Southwestern Utah Herps

Southwestern Utah Herps: Gila Monster, Courtesy Pixabay
Gila Monster
Courtesy Pixabay

Gila Monster Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer Gila Monster
Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer

Gila Monster Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer Gila Monster
Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer

Gila Monster Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer Gila Monster
Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer

Desert Tortoise - Right of Hat Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer Desert Tortoise – Right of Hat
Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer

I’m going to go beyond birds a few hundred million years to their precursors, who thrived long before our feathered mini-dinosaurs evolved. These ancient beings continue to thrive to this day, which lured 14 USU students and I to join them in the Mojave wilds of southwestern Utah.

We camped at the Gunlock State Park, where a Utah DWR herpetologist joined us for several hours, who appeared to know every scaly and slimy critter within a 10-mile radius.
A few highlights came when a Smith’s Black headed snake was discovered beneath a cow paddy, about the size of a large worm. No one thought it possible to find such a tiny, shy being, unless you’re flipping cow poo! Other popular reptiles were the small, delicate banded gecko and the diminutive, invasive Pacific tree frog.

Saturday was spent in Snow Canyon State Park where we were entertained by Cheyenne, a young SUU student naturalist, who kept us riveted with stories on some of the more iconic herp residents. She was emphatic on how to keep the reptiles safe from park visitors and ravens. “If a tortoise is crossing the road, please help it to the other side in the same direction it’s headed. Otherwise, never pick them up for they may release stored water, which could mean their death from dehydration. She also cautioned us on leaving the trail, for the desert tortoise spends much of it’s life in its labyrinth of burros. “Your footstep could cause a collapse, entombing the animal.”

Next, Cheyenne pulled a fully mounted Gila monster from her magical tub. Oohs and ahhs were audible, the penultimate reptile. She enthralled them with its life history, spending up to 95% of its life underground, often in tortoise burrows, emerging during the spring months for mating and feeding. It may eat 1/3 of its weight in one meal, consisting of bird, tortoise, and snake eggs and young, young mammals, carrion, and whoever else smells delicious and small enough to fit in its ravenous maw. Many of the calories are stored in its tail, which nourishes the animal for much of the year. Amazingly, Gila monster venom is used for diabetes and obesity treatment. Asked if she had seen a Gila monster. “No, but it’s at the top of my list!” she said.

Following a Cheyenne led hike, we continued the herp search beyond the park boundary. A tortoise discovery brought considerable excitement and photos, a rare siting! But that was overshadowed a half hour later when a Gila monster decided to present itself to myself. I began shouting “monster” hoping to rein in the dispersed crew. They came scrambling through the creosote bushes in disbelief. We immediately sent a text to Cheyenne with the coordinates, hoping she would see her first Monster in the wild! Never have I witnessed more excitement in my students, a surreal moment. I must check with Cheyenne on her success in finding the monster!

The Gila monster is considered near threatened by the IUCN from habitat loss and pet trade. In Utah it is illegal to handle Gila monsters without a permit.

This is Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I am Wild About Utah and its herps

https://pixabay.com/photos/gila-lizard-dragon-reptile-monster-5536750/
Sound credit goes to J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin and Anderson, Howe, Wakeman.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/photos/gila-lizard-dragon-reptile-monster-5536750/
Additional images Courtesy & © Jack Greene, photographer
Featured Audio: Courtesy & © Anderson, Howe and Wakeman,
Also includes audio Courtesy & © J. Chase & K.W. Baldwin
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Wild About Utah pieces authored by Jack Greene

Smith’s Black-headed Snake Tantilla hobartsmithi, Field Guide, Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Natural Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=tantilla%20hobartsmithi

Gila Monster, Heloderma suspectum, Field Guide, Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Natural Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=heloderma%20suspectum

Mojave Desert Tortoise Gopherus agassizii, Field Guide, Division of Wildlife Resources, Utah Division of Natural Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=gopherus%20agassizii

