Herps: Long-nosed Leopard Lizard Gambelia-wislizenii Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Long-nosed Leopard Lizard
Free Image, Courtesy PXhere.com
Everywhere we go, people want to know, who we are, so we tell them- we are the herpers, the mighty, mighty herpers!
Stumbling around the desert with fishing poles in hand. Hot, dry, no water within miles. A casual observer might question our sanity. But here’s the deal. We have full control over our mental faculty.

Our defense. First, our fishing poles are used for the capture and release of lizards. Remarkably fast and allusive, these rigs are the answer. A small slipknot noose using monofilament fishing line is attached to the end of the pole. The lizards often freeze as the line is dangled slightly in front of their nose and gently slipped over their heads. A quick upward flip and bingo (with a bit of luck) a lizard dances freely from the line’s end.
“I caught one!” alerts the others within shouting distance, and the crew soon assembles to view the prize. Photos are taken which includes GPS coordinates, then the victim passes multiple hands, and is released to resume its lizard business following the rude interruption.

Herps: Western Banded Gecko, Courtesy NPS
Western Banded Gecko
Courtesy NPS

This has become an April tradition for our USU Wildlife Society students with a keen interest in herpetology. We relish the Mojave Desert surrounding St. George with flowers in full bloom and bird song in full tilt.
Our desert ramblings have revealed many herp treasures- spiny lizards, spectacled rattle snakes, desert iguanas, desert tortoise, chuckwalla, canyon tree frog to name a few. Within the past two years, we have assembled well over two dozen different species. The Mojave is second only to the Sonoran Desert for biodiversity. I’m always amazed how this parched, desolate land can support such a remarkable abundance of life forms. The Mojave Desert hosts about 200 endemic plant species found in neither of the adjacent deserts.

I’m going to end with a brief description of my favorite little lizard that appears so delicate, like a desert flower, it stands in stark contrast to this seemingly inhospitable environment. In good light its paper thin skin covered with minute scales, allows one to see the interior workings of its slender body.
The western banded gecko is secretive and nocturnal, foraging at night for small insects and spiders, often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads. It is one of the few reptiles that controls scorpion populations by eating their babies. If captured it may squeak and discard its tail. As a defense mechanism, it can also curl its tail over its body to mimic a scorpion. Geckos also store fat in their tails. Being they maintain a reduced metabolism at low temperatures, their tail fat can sustain them for up to nine months. Because the western banded gecko restricts its activities to nights, it is often seen, silhouetted against the black asphalt of desert roads.

This is Jack Greene and I’m wild about the banded gecko, all its cousins, and this amazing land we call Utah!


Pictures: Banded Gecko Courtesy US NPS
Pictures Leopard Lizard, Courtesy PXHere.com
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Strand, Holly, The Lizard and His Tail, Wild About Utah, June 11, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/the-lizard-and-his-tail/

Repanshek Kurt, Western Banded Gecko, Wild About Utah, Feb 23, 2015, https://wildaboututah.org/western-banded-gecko/

Strand, Holly, Gila Monsters, Wild About Utah, Feb 4, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/gila-monsters/

One Biota Network, Noosing Technique for Capturing Lizards, YouTube, May 25, 2018, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tkcOpPRfeug

Reptiles, Zion National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/zion/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Reptiles, Canyonlands National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

Species List, Arches National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/arch/learn/nature/species-lists.htm

Reptiles and Amphibians, Bryce Canyon National Park, US National Park Service, https://www.nps.gov/brca/learn/nature/reptiles.htm

As a Child I Loved Nature

Chickadee Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
As a child I loved nature. Not liked: loved.

I consumed it. I learned the names and types of animals especially, from all over the world. My love was ceaseless, carefree, and itself consuming.

There were phases of course, too. First it was bats, then dinosaurs but back before they had feathers, then penguins, dogs, spider monkeys, and sharks. With each new kind of animal I learned about, I was drawn in closer by what makes them special and sets them apart. I could imagine myself as any one of a million kinds of critter. I could play as if I were one, hunt or forage like one, build a den or nest like one. I was what I imagined myself to be and I loved it. My world was infinite.

Those days though are decades behind. For a long while now, I’ve thought about what happened to that child; what happened to that infinite world? Years of schooling and structure had pushed my attention into books, screens, and facts. The world did not leave me, I neglected that infinite world, and so it too became schooled and structured and sterile.

This realization of what had happened first hit me when I began student teaching kindergarten a few years ago. One day at recess a child asked me to play with them. I realized then that I couldn’t remember how to play and imagine and see the world as infinite still. I awoke from the dream of education and discovered that I had not learned but books, screens, and facts.

Since then, it’s been hard to relearn how to play and imagine. This relearning casts a shadow of struggle over you, especially as a teacher. It can drive you to try and find what obscures and what shines.

