A Solstice Vignette

Winter Trail Courtesy Pixabay
Winter Trail
Courtesy Pixabay
In the frigid dark of long winter nights, we tell stories—stories of thievery, heroism, and light. Raven, Maui, and Koo-loó-pe, the hummingbird. They are all said to have taken back the sun from too much darkness for their people, and their deeds remain the whispered subjects around campfires that lead up to the winter solstice. I’d like to tell a story of my own about our calendar’s longest, darkest night and our relationship with it.

The first archaeological evidence we have that point to organized observances of the winter solstice come from the Neolithic period—that era from about 12,000 to 6,500 years ago which hastened the Stone Age into those of Copper and Bronze. The Neolithic coincided with the invention of farming in the Near East; and on the heels of farming came the necessity of a calendar, upon which the new agrarian economy was utterly dependent—for delineating seasons, planting and harvesting crops, and monitoring food stores over winter. We looked to the sky, of course, as we always had, for such insights into the survival of our species. We found familiar patterns there—the ebb and flow of darkness and light that came with the ever changing arc of the sun. From north to south the sun wanders, from light to dark and warm to cold. We built shrines to its movement. You know their names: Stonehenge and Newgrange; the Goseck circle and Chaco Canyon’s sun dagger. Each culture would create its own method of tracking, observing, and then of celebrating. We built tools, and then shrines, and then we built mythology.

The Neolithic agrarian economy lived by the sun. As darkness fell on wintery fields, our Stone Age ancestors shared stories about that moment when the light would return, hoping that their characters could hasten the sun. Reverence is a powerful thing. It informs the stories we tell about ourselves–stories of existence balanced on moments. We revere the return of the light when the night is at its darkest and longest. That’s when we send Raven, Maui, or an exuberant Miwok hummingbird to bring the sun back from too much darkness. That’s the mythology, at least.

A Solstice Vignette: The Seasons Courtesy US NWS
The Seasons
Courtesy US NWS
Astronomically speaking, the winter solstice is ephemeral. In the northern hemisphere, it occurs at the exact moment when the northern portion of the Earth’s axis is tilted directly away from the sun at its farthest point. This year, in the Mountain West, that moment is Saturday, December 21st, at 9:19pm. But astronomy’s geometries and physics are only part of the tale. Our stories are told with an affinity for more than just practical science.

Solstice means “to be still,” to wait for the return of the light. We attach great meaning to it. The cluster of holidays we have in winter worldwide are evidence enough of that. Every culture recognizes, in its own way, the vast significance of this fleeting moment; and those observances connect us through time to the ancestors that first looked up—marking time, checking dates, counting bushels until the next harvest. The solstice is a moment we barely notice, but one that bears immense anticipation. We move right through it at the speed of time—then tell our stories to lend meaning to that time spent moving, from the light through to darkness and back again.

I’m Josh Boling, and I’m Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US NWS
Photos: Courtesy Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/snow-weather-trail-winter-autumn-834111/
Sound: Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling & Friend Weller
Text: Josh Boling, 2018

Sources & Additional Reading

Astronomy Picture of the Day, NASA, https://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap071222.html

Solstices & Equinoxes for Ogden (Surrounding 10 Years), TimeandDate.com, https://www.timeanddate.com/calendar/seasons.html?n=4975

Byrd, Deborah, All you need to know: December solstice, EarthSky.org, Dec 15, 2019, https://earthsky.org/astronomy-essentials/everything-you-need-to-know-december-solstice

Migration

Migration: Redhead Ducks Courtesy US FWS Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Redhead Ducks
Courtesy US FWS
Nate Rathbun, Photographer
Migration has begun, or did it ever end? Even in our little Northern Utah valley its happening. We normally think of migration during the great flocks of birds that pass through during swing months of fall and spring, or the deer and elk coming down for the winter, or swarms of salmon swimming to their death when spawning. But that’s only a small part of the story.

Migration: California Tortoiseshell Butterfly, Nymphalis californica, Courtesy US FWS Salinas River NWS
California Tortoiseshell Butterfly
Nymphalis californica
Courtesy US FWS
Salinas River NWS
A high elevation trek in our Bear River range in July where cloudbursts of lovely California tortoiseshell butterflies surrounded me provided testimony as they worked their way to unknown destinations. With the iconic monarch butterfly populations plummeting, it’s comforting to have other species holding their own- most likely due to their lives being spent in high elevation wild lands, well away from farms and lawns where pesticides and habitat loss present major challenges to monarch survival.

