The Great Salt Lake: Important for Birds

Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater. Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater.
Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body.

This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.

In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.

These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.

Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.

At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.

So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.

Credits:

Picture:
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Strand, Holly, Important Bird Areas, Wild About Utah, October 21, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/important-bird-areas/

Strand, Holly, One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets, Wild About Utah, June 3, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/one-of-the-worlds-largest-shrimp-buffets/

Chambless, Ross, When the Great Salt Lake we know is gone, what shall we name it?, Commentary, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/08/19/ross-chambless-when-great/ [Accessed September 19, 2021]

Shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), https://whsrn.org/about-shorebirds/shorebird-status/

Drought Negatively Impacting Great Salt Lake Microbialites and Ecosystem, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 15, 2021, https://geology.utah.gov/drought-negatively-impacting-great-salt-lake-microbialites-and-ecosystem/

Chidsey, T.C., Jr., Eby, D.E., Vanden Berg, M.D., and Sprinkel, D.A., 2021, Microbial carbonate reservoirs and analogs
from Utah: Utah Geological Survey Special Study 168, 112 p., 14 plates, 1 appendix, https://doi.org/10.34191/SS-168

Riding, Robert, Definition: Microbialites, Stromatolites, and Thrombolites, Encyclopedia of Geobiology, SpringerLink, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature., https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-9212-1_196

Romero, Simon, Booming Utah’s Weak Link: Surging Air Pollution, The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/us/great-salt-lake-utah-air-quality.html

2015–2025 Wildlife Action Plan, Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 1 2015, https://wildlife.utah.gov/discover/wildlife-action-plan.html

Governor Cox Declares 2021 as Year of the Shorebird at Great Salt Lake, Declaration celebrates 30th anniversary of Great Salt Lake as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, Western Water News, National Audubon, May 12, 2021, https://www.audubon.org/news/governor-cox-declares-2021-year-shorebird-great-salt-lake
See also: https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/1182-cox-declares-2021-year-of-shorebird-great-salt-lake.html

Gov. Cox Issues Drought Executive Order, Governor.utah.gov, March 17, 2021, https://governor.utah.gov/2021/03/17/gov-cox-issues-drought-executive-order/


Written by Hall Crimmel & Dan Bedford, Filmed and Edited by Isaac Goeckeritz, iUtah EPSCor, Rachel Carsen Center Environment & Society,
Based on the book Desert Water; The Future of Utah’s Water Resources edited by Hall Crimmel and published by University of Utah Press, 2014

Carney, Stephanie, Vanden Berg, Michael D., GeoSights: Microbialites of Bridger Bay, Antelope Island, Great Salt Lake, Survey Notes, Utah Geological Survey, State of Utah, January 1, 2022, https://geology.utah.gov/map-pub/survey-notes/geosights/geosights-microbialites-of-bridger-bay-antelope-island-great-salt-lake/

Birch Creek Beaver Restoration

Lush Green Meadows created by beaver activity on Birch Creek above the Wilde ranch near Preston, ID Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer
Lush Green Meadows created by beaver activity on Birch Creek above the Wilde ranch near Preston, ID
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

Cascading Reservoirs created by beaver activity on Birch Creek above the Wilde ranch near Preston, ID Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer Cascading Reservoirs created by beaver activity on Birch Creek above the Wilde ranch near Preston, ID
Courtesy & © Mary Heers, Photographer

When Jay Wilde graduated from Preston High School in 1963, he took off to see the world. Thirty years later he came back, bought out his siblings, and moved into the family homestead in the hills above Preston, Idaho. He had acres of pasture and two hundred mother cows. But one thing was missing. Water. Birch Creek, which had run year round when he was growing up, now dried up in June. Hiking up to the headwaters, past his deeded property and into the National Forest, Jay found something else was missing. There was no sign of the beavers he remembered seeing there in his childhood. Now there were no beaver dams to slow down the flow of melting snow, and rainfall, spread it out into tiny reservoirs, and most importantly, no way to allow the surface runoff to filter down into the ground water.

On his own dime, Jay got some beavers and released them in the mountain headwaters of Birch Creek. Nothing happened. A year passed. The beavers were gone.

But help was on the way.

Enter Joe Wheaton, a beaver specialist at Utah State University. Joe bought a truckload of poles and recruited some student volunteers. Up the canyon they went, pounding poles into the streambed and weaving a few branches between the poles. Hopefully these structures would become “kick starter dams” for the next try at releasing beavers.

In 2015 five beavers were released. The beavers took one look at the kick starter dams and decided these dams suited them fine. They moved in and went to work.

After a few years, Jay and Joe checked the beaver’s progress. They found a thriving beaver community, and counted over 12 dams. The beavers seemed to be marching to Joe’s mantra for controlling spring runoff: “Slow it. Spread it. Stow it.”

And now, for the latest update to this story.

