to feed, the beavers have perfected their food storage. Hauling their favorite food, aspen , back to the lodge, they jam it into the muddy bottom of the pond. There is stays, fresh and crisp like any refrigerated food, until its needed.

When fur trappers arrived in Northern Utah in the 1800’s, European hat makers had discovered that felted beaver wool made the very best hats. Bear Lake became a hot spot. The historical marker just north of Garden City tells us,

“Donald MacKenzie, Jim Bridger, and a host of famous beaver hunters operated here. Two major summer frolics and trade fairs brought plenty of excitement to Bear Lake in 1827 and 1828.”

Trappers were harvesting up to 500 lbs a year. But by 1840, the beavers had become almost extinct. European fashion in hats moved on to silk – a good thing for the hat makers as well because the mercury used in the felting of beaver wool caused all kinds of neurological disorders. Its no joke the Hatter in Alice in Wonderland is mad.

Back in northern Utah, the beaver population slowly rebuilt, but the human population also grew and conflicts arose. Recently a farmer in Benson became irate when beavers began to redirect the flow of water through his irrigation canals

Beaver Health Exam Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Becky Yeager, Photographer
Beaver Health Exam
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Becky Yeager, Photographer
It’s the job of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to live trap and relocate these beavers. I was lucky to be allowed into the loop at this point.

When I picked up one of the smaller beavers, I could feel its heart going a mile a minute under my fingers. But it settled down as I sat in a chair holding it against my chest while it got a quick physical checkup.

Holding the beaver close, I had a good look at the nibble fingers on its front feet, the webbing on its back feet that can paddle along at 6mph, and the marvelous flat tail, a good rudder for swimming, a prop for standing on land, and perfect for slapping the water’s surface.

Take my word for it, once you’ve seen this slap up close, you won’t forget it.

I’m Mary Heers and I’m Wild About Utah.

Photos: Courtesy US NPS, Yellowstone Collection, J. Schmidt, Photographer
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Audio: Courtesy Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text & Voice: Mary Heers
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster

Additional Reading

Leavitt, Shauna, Beaver in Utah’s Desert Rivers, Wild About Utah, July 6, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/beaver-in-utahs-desert-rivers/

Leavitt, Shauna, Proposed Beaver Holding Facility in Millville, Utah, Wild About Utah, September 3, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/proposed-beaver-holding-facility-in-millville-utah/

Goodwin, Jim, Riparian Zones and a Critter Quiz, Wild About Utah, January 22, 2015, June 15, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/riparian-zones-and-a-critter-quiz/

Strand, Holly, Beavers: The Original Army Corps of Engineers, Wild About Utah, April 29, 20-10, August 16, 2012, https://wildaboututah.org/beavers-the-original-army-corps-of-engineers/

Kervin, Linda, Huddling for Warmth, Wild About Utah, February 3, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/huddling-for-warmth/

Beaver Monitoring App, Utah Water Watch, Extension, Utah State University, https://extension.usu.edu/utahwaterwatch/citizenscience/beavermonitoringapp/

Pollock, M.M., G.M. Lewallen, K. Woodruff, C.E. Jordan and J.M. Castro (Editors) 2018. The Beaver Restoration Guidebook: Working with Beaver to Restore Streams, Wetlands, and Floodplains. Version 2.01. United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Portland, Oregon. 189 pp. Online at: http://www.fws.gov/oregonfwo/ToolsForLandowners/RiverScience/Beaver.asp
also https://restoration.usu.edu/pdf/2018BRGv.2.01.pdf

Macfarlane W.W., Wheaton J.M., and M.L. Jensen. 2014. The Utah Beaver Restoration Assessment Tool: A Decision Support and Planning Tool. Ecogeomorphology and Topographic Analysis Lab, Utah State University, Prepared for Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, Logan, Utah, 135 pp. Available at: http://etalweb.joewheaton.org.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Downloads/BRAT/UTAH_BRAT_FinalReport.pdf

Wheaton JM. 2013. Scoping Study and Recommendations for an Adaptive Beaver Management Plan. Prepared for Park City
Municipal Corporation. Logan, Utah, 30 pp. http://etalweb.joewheaton.org.s3-us-west-2.amazonaws.com/Reports/Beaver_Management_Plan_Recc_Park_City_%20Report_FINAL.pdf

Beaver Reintroduction Looks Positive for Stream Restoration
in Northern Utah, Utah Forest News, USU Forestry Extension, Utah State University, Volume 18, Number 3, 2014, https://forestry.usu.edu/files/utah-forest-newsletter/utah-forest-newsletter-2014-3.pdf

Muffoletto, Mary-Ann, Dam Good! Beavers May Restore Imperiled Streams, Fish Populations, Today, Utah State University, July 07, 2016, https://www.usu.edu/today/story/dam-good-beavers-may-restore-imperiled-streams-fish-populations

Restoring Degraded Waters, One Pest at a Time, Utah State Magazine, Utah State University, December 7, 2021, https://utahstatemagazine.usu.edu/environment/restoring-degraded-waters-one-nuisance-at-a-time/

American White Pelicans

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.

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
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. 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.

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