Buttes & Mesas

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Book Cliffs
Courtesy: Bureau of Land Management
US Dept. of the Interior

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

Not long ago , driving from Logan to Moab, I was admiring the dramatic and austere landscape features from the highway. To the north were the vertical escarpments of the Book Cliffs—gray slopes and cliffs that extend all the way from Price, Utah, to Grand Junction, Colorado. Gazing at them from the highway, I wondered : Are they plateaus? mesas? buttes? Any self-respecting Utahn should know the difference between these terms. But even with a master’s degree in geography, the concepts had become fuzzy in my mind with the passage of time.

When I got back home, I turned to Home Ground, a collection of American landscape definitions edited by Barry Lopez. Here you’ll read that a plateau is an extensive area of nearly level land that rises abruptly above a surrounding landscape on at least one side. In this sense, the Tavaputs is a classic Utah plateau and the Book Cliffs form its south-facing escarpment. The Wasatch Plateau –home of the headwaters of the San Rafael and Fremont Rivers –is another classic plateau.

Professor Valley:
Dome Plateau is really a mesa
from Sorrel River Ranch
Courtesy Matt Ceniceros

Plateaus are sometimes called tablelands. This can be confusing, because plateaus aren’t necessarily elevated on all four sides and they are too big to look like tables. But mesas do look like tables and the word mesa means “table” in Spanish. A mesa is a flat-topped mountain or rock mass, usually capped with a layer of weather-resistant rock. In general, a mesa is smaller than a plateau, but the size difference between them is not defined in any absolute terms.

At least everyone seems to agree that a mesa is always wider than it is tall. A butte, on the other hand, is always taller than it is wide. At one point in its development, the butte was probably part of a mesa. Then, over time, the connecting rock eroded away. I’ve often heard buttes referred to as a mesa’s child, or orphan. As a child, the butte’s parent mesa still exists nearby ; erosion has removed an expanse of rock leaving two structures instead of one. When the butte is an orphan, the surrounding rock has been completely removed, leaving a solitary outpost of resistant geologic history.

Eventually, even with a resistant cap, a butte will be weathered down to a landform that is narrower than it is tall. Then it becomes a spire. Synonyms for a spire include tower, monolith or monument.

Close-up of Fisher Towers
in Professor Valley
Courtesy Utah Geological Survey

You’ll often find that a particular butte is called Such and Such Mesa, and a mesa may be called Such and Such Butte or Plateau. This is because local names given by early explorers and settlers stuck whether or not they were consistent with any accepted definition. Thus, in the cliff-rimmed Professor Valley northwest of Moab, Dome Plateau is really a mesa and Convent Mesa is really a butte. And Grand Mesa, to the east of Grand Junction, is a whole lot larger than Beckwith Plateau near Green River, UT.

For pictures of Utah plateaus, buttes and mesas, check out our web page: www.wildaboututah.org.
Thanks to the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa for supporting the development of this Wild About Utah topic. The Ranch offers deluxe lodging and services on a scenic bend of the Colorado River, 20 minutes from Moab in the spectacular Professor Valley.

And to Dr. Jack Schmidt in the Watershed Sciences Dept. at Utah State University.

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



  1. “Book Cliffs” Source: BLM
  2. “Professor Valley: Dome Plateau is really a mesa” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  3. “Professor Valley: Convent Mesa is really a butte” Source: Sorrel River Ranch (Matt Ceniceros)
  4. “Close-up of Fisher Towers in Professor Valley” Source: Utah Geological Survey

Text: Stokes Nature Center: Holly Strand

Sources & Additional Reading

Home Ground: Language for an American Landscape, Barry Lopez, Debra Gwartney, 2006, Trinity University Press, San Antonio, TX

Discerning the Glorious Songs of our Thrushes

Hermit Thrush
Lee Karney, US Fish & Wildlife Service
Hermit Thrush
Dave Menke, US Fish & Wildlife Service

Utah is blessed with many melodious songbirds, but which one sings most beautifully of all? I vote for the haunting, achingly beautiful melodies of our two common thrushes, Swainson’s Thrush and Hermit Thrush. These birds have been leisurely migrating northward from the tropics since early spring. By June, males are singing on their forested territories.