My search for reprieve from a knowable world has taken me all over this country: from coast to coast, and from northern desert to southern swamp. Just the other day though I finally found a true breadcrumb back to the infinite world: a black-capped chickadee.

Sitting in my springtime backyard, one came to my only, lone bird feeder that I got at the grocery store. As it sized up the plastic tube full of food, I began to do something that I hadn’t done for a very long while: I just watched it. It was not like how I watch ducks or deer or loose neighborhood turkeys, as food if only it came in range or the city ordinances were a bit more forgiving, but instead I watched it just to see what it did and who it was.

The small songbird flew from its perch and simply rummaged through my discount bird feed until it found a black sunflower seed and flew back to a higher branch. It worked the shell off the seed with diligence, determination, and intelligence. No schooling required. After eating the morsel within, it flew back for another and ate that one in the same wild manner. It then called out, perhaps to pay the good fortune forward, and flew off without giving the feeder another glance. The momentary abandonment of gluttony is the privilege of spring.

It felt strange to just watch a bird for a few minutes. It felt foreign. My mind kept asking me why I was watching such an unassuming creature and for why. There were books that need reading, screens that need seeing, and facts that need knowing. In the end though, it felt good to stick it to what organized my wild instincts and to just watch the chickadee like a true human being again.

I could in that moment imagine that I was that chickadee: wild, rebellious, and free. Never before had I thought of myself as a chickadee though, truth be told. If any bird, I would have before liked to be a Canada jay, or a raven, or a Swainson’s thrush. But after seeing that chickadee, and thinking on it, the chickadee seems the best of me now and the best of who I want to be. It can be humble, measured, and cooperative, or proud, excitable, and driven, depending on the needs of the season. It’s easily seen, easily unnoticed, and easily pleased.

Importantly, though it reminds me of that child with the infinite world. It reminds me why I loved nature. It gives me hope that I can again.

I’m Patrick Kelly and I’m Wild About Utah.

Images: Courtesy and Copyright Stephen Peterson, Photographer
Audio: Contains audio Courtesy & Copyright Kevin Colver
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://logannature.org
Included Links: Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Kelly, Patrick, The Canyon, Wild About Utah, Jan 28, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/the-canyon/


California Gull <i>Larus californicus</i> Farmington Bay Davis County, Utah 9 Feb 2003 Courtesy & Copyright 2003 Jack Binch, Photographer See UtahBirds.org
California Gull
Larus californicus
Farmington Bay Davis County, Utah
9 Feb 2003
Courtesy & Copyright 2003 Jack Binch, Photographer
See UtahBirds.org
“When it seemed that nothing could stay the devastation, great flocks of gulls appeared, filling the air with their white wings and plaintive cries, and settled down upon the half-ruined fields. All day long they gorged themselves, and when full, disgorged and feasted again, the white gulls upon the black crickets, hosts of heaven and hell contending, until the pests were vanquished and the people were saved.” Orson F. Whitney, June 6th 1848. Over a century later, the California gull, was selected as the state bird of Utah and a gull monument placed on Temple Square in SLC.

My first serious encounter with this bird occurred in the mudflats of the Ogden Bay Bird Refuge. On a date with my 3 young children and a lovely lady whom I later betrothed, we walked several hundred yards to a small island consisting of an outcrop of mica schist. As we approached, a white cloud of screaming gulls arose. We soon discovered the island to be covered with nests of young and eggs. Mesmerized by this remarkable display of turmoil and alarm, the gulls went on the attack by releasing offal from both anterior and posterior ports. The gulls won the day with our rapid retreat.

I’ve had many gull experiences since: being attacked by mew gulls in Alaska, who also attacked bald eagles that strayed into their territories; witnessing Franklin gulls returning to Utah landfills with a pink glow from gorging on brine shrimp; watching with amazement as western gulls opening clams and mussels by shattering them on rocks while backpacking on the Washington coast.

I’ve come to respect North America’s 28 species of gulls as graceful, intelligent, and skillful seabirds. The following gull trivia may win a few more admirers.

  • Gulls are monogamous creatures that mate for life and rarely divorce. As parents, they are attentive and caring, both involved in incubating the eggs as well as feeding and protecting the chicks until fledged. They also teach their young creative methods of hunting, showing the intelligent ability to pass skills to others.
  • They are one of the few species of seabirds that can survive drinking salt water, enabling them to venture far out to sea in search of food when necessary. This is made possible by a special pair of glands just above the eyes that flush the salt from their system out through their nostrils.
  • They are expert fliers, having mastered control of wind and thermals, sharp directional changes, climbs and dives.
  • They have developed many clever ways of stealing the catch of other seabirds using their flying skills to pluck fish from birds in flight, or fascinating maneuvers to pester them until they drop the food which the gull will catch before it hits the water.
  • So how is our state bird predicted to weather a shifting climate? Unfortunately not well, losing 98% of its summer range and 72% of winter range by 2080. Until then, I will continue to marvel at the great flocks following the plow turning up fresh earth and the hidden banquet they relish.

