Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes, Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 
Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf

Irruptive Birds Migrate South

Cedar Waxwing
Cedar Waxwing US FWS FWS Digital Library, David Menke, Photographer
Every winter, many of Utah’s breeding birds migrate south to avoid the cold. After the warblers, tanagers, and orioles leave each fall, we share the snowy winter with hardier residents, such as chickadees, nuthatches, and juncos. But even hardier birds breed in the far north and venture south to Utah only during the most severe winters.

CEDW call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Many people are familiar with the high, thin calls of Cedar Wawings. Less frequently heard in Utah are the slightly lower calls of their close cousins, Bohemian Waxwings.

Bohemian Waxwings(BOWA) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license. Source Wikimedia.org, Randen Pederson, Photographer.
Bohemian Waxwings are slightly larger than Cedar Waxwings, and a little fancier—their wing feathers include red, yellow, black, and white, and the underside of their tails is a rich cinnamon. Both species gather by the hundreds to eat berries, so you won’t miss a flock if there’s one nearby. Although waxwings are songbirds, the calls you hear don’t serve the same functions as true songs, advertising mate quality and defending territories. Instead, waxwings cooperate to find and feed on scattered fruit, their main winter diet. Unlike most birds, waxwings are able to smell, which may help them find their food. If waxwings eat berries that have begun to ferment over the winter months, they may become intoxicated even though their ability to metabolize ethanol is very high. The last time Bohemian Waxwings were abundant in Utah was during the winter of 2012-2013.

White-winged Crossbill(WWCR) call, Western Soundscape Archive; University of Utah, Audio file copyright 2007, Kevin Colver. All rights reserved

If you look in a pine tree, you may see a flock of White-winged Crossbills. Last abundant in Utah during the winter of 2008-2009, this species of finch forages on the seeds inside of conifer cones.

White-winged Crossbill, Courtesy and Copyright Paul Higgins, www.pbase.com/phiggins/
White-winged Crossbill
Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins
More photos at pbase.com/phiggins/
and utahbirds.org Photo Gallery
As the name crossbill suggests, the lower part of its bill is bent to the right and the upper part to the left, allowing crossbills to wedge open pinecone scales and lift the seeds free with their tongues. In the winter, crossbills forage in flocks of ten to fifty. They quickly assess the quality of a tree’s cones, using visual and vocal cues from their flockmates, which are quiet when they are eating but chatter when they are not. When the volume of the chatter increases to a crescendo, all the crossbills in the flock know that it’s time to switch to a new tree. Unlike most songbirds, crossbills can breed at any time of year, as long as conifer seeds are abundant.

When the weather gets cold, keep an eye and an ear out for these winter nomads.

For Wild About Utah, I’m Andrew Durso.

Credits:

Waxwing Images: Courtesy US FWS, David Menke, Photographer
White-winged Crossbill Image: Courtesy and Copyright © 2009 Paul Higgins, Photographer
Text: Andrew Durso, http://www.biology.usu.edu/htm/our-people/graduate-students?memberID=6753

Additional Reading:

Fitting the Bill, Andrea Liberatore, August 11, 2011, https://wildaboututah.org/fitting-the-bill/

White-winged Crossbill, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/White-winged_Crossbill/id

Cedar Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Cedar_Waxwing/id

Bohemian Waxwing, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bohemian_Waxwing/id

Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations

Seasonal Changes and Amazing Adaptations: Click for a larger view of a Dark-eyed 'Oregon' Junco Male, Junco hyemalis montanus, Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O'Donnell
Dark-eyed Junco “Oregon” Male
Junco hyemalis montanus
Courtesy & © 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell 


Biking daily from Smithfield Canyon to USU campus, combined with an early am run, I’m well aware of the drop in temperatures, as are those of us who find themselves outdoors on a more permanent schedule. I’m speaking of our relatives who reside in the wild- birds, trees, raccoons, and such.

While I put on an extra layer or two, plants and animals have far more sophisticated adaptations from behavioral to physiological to structural.

We are all aware of the marvelous migration and hibernation behaviors, so let’s add a few more amazing adaptations to the list.

I’ll begin with a bird that is very common at our winter feeder- the Dark-eyed Junco. which responds to the first shortening days of summer with a series of physical changes: its reproductive organs become inactive and shrink in size, hormones stimulate the rapid growth of a new set of feathers, and fat deposits develop to provide fuel for the long migratory flight ahead.

Thus the preparation for migration starts as soon as the days begin to shorten. And the process must operate in reverse when the bird is in its winter habitat in the United States. As soon as days begin to lengthen, the Dark-eyed Junco must gear up physically for the flight north and breeding season. If it fails to do so, it likely won’t survive a long-distance migration. So the cycle of life and its related migrations and transitions are deeply connected to the heavens.

