As a Child I Loved Nature

Chickadee Courtesy edbo23, photographer and Pixabay
Chickadee
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.
 
Credits:

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/



Gulls

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!

    Credits:

    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
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0600id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Bonapartes_Gull.html
    Herring Gull
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0510id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Herring_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsD-K/HerringGull3.htm
    California gull Larus californicus
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0530id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/California_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsA-C/CaliforniaGull.htm
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsA-C/CaliforniaGull2.htm
    Franklin’s gull Larus pipixcan
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0590id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Franklins_Gull.html
    Thayer’s gull Larus thayeri
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/id/framlst/i0518id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Thayers_Gull.html
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/ThayersGull2.htm
    Ring-billed gull Larus delawarensis
    https://www.mbr-pwrc.usgs.gov/Infocenter/i0540id.html
    http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Ring-billed_Gull.html
    Mew Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsL-R/MewGull.htm
    Glaucous-winged Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsD-K/GlaucousWingedGull.htm
    Sabine’s Gull
    http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsS-Z/SabinesGull.htm

    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

    Credits:
    Images:
        Artwork Courtesy & Copyright Josh Boling’s 3rd Grade students
        Photos Courtesy & Copyright Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School Field Experience Director
    Sound:
    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/

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
    Female Yellowstone Elk Courtesy & Copyright Bonnie McDonald
    Arguably the most scientifically-important (and controversial) elk herd in the world, because it has been scrutinized and studied the longest, is in Yellowstone National Park.

    The first professional study of the herd was started in 1916 and the herd has been at the center of debates about the forces that shape wildland ecosystems ever since.

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Spring Elk Herd Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
    Spring Elk Herd
    Courtesy Utah DWR, Tom Becker, Photographer
    In addition to providing insight into ecosystems, the Northern Yellowstone elk have been an important source population for restoring other elk herds in the United States and Canada where they were eliminated during the late 1800s. Many elk herds in North America trace their ancestry to translocated elk from northern Yellowstone.

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Utah Cow & Bull Elk Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
    Utah Cow & Bull Elk
    Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
    The herd has a seasonal migration route that stretches from the Paradise Valley in southwest Montana to the southern boundary of Yellowstone National Park – a distance of 80 miles.

    Prior to the Yellowstone’s establishment in 1872, market hunting decimated the elk herd, reducing it to a few thousand animals. Through the 20th century the population gradually grew and in 1994 it reached a peak of over 19,000.

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
    Collared Yellowstone Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Matt Metz
    A year later, the first of 41 grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone.

    People wondered what impact these wolves would have on the Yellowstone herd since elk are the main source of food for the canines.

    Dan MacNulty, associate professor in the Department of Wildland Resources in the Quinney College of Natural Resource at USU, who has been studying Yellowstone wolves for the past two decades said, “people were concerned wolves were inducing a landscape of fear which was changing the way elk were using their habitat.”

    They imagined the poor creatures hiding in less than ideal habitats because they had been chased off by the wolves.

    However, studies conducted by MacNulty and others have since revealed that elk continue to maintain regular access to all their usual habitats irrespective of wolves. In one recent study, for example, MacNulty and his team found adult female elk established and maintained winter home ranges without regard to several measures of wolf predation risk including the density of wolves and the risky areas where wolves often kill elk.

    Yellowstone Elk’s response to Wolves: Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
    Female Yellowston Elk Defending Herself From a Wolf
    Courtesy & Copyright Robert Landis
    Elk coexist with wolves in a variety of ways. One way is elk use the riskier areas of the landscape when wolves are resting, which is in the afternoon and, surprisingly, at night. Wolves don’t have ideal vison for nocturnal hunting, so they often settle down after sunset and resume hunting at dawn. These nightly lulls in wolf activity allow elk to graze the open grasslands in relative safety.

    But even when wolves are on the prowl, elk don’t seem to go out their way to avoid them. MacNulty’s recent study found the rate at which elk encountered wolves was no different from what was expected if elk simply ignored wolves. This is possible because elk often survive their encounters with wolves, owing to their larger size, aggressive demeanor, and herding behavior. As a result, elk seem to place greater emphasis on finding food than on avoiding wolves.

    The emerging picture is that the effect of wolves on the northern Yellowstone elk herd is defined by wolves eating rather than scaring elk. How much this consumptive effect actually matters for elk population growth is the focus of ongoing research. One clue that it may not matter too much is the elk population has been steadily growing since 2012.

    MacNulty cautions that we should recognize the complexity of the Yellowstone ecosystem and resist the urge to jump to conclusions, and instead rely on patient data-gathering to test what may seem obvious.

    Nature can be full of surprises.

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

    Credits:
    Photos:
        Courtesy & Copyright Dan MacNulty
        Courtesy & Copyright Tom Becker
        Courtesy & Copyright Greg Sheehan
    Audio: Courtesy and Copyright Kevin Colver
    Text: Shauna Leavitt

    Sources & Additional Reading

    Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Yellowstone Elk Don’t Budge for Wolves say Scientists, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Mar. 26, 2019, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58299

    Hillyard, Traci, Cotterill, Gavin, Hidden Costs of Disease to Greater Yellowstone Elk, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=58055

    Hillyard, Traci, MacNulty, Dan, Kohl, Michel, Yellowstone’s ‘Landscape of Fear’ Not So Scary After All, Utah State Today, Utah State University, Tuesday, Friday, Jun. 22, 2018, https://www.usu.edu/today/?id=57785

    Elk, Yellowstone National Park, US National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/nature/elk.htm

    French, Brett, Famous Yellowstone elk herd rebounds two decades after wolf reintroduction, tar-Tribune Feb 3, 2018, https://trib.com/outdoors/famous-yellowstone-elk-herd-rebounds-two-decades-after-wolf-reintroduction/article_0f7eefd9-484b-5060-a68d-2ebfbed2b054.html