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


    Pictures: Courtesy & Copyright Jack Binch, Photographer
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

    Additional Reading:

    Bingham, Lyle and Huren, Richard(Dick), Wild About Utah, August 19, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/a-moment-to-think-about-our-state-bird/

    Bonaparte’s Gull
    Herring Gull
    California gull Larus californicus
    Franklin’s gull Larus pipixcan
    Thayer’s gull Larus thayeri
    Ring-billed gull Larus delawarensis
    Mew Gull
    Glaucous-winged Gull
    Sabine’s Gull

    Habitat Heroes Explore More Utah Biomes

    Utah is a wildly diverse place. Ecological and biological diversity are usually tied to an abundance of water; but here in Utah, despite our relative lack of the wet stuff, we boast of at least nine unique biomes spanning from the low-elevation Mojave Desert around St. George to the high Alpine Tundra of our many snowcapped mountain ranges. You can think of a biome as a large community of similar organisms and climates or a collection of similar habitats. Just recently, my third grade students wrapped up a semester-long investigation into seven of those biomes found in Utah including the high Alpine Tundra, Riparian/Montane Zone, Sagebrush Steppe, Wetlands, and the Great Basin, Colorado Plateau, and Mojave Deserts. We explored those biomes by way of researching a specific animal endemic in Utah to each of those biomes. We called our project “Habitat Heroes.” I’ll let a few of my students explain their findings.

    (Student readings)
    Zach's Rubber Boa  Head, Tongue and Scales Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Zach’s Rubber Boa
    Head, Tongue and Scales
    Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
    (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Zach’s Rubber Boa:
    My name is Zach, and my animal is the rubber boa. The rubber boa lives in the riparian/montane biome in Utah. The rubber boa eats shrews, mice, small birds, lizards, snakes, and amphibians and is usually found along streams and in forests and in meadows.
    Noah's Ringtail Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Noah’s Ringtail
    Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Noah’s Ringtail:
    This is Noah, and I’ve been studying the ringtail. The ringtail lives in the cold desert biome on the Colorado Plateau in Utah. The ringtail is gray and furry with a long black and white tail. How ringtails catch their food: number one-being very sly and waiting for the right time. They live in rocky deserts, caves, and hollow logs.
    Muskrat Collage Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Muskrat Collage
    Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    The Muskrat:
    My animal’s the muskrat. The muskrat lives in the wetland biome in Utah. Muskrats live in Mexico, Canada, and the United States where there are marshes, ponds, and vegetated water. Muskrats go out at night and find food like aquatic plants, grass, and fish. They have special abilities that can be used for a very special reason to help them survive.

    Elizah's Long-tailed Weasel Courtesy & Copyright EBLS (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Elizah’s Long-tailed Weasel
    Courtesy & Copyright EBLS
    (Full Student Name Redacted)
    Elizah’s Weasel:
    My name is Elizah, and my animal is the long-tailed weasel. The long-tailed weasel lives in the Great Basin biome in Utah. They are brown and yellow all year long except for winter. They are white during winter. [The] long-tailed weasel’s scientific name is Mustela frenata. They are mostly nocturnal.

    In addition to researching the different biomes and learning about the adaptations animals must possess in order to survive there, these third graders have been visiting the several biomes local to Cache Valley and investigating their research animals’ habitats. These experiences have been powerful in helping students realize what it’s really like to exist in the wilds of Utah.

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

    Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Investigating Beaver Habitats Along Temple Fork
    Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Exploring an alpine-type biome along beaver creek
    Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Flying like the birds; Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
    Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Looking at tree migration in Green Canyon
    Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS
    Investigating Beaver Curtis Creek wanderings; Hardware Ranch; Blacksmith Fork Canyon
    Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, EBLS

        Artwork Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling’s 3rd Grade students
        Photos Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School Field Experience Director
    Text: Josh Boling, 2017, Bridgerland Audubon Society

    Sources & Additional Reading

    Boling, Josh and students, Habitat Heroes Explore Utah Biomes, Wild About Utah, Mar 4, 2019, https://wildaboututah.org/utah-biomes/

    Edith Bowen Laboratory School, https://edithbowen.usu.edu/

    Biomes, Kimball’s Biology Pages, http://www.biology-pages.info/B/Biomes.html

    Mission Biomes, NASA Earth Observatory, https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/experiments/biome

    The World’s Biomes, University of California Museum of Paleontology, UC Berkeley, https://ucmp.berkeley.edu/glossary/gloss5/biome/