Earlier this month I was allowed to tag along with Jay and Joe and two others as they tramped up to the headwaters of Birch Creek. We found a watery paradise. Melting snow was trickling over and around the dams, cascading down into deep pools, and spreading out into lush green meadows. There were too many dams to count, but Joe said over 200. Jay smiled and said down below Birch Creek was running 40 more days.

And I – I just burst into song!

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

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Audio: Courtesy Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio
Text & Voice: Mary Heers
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Mary Heers’ Postings

Leavitt, Shauna, Beaver–Helping Keep Water on Drying Lands, Wild About Utah, April 17, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/the-beaver-helping-keep-water-on-drying-lands/

Hellstern, Ron, Leave it to Beaver, Wild About Utah, July 30, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/leave-it-to-beaver/

Heers, Mary, Beaver Tail Strike, Wild About Utah, December 27, 2021, https://wildaboututah.org/beaver-tail-strike/

Heers, Mary, Beaver Tail Slap, Wild About Utah, October 12, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/beaver-tail-slap/
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/

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

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

Bingham, Lyle, Welcoming Rodent Engineers, Wild About Utah, February 7, 2022, https://wildaboututah.org/welcoming-rodent-engineers/

Randall, Brianna, How Beavers Boost Stream Flows, National Wildlife Federation, January 8, 2020, https://blog.nwf.org/2020/01/how-beavers-boost-stream-flows/

Nature Came to Me

Glovers Silk Moth Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Glovers Silk Moth
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

Glovers Silk Moth Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer Glovers Silk Moth
Courtesy & © Shannon Rhodes, Photographer

This week I couldn’t make time to get out into nature, so nature came to me. I suppose people think that once students stack chairs and say goodbye as they carry their yearbooks, portfolios, and report cards out the door, their teacher lounges all summer in a hammock with a just-for-fun book and a lemonade. Perhaps a few teachers do. This teacher was scurrying off to afternoon meetings about math tutoring and curriculum planning after spending mornings discussing hundreds of scholarly journal pages she’d read the night before about effective writing instruction. No, I wouldn’t make time this week for nature, so nature came to me, begging me to slow down, take notice, pause, breathe.

First, it was a bird with a yellow head perched just outside my bedroom window as I hit the alarm. I didn’t take the time to get the details or even listen to its song as I rushed off to the car. Was it a warbler or a meadowlark? I’m not sharp enough on my bird identifying yet to instantly know, and there was no time anyway. Not even to take a picture.

Rushing from my office to the adjacent building for class, I did stop to stare at the largest moth I’d ever seen that was perched on the similarly-colored rusty-brown brick. This time I pulled out my phone to get some shots, certain that the iNaturalist app would reveal how uncommon it is to see a moth bigger than the size of my fist leisurely greeting me on the summer camp-bustling university campus. Patiently it sat as I zoomed in closer to get all the angles of its head, wooly abdomen, and wing patterns. 7:58–time to go find my seat.

Later, my iNaturalist app provided a suggestion: Glover’s Silk Moth, a rather common find this time of year in my part of the world. Then, as I sat on a dining patio overlooking the river telling my friends about the moth, a garter snake skirted the rock wall just feet away from me until it found a comfortable spot to watch and listen.

Suddenly, I realized that nature was hosting a BioBlitz for me if I wanted to join in. A BioBlitz, according to the partnership of National Geographic and iNaturalist, is “a celebration of biodiversity….focused on finding and identifying as many species as possible in a specific area over a short period of time.” Children’s book author Loree Griffin Burns cleverly guides her young readers in similarly throwing a Moth Ball.

Last June I learned that my tangerine-colored moth find in Logan Canyon was a Nuttall’s Sheep Moth, and that I could join citizen scientists all over in pinning observations on the map and logging wild encounters like this new-to-me species, especially during National Moth Week. It was William Wordsworth who wisely wrote, “Come forth into the light of things, Let Nature be your teacher.” This week she was trying to teach me to be more aware, that my day’s list could allow time to appreciate a yellow bird, a curious snake, and a marvelous giant silk moth, and suddenly I was also spotting ladybug larva and ring-necked pheasants. I had time. As Richard Louv states in his book titled Last Child in the Woods, “Nature does not steal time; it amplifies it.”

For Wild About Utah, I’m Shannon Rhodes.

Credits:
Images: Courtesy & Copyright Shannon Rhodes, Photographer
Additional Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections
Text: Shannon Rhodes, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University https://edithbowen.usu.edu/
Additional Reading Links: Shannon Rhodes

Additional Reading:

Burns, Loree Griffin. You’re Invited to a Moth Ball: A Nighttime Insect Celebration. 2020. https://loreeburns.com/

Greene, Jack. Join a BioBlitz This Year. Wild About Utah, May 30, 2016. https://wildaboututah.org/bioblitz/

Insect Identification.org. Glover’s Silkmoth. January 3, 2022. https://www.insectidentification.org/insect-description.php?identification=Glovers-Silkmoth

Louv, Richard. Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. 2008. http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child

National Geographic. BioBlitz. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/bioblitz/