Plants are no less amazing. Those in temperate zones must also set their calendars accurately in order to flower and, for deciduous species, develop and drop leaves at the optimal time. Plants set their internal calendars using several attributes from the sunlight they receive. In fact, the angle of the sun may be more important to a plant than day length.

That’s because plant cells produce compounds called phytochromes in response to different portions of the light spectrum. Direct sunlight is higher in red light, while indirect sunlight contains more far-red light. During late fall and early winter, when the sun remains low in the southern sky, the indirect light produces an increase in far-red phytochromes.

As spring approaches and the arc of the sun rises in the sky, direct sunlight triggers the production of red phytochromes. The ratio of these two compounds mediates the hormones involved in flowering, leaf drop, and bud development. Even seeds below the soil are affected. The amount of red and far-red light that penetrate the soil is sufficient to govern germination.

Some behavioral alterations worth mention beyond migrating and hibernation are herding and flocking, huddling to share body warmth, dietary change, hair & feather change- both color and structure, and many more but my radio time is ending, so now it’s your turn to explore more! It really does make you appreciated the wonders of nature.

This is Jack Greene for Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy and copyright 2008 Ryan P. O’Donnell
Text:     Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society


Additional Reading:

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Animal Diversity Web, http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Junco_hyemalis/

Dark-eyed Junco, Junco hyemalis, Aynsley Carroll, Boreal Songbird Initiative, http://www.borealbirds.org/bird/dark-eyed-junco

https://scholar.google.com/scholar?q=junco+winter+reproductive+cycles

Jigang Lia, Gang Lib, Haiyang Wangb, and Xing Wang Denga, Phytochrome Signaling Mechanisms, The Arabidopsis Book, American Society of Plant Biologists, 2011, http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3268501/ pdf

Best Snow

Click to view larger image of a skier at Brian Head, Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Skier at Brian Head
Photo Courtesy USDA Forest Service

As the mountains begin to take on hues of scarlet, gold and russet, many Utahns might be looking eagerly toward the coming months when those slopes will be blanketed in white. The Utah ski industry nurtures a whopping annual income of about $800 million dollars. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the state claims to have the “greatest snow on earth.” In fact, the state of Utah managed to make their slogan a federal trademark in 1995 after winning a lawsuit brought by the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus group, who felt the catchy marketing phrase might be confused with their slogan, the Greatest Show on Earth.

The trademark must have worked, because Utah draws so many visitors to its slopes, it racks up about 4 million skier days annually. But disregard plenty of evidence that we do indeed draw a crowd, and the statement is pretty subjective. So what’s the science behind our legendary powder?

The ideal condition skiers hope for is a deep, fluffy snow that creates the illusion of bottomless powder. And finding it is a bit like the Goldilocks story. Too wet, and you bog down. Too dry, and there’s not enough body to create a floating sensation beneath the ski. If the terrain is too steep, the powder won’t stick. And if it’s not steep enough, you can’t build sufficient momentum to glide over the top.

To get to the bottom of why Utah’s snow is just right, we actually have to look even further westward, toward the slow warm waters of the North Pacific current. As water laden clouds move inland, snow first falls over the Cascades in the north and the Sierra Nevadas further south, with an average moisture content of 12%. Even in areas like Washington’s Mt. Baker, where annual snowfall comes in greater quantities than Utah, the moister maritime snow creates a heavy base that bogs down skis. By the time these winter storms cross the Great Basin and reach the skiers’ Mecca of Alta and the Wasatch Range, the moisture content will have decreased to about 8.5%. And that seems to be the sweet spot. The moisture content of Utah’s intermountain snow is just enough that powder from our first storms settles into a soft but voluminous base. As winter progresses, fresh snow falls in a cold and mostly arid environment, forming very fine, symmetrical crystals called dendrites. The microscopic structure of dendrites allows them to accumulate in well ventilated, incompact drifts, much like the puffy down in your favorite pillow or ski jacket.

And perfect powder isn’t the only advantage Utah’s ski resorts have over their neighbors. Our mountainous topography, with its wealth of winding canyons, means we have an abundance of slopes well protected from strong winds which could compact or carry away fresh snowfall. And while so many cold and overcast days might get you down, it also protects our top powder from radiation and air mass effect, which can create a crust along the surface. And that means our freshly fallen powder sticks around for longer.

So consider that Utah offers 26,000 acres of mountain, blanketed in more than 500 annual inches of perfect intermountain snow, and it’s no wonder we enjoy 5 times the number of “powder days” as our neighbors. “The Greatest Snow on Earth” starts sounding a lot less subjective, and more like truth. In fact, you just might be tempted to make like Goldilocks and make yourself at home.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Ru Mahoney.

Credits:
Image: Courtesy USDA Forest Service, fs.usda.gov
Text:     Ru Mahoney, Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.


Additional Reading: