Winter Songs

Winter Songs: American Dipper Courtesy US FWS Dave Menke, Photographer
American Dipper
Courtesy US FWS
Dave Menke, Photographer
Most of our songbirds have taken their songs and headed south. Even robins and meadowlarks have ceased their lovely melodies that carried well into the fall months. But there are a few noteworthy choristers that have remained- Townsend solitaires and N. American dippers. Not only do they sing beautifully (anthropocizing here) but they vocalize for different reasons than most. The breeding/nesting season has long since passed, which is the primary reason birds sing- attracting a mate and defending their breeding territory from other males.

So one might ask why sing? Both of the species mentioned are defending their feeding, not breeding territory. Townsends switch from insects to berries during the winter months, including juniper berries (actually cones) which they have a special penchant for. I’ve witnessed many instances of them doing battle while defending their tree from intruders. They often perch on the highest branch daring others of their kind to pick a berry. Females defend as well.

In my cozy little canyon they begin migrating down from their high mountain nesting territory in October filled with song, which is supposedly different from that used during courtship. Townsends keep good company as members of the thrush family which include bluebirds, robins, and various other thrush species- all known for their enchanting refrains. A flock of thrushes is known as a hermitage, interesting considering there is one named hermit thrush, quite common in our mountains.

Winter songs: American Robin Turdus migratorius Courtesy US FWS Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
American Robin
Turdus migratorius
Courtesy US FWS
Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
Robins, also berry eaters, are welcome guests, and often share the same tree with the solitaires. Considerably larger than their cousins, they feed unmolested.

The dipper sings its river song as it flits along streams. The varied notes are complicated and loud, possibly to compete with the rushing waters where it resides, including water falls. They will lay claim to a stretch of stream and like the solitaire, daring another of its kind to trespass. I’ve witnessed this amazing songster singing full tilt during white-out blizzards, challenging the storms intensity with its brazen refrains. “The dippers song is strong and sweet, made up of a great variety of trills and flute-like passages, delivered with great spirit and brilliance.”

I’ve not attempted to measure the length of its feeding domain, but assume it varies depending on food abundance. This little “penguin of the Rockies” as I call it, will dive underwater using its wings to stroke along the stream bottom while capturing its prey, which may include small fish. Constant preening with oil from near the base of its tail keeps it dry, and high density feathers provide excellent insulation. The cold waters must bring relief from comparatively frigid winter air.

I once observed a most unusual mating behavior when a pair of lovers suddenly spiraled up well over a hundred vertical feet from the stream, where they are otherwise tethered. Is this usual during courtship? I’ve only seen in on one occasion. Nature is full of mysteries and shock factor. Never say never! The Audubon Climate/bird reports Solitaires lose 92% of their summer range and an 88% loss for dippers by 2080, and their songs as well. This means more miles on my bike and less in my car.

This is Jack Greene- most fortunate to be part of this Wild Utah!

Credits:

Images: American Dipper, Courtesy US FWS, Dave Menke, Photographer
Images: American Robin, Courtesy US FWS, Dr. Thomas G. Barnes, Photographer
Audio: Contains Audio Courtesy and Copyright
Text:     Jack Greene

Sources & Additional Reading:

Bengston, Anna, Robins in Winter, Wild About Utah, March 13, 2014, https://wildaboututah.org/robins-in-winter/

Cane, James, Winter Song Birds, Wild About Utah, Feb 3, 2009, https://wildaboututah.org/winter-song-birds/

Porter, Diane, Learning Bird Songs in Winter, 2009, http://www.birdwatching.com/tips/earwatching_winter.html

Utah Porcupines

Utah Porcupines: North American Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Tom Koerner, photographer
North American Porcupine
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Tom Koerner, photographer
It was late evening at our 3rd annual Utah Youth Environmental Summit at the Wasatch Mountain Lodge above Brighton Ski Resort. We were winding down the day when someone happened to look out the window which elicited a high volume shriek.

“What is it?!” A gnarly looking beast had cozied up to the window. Its face was a mixture of the grotesque and cuteness. A throng of students rushed to the window. “A porcupine!!” None of the 30 students had seen one in the wild. The questions began. “Can it shoot its quills at you?” “What do they eat?” “Do they bite?” “Do they hibernate”? And so on.

Utah Porcupines: North American Porcupine Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Lisa Hupp, photographer
North American Porcupine
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Lisa Hupp, photographer
Having grown up in the north woods of Wisconsin and Michigan, I could answer most of their questions. No, it does not shoot its quills, but beware of its strong tail which it uses to impregnate quills with a quick slap at the assailant. And no, it doesn’t hibernate and yes, they can bite! Further, they are excellent swimmers and tree climbers. Also, their quills, which are similar to our fingernails made of keratin, can regrow once lost.
Unfortunately, most of the porcupines I’ve happened on have been road kills. The others have been in trees where they may spend considerable time eating the bark and stems. A large pile of fecal material may be found at the trees base similar to that of grouse in shape and size.

Another thing I learned is they adore outhouses and will greatly enlarge the holes as whey chew away the salty urine flavored wood. They also have a penchant for ax handles and canoe paddles where salt accumulates from ones laboring hands.

They are long lived- up to 30 years in captivity. I later learned that our Wasatch Mountain Lodge beast had become habituated, a regular visitor looking for a bit of garbage or a treat.

A few other tidbits worthy of note. Porcupines tend to be solitary animals except for when they are mating or caring for their young. They can use caves, old trees, and logs to create their dens, in which they may remain for many days in inclement weather. They possess a wide-variety of calls including moans, grunts, coughs, wails, whines, shrieks and tooth clicking.

Utah Porcupines: Porcupine in a Tree Erethizon dorsatum Courtesy US FWS Public Domain
Porcupine in a Tree
Erethizon dorsatum
Courtesy US FWS
Public Domain
Late summer and early fall are the mating times. They make a great deal of vocalizations to draw a mate to them and to keep other males out of the area. Males become very aggressive, the strongest winning the female for which he will dance and then urinate on her for further affection. What!! Typically only one young is born seven months later. The baby’s quills are very soft for delivery, then harden after an hour. They remain with mother for about 6 months.

Predators are often deterred by the rattling of its hollow quills after which an offensive odor may occur. If the above threats fail, the porcupine will attack by running sideways or backwards while swinging its quilled tail in the direction of the predator.

Their magical quills are being researched by medical scientists to create adhesives, improve needle penetration, and for antibacterial properties. They also had extensive use by Native Americans for exquisite decorative purposes, and their bodies served up a fine meal- with quills removed!

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

Credits:

Pictures: Courtesy US FWS, Lisa Hupp and Tom Koerner, photographers
Sound: Courtesy
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon Society

Additional Reading:

Can a Porcupine Shoot its Quills? Smithsonian Channel, youTube, March 2, 2015,

Porcupines, Wild Aware Utah, (Utah DWR, Hogle Zoo, USU Cooperative Extension) https://www.wildawareutah.org/utah-wildlife-information/porcupines/

Cougars in Utah

Cougars in Utah: FemaleF43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009 Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Female F43, Butterfield Canyon, 2009
Courtesy and Copyright David Stoner
Cougars are more widely distributed in Utah than many residents realize. These shy cats are found across the state. They roam from the high Uinta Mountains to the dry southern deserts.

David Stoner, assistant professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resources who has studied cougars for the past two decades said, “[Cougars] are common in terms of their distribution, but are rare in terms of their numbers. They live in many places but there are never a lot of them, typically occurring at densities of 1 adult per 20 square miles.

Stoner continues, “They’re just a big cat. Most of us are familiar with a house cats, and know how they behave, their movements, and idiosyncrasies. The main difference is their size. Cougars can be as large as humans [males usually range between 110 to 180 lbs.] They have evolved to take prey larger than themselves. You see this in the size of their muzzle – the mouth, nose and jaw. All of that is much larger in a cougar relative to its own body than a house cat. This becomes even more dramatic in the really big cats like tigers and lions with very large muzzles.

Stoner partnered with Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) to study cougars in two Utah areas, one of which was Monroe Mountain in Fishlake National Forest.

Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
Mother named F61 (face showing), daughter (F58c) (facing away) Approx 1.5 yrs old in January 2011. Location: Kennecott mine, Bingham Canyon in the Oquirrh Mountains, Utah
Courtesy and Copyright McLain Mecham, Photographer
The researchers noticed an unusual movement pattern of juveniles on the mountain. When the young were ready to leave their mothers they could have migrated in any direction to find good habitat but they disproportionately chose to go either NE or SE. This perplexed the researchers.

At about the same time the cougar research was winding down, DWR was starting a mule deer monitoring program.

Stoner said, “We were very fortunate. What DWR found was the Monroe Mountain deer herd were mostly migrating NE and SE. I looked back at our data and found the cougars who were leaving Monroe were going in the same direction as the deer migrations, the young cougars were tracking the deer herds.

Due to their hunting methods and nutritional needs, cougars require large home ranges. Researchers gathered data from NV, UT and AZ to represent a wide range of environmental conditions from very dry systems close to Las Vegas to relatively wet systems along Wasatch front.

Stoner explains, “We found the size of the home ranges…varied with precipitation. The wettest areas the cougars had the smallest home ranges, because of the abundance of prey in these highly productive systems. Females tend to have ranges strictly based on the food they need. The male’s range is much larger because they are looking for breeding opportunities, so they overlap numerous females. These ranges can be quite large. One collared male had a home range of over 2,500 square miles, which was visible on maps at the scale of the entire western United States.”

When it comes to human interactions with cougars, Utah has been very fortunate. In the past 100 years, no humans have been killed by a cougar. In hopes of maintaining this record, DWR keeps safety tips on its website. The most important tip is to never run from a cougar, this will cause them to instinctively think you are prey and begin the chase. If you have a child with you pick them up. Stand firm and look intimidating, let it know you’ll fight back. Your goal is to scare them off.

With the wise actions of humans, Stoner and DWR hope this majestic cat will continue to flourish in Utah.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © David Stoner
Audio: Courtesy
Principal Investigator: David Stoner, https://qcnr.usu.edu/directory_cv/D.Stoner_CV_10-2016.pdf
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Greene, Jack, My Cougar Encounter, Wild About Utah, January 16, 2017, https://wildaboututah.org/my-cougar-encounter/

Strand, Holly, Mountain Lion, Wild About Utah, March 4, 2010, https://wildaboututah.org/mountain-lion/

Boling, Josh, Wild Cats, Wild About Utah, December 10, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/wild-cats/

Löe J. and E. Röskaft. 2004. Large Carnivores and Human Safety: A Review. AMBIO: A Journal of the Human Environment Aug 2004 : Vol. 33, Issue 6, pg(s) 283-288 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/8328070_Large_Carnivores_and_Human_Safety_A_Review

Larese-Casanova, Mark, Mountain Wildlife Field Book, Utah Master Naturalists, https://extension.usu.edu/utahmasternaturalist/files/UMNP_Mountains_Wildlife_Book_booklet.pdf

Lower San Juan – Piute Farms Waterfall

Lower San Juan Piute Farms Waterfall, An Example of Superimposition Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Piute Farms Waterfall on the San Juan River, An Example of Superimposition
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Piute Farms waterfall is a 25-ft high cascade that has formed along the San Juan River and spans its entire width. The location is a remote spot in an upstream arm of Lake Powell reservoir.

To reach the falls it takes a rough two-hour drive from Mexican Hat, or a 100-mile-boat ride from Bullfrog Marina in Lake Powell.

It formed when the tributary re-routed itself, cut through a thick layer of sediment, and began flowing over a bedrock cliff.

Scientists call this phenomenon superimposition.

Jack Schmidt, Janet Quinney Lawson Chair of Colorado River Studies in the Quinney College of Natural Resources at USU explains, “When reservoirs are created by the construction of dams, the sediment load of inflowing rivers is deposited in the most upstream part of the reservoir. In Lake Powell…the deposits in the…San Juan arm of the reservoir are as much as 80ft thick.”

“[If} reservoirs…drop…the inflowing rivers erode into the accumulated sediment. There is no guarantee the location of the new channel will be in the same place as…the original channel.”

The San Juan River’s original route was buried under the thick layer of sediment. The river’s response was to form a new channel one mile south of the original route and over the ridge.

Schmidt continues, “A [similar] thing…happened in Lake Mead reservoir where an unrunnable rapid formed near Pearce Ferry where the new Colorado River flows over a lip… [of] consolidated sediment. Although not a vertical waterfall, Pearce Ferry Rapid is sometimes more dangerous to boating than any rapid in the Grand Canyon!”

With future droughts, we can expect reservoirs to be at low levels for extended periods, and superimposition will continue to occur forming additional waterfalls and obstructions. Managers monitor the positive and negative effects of these changes.

One impact of the Piute Farms waterfall is a novel subpopulation of endangered razorback suckers which are now blocked from swimming upstream to spawn.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Zach Ahrens, Native Aquatics Biologist at Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and graduate student at USU says, “The razorback and other native fishes in the Colorado River basin have evolved over millions of years to play their roles in spite of the extremes of temperature and flow in their riverine environment. Given the uncertainty of future climate and water resources…it’s important to do what we can to ensure their continued survival.”

Before the waterfall formed, managers were not sure what percentage of razorback suckers travelled this far upstream.

Endangered Razerbck Sucker Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer
Endangered Razerbck Sucker
Captured near Piute Farms Waterfall
Courtesy & Copyright Mark McKinstry, Photographer

Mark McKinstry, Biological Scientist from the Bureau of Reclamation, explains, “It took perseverance, technology, and dedication of a lot of different folks to find where…the Razorbacks are and understand the fish’s life history strategy.”

Peter MacKinnon with the Quinney College of Natural Resources at Utah State University and Biomark Inc. provided the technical expertise to set up a method to insert Razorback suckers with pit tags (similar to those used in cats and dogs) then track them with antennas placed below the falls.

With this tracking method, managers and researchers identified more than 1000 razorback suckers below the falls, apparently trying to ascend the waterfall. Approximately 2000-4000 suckers live in the San Juan River. It is estimated about 25% of the razorbacks are unable to spawn – because the waterfall blocks fish passage. This could influence the population of the endangered fish.

The Bureau of Reclamation consulted with experts on how to help razorback suckers get past the waterfall so they can move upstream and spawn. The most feasible suggestion seems to be, to build a naturalized fish passage around the side of the waterfall. Managers and volunteers would build a trap location on the upstream side of the passage where fish moving upstream could be captured; volunteers could then release the captured razorbacks and other native fish upstream where they choose to spawn.

Phaedra Budy, professor in the Watershed Sciences Department and Unit Leader for U.S. Geological Survey Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit said, “The Razorback sucker has intrinsic value to the San Juan River and beyond, is a critical member of the ecosystem, and deserves every effort for recovery.”

Managers and researchers hope their information gained and recovery efforts will give the endangered razorback suckers an increased chance for survival in its changing environment.

This is Shauna Leavitt and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mark McKinstry
Audio: Courtesy Western Soundscape Archive, University of Utah, Sound provided by The National Park Service, licensed under CCA-ND
Text: Shauna Leavitt, USGS Utah Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, Quinney College of Natural Resources, Utah State University

Sources & Additional Reading

Waterfall Still Blocks San Juan River, River Runners for Wilderness(RRFW), https://rrfw.org/riverwire/waterfall-still-blocks-san-juan-river

https://www.americansouthwest.net/utah/monument_valley/piute_farms.html

Razorback Sucker(Page 68), Utah’s Endandengered Fish, 2018 Utah Fishing Guidebook, Utah Division of Wildlife Services, https://wildlife.utah.gov/guidebooks/2018_pdfs/2018_fishing.pdf

Fish Ecology Lab, Utah State University, 
https://www.usu.edu/fel/