National Moth Week, Friends of the East Brunswick Environmental Commission, https://nationalmothweek.org/

Rhodes, Shannon. Malacomosa Dance. Wild About Utah, June 21, 2021. https://wildaboututah.org/malacomosa-dance/

University of Wisconsin Milwaukee Field Station. Giant Silk Moths. November 26, 2014. https://uwm.edu/field-station/giant-silk-moths-family-saturnidae/

Winter, William D. Jr. Basic Techniques for Observing and Studying Moths & Butterflies. The Lepidopterists’ Society. 2000. https://www.lepsoc.org/sites/all/themes/nevia/lepsoc/Memoir_5_Basic_techniques_manual.pdf

Wordsworth, William. The Tables Turned. 1798. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45557/the-tables-turned

My Full Moon Serenades

Swainson's Thrush & Western Meadowlark Courtesy US NPS Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush) Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark) Combined by Patrick Kelly
Swainson’s Thrush & Western Meadowlark
Courtesy US NPS
Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush)
Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark)
Combined by Patrick Kelly
The serenades around where I live begin early. Today it was during the full moon at 3am, in a break from the blessed rain. The chorus is mostly of robins, but one voice sticks out as new; a call I do not know; a love letter to curiosity of who could make such a call. I have hope that I’ll be able to find who sings like a Geddy Lee who has found Xanadu. It isn’t the first mystery bird I’ve encountered though.

I do remember my first, how can one not, that first call which bamboozled and hypnotized me years ago, both awakening and soothing that inside of me which makes me human. I used to live in a small cabin in the middle of Alaska, and during the eternal summers I’d hear this bird’s haunting call lull me to sleep. It was a Weddell seal of the woods. A UAP that sang.

At first, I didn’t want to know who it was filling the woods with quicksilver honeydew, drop by drop. I somehow felt that the magic would be lost, that by knowing the source I would ruin the spring. But then one day, the music maker appeareth. He was brown, squat, with a small thin beak, just sitting on a spruce branch at my eye level. When he sang, I found I was not disappointed. The Eden of unknowing bliss was not left behind. Instead, where once I saw an it, now I saw a thou. He was singing. The noble, sylvan Swainson’s Thrush.

This trend continued on for me, and once I moved to Utah, I found even more new strange songs. I learned to let the choir sing from their perches, and wait for them to show themselves. The newest singer I discovered was last summer, out in the last intact meadows which border the Bonneville Shoreline trail in Cache Valley, fast disappearing to the grind of half-acre plots and four-car garages which confuse godliness with gaudiness. In their loss, also deplete becomes their song.

Once I heard this new serenader, an avian Van Halen, I began repeating the trail just to hear his song. Like the thrush, which at this point was many years prior, his song seemed to have no source, it simply emanated from the golden grasses and muted sage which, pressed by wind, created a woven mat of gestalt terroir and echoed off the small crevices which led to the mountainsides.

So days and weeks went by as I hiked with my dogs. I’d keep an ear to the pastures and when I heard him, or his premonition upon the wind, I’d freeze and bend in. And sure enough, a certain day came where on this hike I listened, heard, and then saw him. Speckled brown back, golden chest with a black chevron, perched atop a scrubby little juniper calling into the wind. A Western Meadowlark at work.

So if this summer you hear a new sound in the full moon morning and don’t know who makes it, don’t shy, ignore, nor give up. The best thing you can do is to keep listening and keep waiting, be it your first or just most recent. Eventually the caller will pull the curtain back of their own accord and be revealed. So here’s my wish of good luck to you, that you will find what you’re listening for out in the world.

I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:

Images: Courtesy US National Park Service(NPS) Robbie Hannawacker, Photographer (thrush) & Albert Myran, Photographer (meadowlark)
Audio: Courtesy US NPS Media / David Betchkal (thrush) & US NPS & MSU Acoustic Atlas/Jennifer Jerrett (meadowlark)
Additional Audio Courtesy & © Kevin Colver, J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin.
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://www.logannature.org
Included Links: Patrick Kelly & Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Posts by Patrick Kelly

Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon, https://www.logannature.org/

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Logan Canyon Hiking, Bridgerland Audubon & Cache Hikers, site per Sarah Ohms, https://logancanyonhiking.com/bonneville.htm

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Cache Hikers, http://www.cachehikers.org/Descriptions/BonnevilleShorelineTrail.html

Bonneville Shoreline Trail, Official Site(2016), http://www.bonnevilleshorelinetrail.org/

Swainson’s Thrush, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Swainsons_Thrush/overview

Swainson’s Thrush, American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org/bird/swainsons-thrush/

Swainson’s Thrush, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/SwainsonsThrush.htm

Western Meadowlark, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Western_Meadowlark

See Western Meadowlark in Sagebrush Communities in the Intermountain West, Bird Habitat Guide, American Bird Conservancy, https://abcbirds.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/SagebrushGuide.pdf

Western Meadowlark, UtahBirds.org, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesS-Z/WesternMeadowlark.htm