The California tortoiseshell, overwinters as an adult and can sometimes be seen sunning itself in midwinter on mild days. It is generally common in lower canyons in early spring, ovipositing on the young, tender growth of Ceanothus shrubs. The spiny, black-marked-with-yellow larvae feed gregariously, without a web, and in big years can defoliate whole stands of these plants. They often pupate on the bare, leafless stems en masse, the grayish-violet pupae looking like some strange kind of leaf and twitching in unison when disturbed. Adults emerge in late May to early June and almost immediately emigrate, going north and upslope. Breeding localities in summer vary widely from year to year.

In late July they migrate to estivating grounds often in the high country. Estivating tortoiseshells do little but “hang out,” and many high-altitude hikers have described their encounters with millions of them in mystical terms. In late September these butterflies scatter downslope to hibernate–they are the late-winter butterflies of the new year, living 9 or 10 months as adults.

They visit flowers of many kinds, aphid and scale honeydew, damaged fruit, sap–and mud: a mud puddle in a mass migration is a memorable sight, often with hundreds or thousands packed side-by-side on the damp surface.
Close to home the yellow warbler is yet singing- one of the last of our neotropical birds to hang it up. These tiny warblers will soon head south to Central and South America.

Even our native people would migrate to follow the plant and animal populations spending time in high mountains during summer months for camas lily, mountain sheep, and berries, then retreating to low elevations as the winter season approached for milder weather and more available food. And here in Logan we have a swarm of “Summer Citizens” who show up in May to occupy the nests vacated by USU students, who will soon migrate south as our student return.

And I retreat to our canyons for skiing once the snow is on.

This is Jack Greene- and I continue to be Wild About Utah!

Credits:

Images: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, Photographers noted for each image
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Hellstern, Ron, Autumn Migrations, Wild About Utah, Oct 16, 2017 https://wildaboututah.org/autumn-migrations/

Snake Migration, On the road in Shawnee National Forest, National Geographic Society, https://www.nationalgeographic.org/news/snake-migration/

Elk, Wild Aware Utah, Utah’s Hogle Zoo & Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, http://www.wildawareutah.org/utah-wildlife-information/elk/

Butterflies of Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, US Fish & Wildlife Service (FWS), Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, https://www.fws.gov/uploadedFiles/Region_1/NWRS/Zone_2/Malheur/Sections/What_We_Do/Science/reports/id_butterflies_guide.pdf

Spring’s Gifts

Glacier Lilies, Courtesy Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
Glacier Lilies,
Courtesy Andrea Liberatore, Photographer
I doubt there was a song left unsung as I worked my way up Birch Canyon early am. Testosterone laden birds filled the morning with delight. Robins, finches, meadow larks, song sparrows- what a marvelous symphony! I breathed deeply to fully absorb air filled with titillating odors from last night’s gentle spring rain- nature’s perfume, free and priceless.

Waters surging down Summit and Birch creeks released from winter’s cold grip. Further along, I take notice of recent bloom- glacier lilies exploding with bluebells soon to follow. Yellow bells in sage with promise of early Indian paintbrush. Arrowleaf balsamroot and penstemon only a few weeks away.

Thanks to earth’s 23 degree tilted axis spring is in full swing! This combined with the annual journey around our medium sized star brings the rebirth once again. How boring it would be had it been a tilt of zero degrees- negating our seasonal change. We complain as temperatures swing wildly from 60 degree days plummeting to 30’s in the course of a few hours. But please don’t despair- it may return to pleasantness almost as quickly.

I would not care to be a meteorologist in San Diego where temperatures rarely deviates more than a few degrees, winds are calm, and precipitation comes primarily during winter in dribbles. I relish the beauty and drama of a cumulonimbus cloud burst pummeling me with a deluge of rain pushed by strong wind spawned by a warm, moist air mass colliding with another cool and dry. Grand symbols crashing as lightening energizes countless trillion molecules of nitrogen and oxygen. How could something minute as a gas particle make such a ruckus! Miracles abound.

A spring trek across Zion N.P. last week to welcome spring on the south end. Townsend solitaires, scrub and Steller jays, mountain chickadees, and courtship drumming of woodpecker species were there to welcome me. White throated swifts launched from towering cliffs with occasional canyon wrens emitting cascading, descending notes from their vertical realm.

All three species of nuthatches were present- white and red breasted with small flocks of gregarious pygmies in ponderosa pine forest, busily searching bark crevasses for delectable grubs and insect eggs.

Indian potato and spring beauty were found among the sage near 8000 feet beneath lava point. These delectables were enjoyed by Native Americans. I sampled a few flowers leaving the mini-potato like roots undisturbed. I enjoyed waterleaf stems growing in hardwood forested areas.

After 36 miles of sublime scenery beyond comprehension, I descended into throngs of park visitors from many distant lands evident by their strange dialects. There are no down seasons in Zion these days that I once enjoyed years ago while working as a park seasonal. But the stunning beauty remains, with new greenery showing on cottonwood and boxelder in contrast to the warm glow of massive cliff.

Please don’t inquire of me which season I enjoy most.

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about Utah!!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy & Copyright Andrea Liberatore
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Northern Utah Hikes & Lakes, HikesandLakes.com, http://www.hikesandlakes.com/northern.html

Birch Canyon Road Trail, AllTrails.com, https://www.alltrails.com/trail/us/utah/birch-canyon-road-trail

Jack Loves the Four Seasons

Red Admiral Butterfly, Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS Digital Library
Red Admiral Butterfly
Thomas G. Barnes
US FWS Digital Library

Glacier Lilies
Erythronium grandiflorum
Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore


I love the four seasons. Having spent my 72 years residing in the mid latitudes, I’ve learned to celebrate each of our seasons, but especially spring!

This is the rebirth flush with abundant water, new greenery, and air filled with bird song and sweet aromas as new flowers perfume the air hoping to lure in a pollinator.

With mid-April upon us and our 42 degree latitude, spring is in full swing here in northern Utah! Winter departs grudgingly slapping us with snow squalls intermingled with glorious, early summer days, a wild roller coaster ride which I truly enjoy!
I’m an avid phenology follower. Phenology is the study of how life adapts to seasonal changes. I revel in the first floral bloom, the first neotropical birds returning from Latin America with a heart full of song, and newly emerged, gaudy butterflies.

With a relatively stable climate, until recently, the timing of these events has evolved to near perfection
Let’s take a closer look at some of these phenomena. I’ll begin with our neotropical birds such as lazuli buntings, yellow warblers, and Western tanagers to mention a few. These species spend over half of their year in Mexico, Central and South America flying thousands of miles to for the breeding and nesting season in the Intermountain West. This may seem a bit extreme for these tiny flurries of life.

On closer inspection, you will find they have good reason for this daunting and dangerous task. The tropics have a relatively stable climate without the dramatic seasonal change that we experience. This results in relatively stable populations of flowers and insects, the primary food sources for most species. Further, the ratio of daylight to darkness is nearly constant with 12 hours of each. Our days lengthen as we journey toward summer solstice with nearly 16 hours of daylight! This allows a burst of energy to flow through ecosystems resulting in eruptive populations of insects and floral bloom. It also offers long hours of daylight for parents to gather food for their young which grow rapidly toward fledglings, thus reducing the possibility of predation and also preparing them for the arduous flight south as fall approaches.

Let’s examine flowers and insects. With our very warm winter and spring, I was expecting a much earlier arrival of both and was not disappointed. I counted 17 species of flowers by the second week of April! And butterflies were on a similar schedule with 9 different species during the last week of March- remarkably early! Although delighted, it occurred to me that returning birds may not be so pleased. If the flowers begin to fade, and insects begin their downward slide at the peak of birds rearing their young, trouble is afoot! A five year Audubon study revealed that 1/3 of our birds are predicted to be severely impacted by these rapid climate shifts.

On a more positive note, spring will continue as will bird song, vernal waterfalls, eruptions of wildflowers and butterflies. And spring repeats itself as we move to higher elevations. As cornices on our mountain ridges recede, up pops flowers for yet another spring bloom, and with them butterflies, bees, and birds!

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, US FWS
Pictures Lilies: Copyright © 2010 Andrea Liberatore
Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Kervin, Linda, USA National Phenology Network, Wild About Utah, July 2, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/usa-national-phenology-network/

Hellstern, Ron, Journey North, Wild About Utah, March 19, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/journey-north/

Greene, Jack, I Love the Four Seasons, Wild About Utah, May 3, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/i-love-the-four-seasons/

Conners, Deanna, Why Earth has 4 seasons, EarthSky.org, September 20, 2016, http://earthsky.org/earth/can-you-explain-why-earth-has-four-seasons