Winter Song Birds

A Black-capped Chickadee
Courtesy Bridgerland Audubon Society
Stephen Peterson, Photographer

In the icy, short days of winter, you may think that Nature itself has curled up to hibernate. Our gardens are colorless. Deciduous trees are stripped down to bare limbs and twigs. Many songbirds bid us farewell before flying south. In truth, what remains to be seen and heard of nature here in winter is more subtle and less complex. Now is the time to learn calls and songs of birds that reside here year-round, to hear them in solo performances, before the confusing springtime symphonies of birdsong.

This first bird calls its own name.[sound: “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee” #9 Songbirds of the Rocky Mountain Foothills]. That would be a chickadee. Black-capped Chickadees take sunflower seeds one at a time from our feeders. When I’m out snowshoeing or skiing in our forests, inquisitive chickadees are my welcome companions. They put some joy in a wintry day.

Sometimes a winter chickadee flock has other birds. [Sound: “annk-annk” #48 Songbirds of Yellowstone]. This bird sounds like a child’s squeak toy, but that nasal call belongs to the red breasted nuthatch. Look for this chunky small bird at your suet feeder, or cruising up and down tree trunks in its search for bugs.

We also have a minimalist in our winter bird repertoire. [Sound: “tew” #62 Songbirds of Yellowstone]. That single note belongs to the Townsend’s solitaire, which looks like a lean robin, but the somber gray of an overcast sky. Solitaires get through our winters dining mostly on juniper berries. Their call stakes out their winter feeding territory. They are regulars at are heated birdbath, I suppose washing down all those puckery berries.– Winter is the time to appreciate Townsend’s solitaire, before their singular tune is drowned out by the chorus of returning migrants.

You often hear chickadees, nuthatches and solitaires before you see them, as their plumage is neither colorful nor splashy. If you notice these calls on a winter’s day, it is because you are quiet and focused on the nature around you, leaving civilization’s hubub behind. Winter birds can do that for you. We will share more of Kevin Colver’s bird recordings with you this winter on Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Bird Sounds: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Dr. Kevin Colver, Songbirds of the Rocky Mountain Foothills and Songbirds of Yellowstone and the High Rockies http://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/

Text: Jim Cane and Linda Kervin, Bridgerland Audubon Society http://www.bridgerlandaudubon.org

Additional Reading:

Black-capped Chickadee, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Black-capped_Chickadee.html

Red-breasted Nuthatch, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Red-breasted_Nuthatch.html

Townsend’s Solitaire, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, http://www.birds.cornell.edu/AllAboutBirds/BirdGuide/Townsends_Solitaire.html

A Utah Skier’s Snow Lexicon

Utah Skier Brian Head Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Utah Skier
Brian Head
Courtesy USDA Forest Service
Hi, I’m Holly Strand from Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

Many linguists believe that the language we use both affects and reflects our experience of the world. A popular illustration is that Eskimos have an unusually large number of words to describe snow—32 or more depending on the source. This diverse snow vocabulary is said to be linked with the fact that Eskimos live in a snowy environment and therefore various conditions or forms of snow are more meaningful to them.

There’s a problem with this example: First of all, the term Eskimo is troublesome. A number of cultures are referred to under the umbrella term “Eskimo” and a number of different languages are in the Eskimo-Aleut family.
Secondly, Eskimo-Aleut languages such as Inuit or Yupik tend to join noun roots and suffixes into one word while the same concept may exist in other languages as two words or a phrase.

Some experts believe that an American skier has just as many words for snow as the so-called Eskimo. There are terms defining different snow conditions in the air, on the ground or in certain formations.
In the air, a single unit of snow is a flake. A lot of flakes blowing at least 35 mph is a blizzard. A whiteout is a blizzard with zero visibility. A flurry is swirling mass of snow moved by sudden gusts of wind. Graupel is snow that has been coated by frozen cloud droplets to form a somewhat spherical shape. Snain is a mix of snow and rain, known offslope as “wintry mix.”

Once it hits the ground, snow ideally exists as champagne powder. Untracked snow is delightful and bottomless powder can be fun but challenging. Snow boarders and backcountry skiers might refer to a fresh dump of powder as phat pow. (As in “Dude, it’s gonna be a phat pow day.”) On a clear cold night when surface hoar forms on top of powder, you can get loud powder which makes a beautiful tinkling sound when you ski over it.

Lightly packed powder is acceptable snow for most skiers. Beginner skiers often look for freshly groomed snow. Snow that has been repeatedly groomed by snow cats creates corduroy snow.

There seem to be a lot more words for snow that reflect less favorable ski conditions. Crud, boilerplate, bulletproof, breakable crust, slush and mashed potatoes to name a few. Corn means that large, loose snow crystals froze at night, melted loose during the day and now act like ball bearings under your feet or skis. Death cookies, or frozen chicken heads form when spring slush refreezes. Utah skiers venturing outside the state might encounter blue ice in the East or Sierra cement to the west.

While you are skiing, you might encounter snow in the form of a drift, cornice, avalanche, bank, pipe, roll or mogul. If children are around you might see a snowman, snowfort or snowcave.

I’ve really just touched the surface here. If you consider all the words for snow, ice and crystal structures and weather conditions, the number of snow words really soars. As snow specialists with a diverse vocabulary, you could say that Utah skiers could give the Eskimos a run for their money.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.

For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.

Credits:

Photo: Travel.Utah.gov

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Thanks to Jim Akers, Sara Goeking, and Phaedra Budy for their assistance with snow terminology.