Thrushes are a bit secretive, but if you re lucky, you ll see a bird a tad smaller than a robin clothed in rich brown back feathers that contrast with a pale breast sporting descending lines of fat brown spots the size of raindrops. Both thrush species look much the same, however. To distinguish them, you need to listen. Their haunting melodies arise deep in their chests, in the syrinx. Their syrinx works something like our larynx, using vibrating membranes that can be stretched taut or relaxed to produce different notes. Unlike our larynx, the bird’s syrinx sits where it’s two tracheae meet the windpipe. The most skilled songsters, like these thrushes, can work the two sides of their syrinx independently to produce two simultaneous notes.

The song of the Swainson’s Thrush always ends in a spiral of ascending notes.

[Audio: Swainson’s Thrush #61 Songbirds of Yellowstone and the High Rockies]

Now listen to the song of the Hermit Thrush. It ends with a warbling flourish that alternately rises or falls in pitch.

[Audio: Hermit Thrush #27 Songbirds of the Rocky Mountains]

It helps me to remember the song of the Hermit Thrush as being a lonely hermit talking to himself in two different voices, one ending high, the other low.

The glorious songs of thrushes grace our woodlands all through the weeks of early summer. So listen carefully and see if you too can now distinguish the song of Swainson’s Thrush from that of the Hermit.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photos: Courtesy Fish and Wildlife Service Online Digital Media Library


Audio: Dr. Kevin Colver, www.wildsanctuary.com

Text: Jim Cane & Jason Pietrzak, Bridgerland Audubon Society
Additional Reading:

Hermit Thrush



Swainson’s Thrush



Riparian Habitat

Lower Calf Creek
A lower riparian zone
Courtesy and
Copyright © Charles Hawkins

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

When you think of Utah, a number of iconic landscapes come to mind. The arches, buttes and mesas in southeastern Utah’s red rock country; the snow-capped mountains of the majestic Wasatch Range, the endless horizon of the Bonneville Salt Flats and the immense expanse of the Great Salt Lake. But the most critical ecosystem in terms of life support for Utah’s plants and animals is not always recognized. I’m referring to riparian zones. These are the ecosystems that occur along the banks of streams and rivers. They are most recognizable in the desert where they occur as distinctive green strips of vegetation along waterways. But they also occur in grasslands, shrublands and forests albeit with different compositions of plants and animals.

Riparian areas provide all the basic needs of life – food, water and shelter from predators – in a surprisingly compact space. Intact riparian zones are physically complex, with a layer of grass, then shrubs, then upper canopy trees. This structural complexity creates a number of biological niches. That’s why the highest levels of biodiversity are consistently found there. Average bird densities are approximately twice as high in riparian areas as in adjacent upland areas. And more wildlife species use riparian areas than all other habitats in Utah combined. Even fish populations are higher in streams adjacent to riparian areas. Fish use woody debris as shelter, and the vegetation stabilizes stream channels and reduces temperature fluctuations in the water.

Riparian areas only cover about one half of one percent of Utah’s total land area. Above 5500 feet the dominant woody plants are willow, cottonwood, water birch, black hawthorn and wild rose. Common animals include the northern river otter, the beaver, American dipper, smooth greensnake and the rubber boa.

Invasive Tamarisk(Salt Cedar)
populates a lower riparian
zone in Professor Valley along
the Colorado River
Courtesy and
Copyright © 2009 Holly Strand

Lowland riparian areas represent one of the rarest habitats in the state-covering only 0.2 percent of Utah’s total land area. Fremont cottonwood, netleaf hackberry, velvet ash, desert willow and squaw-bush are the most visible plants here. The exotic tamarisk and Russian olive are now frequently part of the lowland mix. Mollusks, broad-tailed hummingbirds, canyon treefrogs, Allen’s big-eared bats, yellow-billed cuckoos, and many other animals depend on lowland riparian habitats. My personal riparian favorite is the belted kingfisher that patrols the green-lined waterways in search of tasty fish.

Humans were originally riparian creatures. But once we learned to pipe and move water at will, we were free to settle elsewhere. Nevertheless, we are still attracted to aquatic landscapes. So Utah’s riparian areas have taken on a recreational function for many of us. They offer great fishing, they cool us off as we paddle or float, and they provide a quiet sanctuary to enjoy the sight and sound of water. Best of all, riparian areas offer an excellent opportunity to catch a glimpse of Utah’s amazing wildlife.