Interesting Reading:

Pullum, George. 1991. The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax and Other Irreverent Essays on the Study of Language. University of Chicago Press.

Sagebrush

Sagebrush near Raft River, UT
Sagebrush near Raft River, UT – Photo Courtesy and Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

Hi, I’m Holly Strand of Stokes Nature Center in beautiful Logan Canyon.

I was always prone to homesickness when I spent long periods in the Eastern US and abroad. Returning to Colorado for visits, I would break off a small branch of sagebrush to pack in my suitcase. That way I could always take some essence of home along with me. Now I don’t need to do that. The desert air and cold winters here in Utah make it a sagebrush heaven.

The scent that has become so dear to me comes from the volatile oils of the sagebrush plant. Ironically, the smell that appeals so much to me repels most animals. The aromatic properties of the sagebrush are a by-product of chemicals that evolved as a pest deterrent and as anti-freeze. Sagebrush oils have a very bitter taste. Browsers, such as deer and elk avoid the plants, nibbling on sagebrush only in winter months when the concentration of oils has decreased. And even then, only as a last resort. The pronghorn– a North American native that co-evolved with sagebrush–can tolerate it better than other herbivores.

Within the sunflower family, sagebrush belongs to the genus Artemisia – a group of wind-pollinated plants spread mostly across the northern hemisphere. The 400 or so species in this genus include a variety of sagebrushes, sageworts, and wormwoods.

The Atlas of Vascular Plants of Utah lists 19 different species in the Artemisia genus. Among the most common, you’ll find sand sagebrush in the dunes and deep sand regions in southern Utah. Black sagebrush is found on gentle, rocky slopes and windswept ridges in dry, shallow soils, in the foothills and desert mountain ranges. Bud sagebrush is common in salt-desert shrub communities from 4-6000 ft. Almost everywhere, however, big sagebrush dominates. It occurs in valleys, basins, and mountain slopes, at elevations between 2,500 and 10,000 feet. In Utah, you’ll also hear big sagebrush called Great Basin, Wyoming or mountain sagebrush.

Humans have put the unique qualities of sagebrush and its relatives to good use. The volatile oils are toxic to many intestinal parasites, therefore early Americans used it to rid themselves of worms. Oils have also been used to combat infections and to treat internal wounds. Eurasian wormwood–an introduced plant in Utah–is the defining ingredient, in the liquor absinthe, and is used for flavoring in other spirits and wines, including bitters and vermouth. The spice tarragon comes from dragonswort, an Artemisa species found in both Eurasia and N. America.

Ecologists used to think that the presence of sagebrush discourages or suppresses other forms of life. Certainly, sagebrush desert steppes are generally poor in species. The truth is that few species can tolerate the temperature extremes, soil conditions and lack of water the way that sagebrush can. So the next time you see some, pick a leaf, crush it, smell it, and admire this tough but well-adapted Utah native.

Dr. Leila Shultz, a Utah State University expert on sagebrush provided the science information for this piece.

Thanks to the Rocky Mountain Power Foundation for supporting research and development of Wild About Utah topics.
For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center I’m Holly Strand.

 

Credits:

Photo Courtesy & Copyright 2007 Dr. Leila Shultz

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading:

Digital Atlas of the Vascular Plants of Utah, http://earth.gis.usu.edu/plants/index.html

Mushrooms in Utah

Russula emetica
Courtesy &Copyright 2008 Michael Piep

Does the mere mention of stuffed or sauteed mushrooms start your mouth to water? Perhaps you start your day dreaming of morels, porcini, truffles or chanterelles. Alas, what is poor mushroom aficionado to do? Michael Piep of the Utah State Intermountain Herbarium tells me that tasty wild mushrooms can be as close as our own backyards.

From among the most delicate and delicious to the most deadly, Utah has them. Many people are astonished to learn that Utah is home to a diversity of mushrooms. Our state has several thousand species of fungi, from molds that inhabit that old jar of jelly to the delicious King Bolete of our conifer forests.

Adroit at camouflage, Utah’s fungal wealth can be discovered by the dedicated. What is better than a day spent searching the forests for edible mushrooms? Few activities compare to traipsing along riverbeds after morels in spring, all the while avoiding poison ivy. There is a reason they call it mushroom hunting.

Fungi can be both blessing and curse… Some are innocuous decomposers of dead plant material, or active partners in mycorrhizal relationships with plant roots, but others cause dread illnesses in both plants and animals…. the fungi do it all. In each of our state’s plant communities live unique species of mushrooms, as any avid mushroom hunter can tell you.
Of course, the fruiting or our devious little friends is weather dependant. So petition your local weather service for wet weather. Dry air and soils inhibit fruiting by mushrooms.

The next time you eat a slice of bread, uncork a bottle of wine, quaff a beer, or simply savor grilled mushrooms on your steak, thank a fungus. If you wish to explore more, contact one of the two mushroom societies in the state. There, your fellow mushroom lovers will be happy to help you get on the path to fungal enlightenment.

Credits:

Photo: Courtesy and Copyright 2008 Michael Piep

Text: Michael Piep, Utah State University, Intermountain Herbarium http://herbarium.usu.edu

Additional Reading:

Bridgerland Mushroom Society will meet 18 February 2009 See http://herbarium.usu.edu/ for details

Mushroom Society of Utah http://www.utahmushrooms.com/

The Mushroom Journal, http://www.mushroomthejournal.com/

Utah State University: Intermountain Herbarium, http://herbarium.usu.edu

Fun Facts about Fungi, Utah State University, Intermountain Herbarium, http://herbarium.usu.edu/fungi/FunFacts/factindx.htm