Thanks to the USU College of Natural Resources for supporting research and development of this Wild About Utah topic. And thanks to Frank Howe of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and. Charles Hawkins of USU’s Watershed Science Department for their help with the scientific content of this piece.

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


Text: Stokes Nature Center: Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Frank Howe & Holly Strand

“Commonly Asked Questions About Riparian Management Systems,” Agroecology Issue Team, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Iowa State University.
Hawkins, Charles P. “What are Riparian Ecosystems and Why are We Worried About Them?” Riparian Resources: A Symposium on the Disturbances, Management, Economics and Conflicts Associated with Riparian Ecosystems, Natural Resources and Environmental Issues, Volume I, 1994, College of Natural Resources, Utah State University.
State of Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources. Lowland Riparian Habitat. http://wildlife.utah.gov/cwcs/01.pdf [ accessed May 11, 2009 ]
State of Utah, Division of Wildlife Resources. Mountain Riparian Habitat. http://wildlife.utah.gov/cwcs/03.pdf [ accessed May 11, 2009 ]

Snowbank Mushrooms

Snowbank Mushrooms to the right of retreating snow
© 2008 Don Johnston, Intermountain Herbarium

Hiding beneath and fruiting near the retreating snow banks here in the western mountains of North America are legions of mushrooms. Collectively known as snowbank fungi, this diverse group of fungal species is found only in the high elevation forests of our mountains were snow lingers into the summer months. These species are found mostly in the spruce-fir zone in mature forests were there is abundant litter and woody material on the forest floor and the snow pack is deep and lingers in the deep shade the trees provide. Many of the species found in such conditions are found no where else, while others are found elsewhere in the world, but not under these unique conditions.

This diverse group of fungi was first reported by Wm, Bridge Cooke in 1944 from Mt. Shasta, California. Here along the Wasatch Mountains of Utah the snowbank fungi are a predictable lot, and diverse and often abundant enough to wow even the experienced mushroomer. Some species are strictly decomposers that break down the forest litter and woody debris that carpets the forest floor while others are mycorrhizal forming those ecologically important beneficial relationships with the area plants.

The species found range from silver-gray gilled species to colorful cup and jelly fungi. At an otherwise drab time in the forest blue-stained orange cub fungi litter areas were squirrels have cached conifer seeds and cones, pale orange jelly-like poor man’s gumdrops drops dot woody debris on the forest floor. Large logs and stumps play hot to the deep orange sponge polypore with its deep ragged teeth, hidden on the forest floor is the black champagne glass-shaped Plectannia nannfeldtii, while the pale-brown, gilled Clitocybe albirhiza is rather widely scattered on the forest floor it is easily distinguished by the copious white root-like projections at the base of the stem just below the soil surface. Slime molds are found fruiting as is the edible wood ear, beneath the soil are several false truffles attracting the squirrels with enticing (to them) aromas.

So why wait for the snow to melt to enjoy the high forest? These and many more wait discovering just under the melting snow.

This is Linda Kervin for Bridgerland Audubon Society.


Photo: Lentinus montana.; by Don Johnston, © 2009 Intermountain Herbarium

Text: Michael Piep, Intermountain Herbarium, Utah State University

Intermountain Herbarium: http://herbarium.usu.edu/

Bridgerland Mushroom Society: http://herbarium.usu.edu/#Bridgerland

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

Arora, David. 1986. Mushrooms Demystified (2nd Ed.). 10 Speed Press. Berkeley.

Johnston, Don. Ongoing. Mushrooms of Utah. Mushroom Society of Utah. Salt Lake City.

Cooke, W.B. 1944. Notes on the ecology of the fungi of Mt. Shasta. American Midland Naturalist 31: 237-49.

Cripps, C. 2009. Snowbank Fungi Revisited. FUNGI 2(1); 47-53.

Orr, R.T. & D.B. Orr. 1979. Mushrooms of Western North America. University of California Press. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London.

Smith, A.H. 1975. A Field Guide to Western Mushrooms. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor.

Tylutki, E. E. 1987. Mushrooms of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest: Vol. 2 Non-gilled Hymenomycetes. University of Idaho Press. Moscow, Idaho.

Tylutki, E.E. 1993. Mushrooms of Idaho and the Pacific Northwest: Vol. 1 Discomycetes. University of Idaho Press. Moscow, Idaho.