Western Banded Gecko – Coleonyx variegatus https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=coleonyx%20variegatus

Don’t keep illegal reptiles – including desert tortoises – or release pet reptiles, fish into wild, St George News, Sept 5, 2021, https://archives.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2021/12/05/prc-dont-keep-illegal-reptiles-or-release-pet-reptiles-fish-including-desert-tortoises-into-wild

A Ranger Moment: SUU student Cheyenne Mitchell speaks at OES, March 20, 2023 – by Jacob Horne, SUU News, Student Media, Southern Utah University https://suunews.net/2023/03/20/a-ranger-moment-suu-student-cheyenne-mitchell-speaks-at-oes/

Ask a herpetologist, Megen Kepas, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/wildlife-blog/1692-ask-a-herpetologist.html

Smith’s Black-headed Snake Tantilla hobartsmithi, https://www.inaturalist.org/taxa/28499-Tantilla-hobartsmithi
Information about the Smith above: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hobart_Muir_Smith

Gila Monster, Heloderma suspectum, IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/9865/13022716

A Sense of Where You Are

A Sense of Where You Are Courtesy Eric Newell with photo Copyright Michael L (Mick) Nicholls

A Sense of Where You Are Courtesy Eric Newell with photo Copyright Michael L (Mick) Nicholls

Eric Newell, author, Wild About Utah, Director of Experiential Learning and Technology, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, USU

Eric Newell, PhD
author, Wild About Utah
Director of Experiential Learning and Technology, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, USU

I arrived in Logan, Utah for winter quarter in 1994—after history professor Ross Peterson recruited my three sisters and I to Utah State University, despite the fact that our dad was a University of Utah professor and Dean. I was the final piece of Ross’ coup and he flashed a satiating grin when I first visited him on campus.

Before entering Ross’s office, I stopped to stare at a promotional poster for the Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, featuring—I later learned—Mike DeBloois, wearing a brim hat, silhouetted against the Grand Teton in Wyoming. The photograph was taken by USU history professor, Mick Nicholls. The caption read, “A sense of where you are.”

This is how I first became acquainted with the concept of “sense of place” and the idea that the wild places I valued, the wild places that were part of who I was, and who I am today, had value on a larger scale.

As a College of Natural Resources (CNR) student, I enrolled in Watershed Science with Jack Schmidt and Wilderness in American with Mark Brunson. Later I took Snow Dynamics with Mike Jenkins and Environmental Education with Barbara Middleton. I was delighted that I could take college courses on rivers, on Wilderness, on the science of avalanches, and on outdoor education. Though I later changed majors, those CNR courses provided connections to places and to knowledge I’ve drawn upon throughout my teaching career.

The next year, I enrolled in English professor Tom Lyon’s course, American Nature Writers.

Tom was a lean man with a long easy stride you could pick out from across the quad on campus. I still have the books we read for his class: American Women Afield, A Sand County Almanac, Refuge, My First Summer in the Sierra, and others. Tom took us to Logan Canyon to witness the endemic McGuire primrose in bloom. We talked in class about the books we read, then we ventured out to the west desert to backpack and write.

“Walden was written with a pen,” Tom emphasized before reading a passage aloud to us:

“O the evening robin, at the end of a New England summer day! If I could ever find the twig he sits upon! I mean he; I mean the twig.”

Tom’s emphasis on “the twig” inspired fellow classmate, Tim Wagner, to make T-shirts inscribed with the phrase.

Tom was a key figure in establishing the Department of English’s literary journal The Petroglyph which showcased nature writing from 1989 until 2001. In the 1990’s Tom’s efforts were crucial in preventing much of Highway 89 in Logan Canyon from becoming four-lanes. Tom’s sense of place was contagious. Several colleagues in that course pursued writing careers.

I transferred to elementary education my second year at USU because I believed the most important life work I could undertake was to connect the next generation of humans to wild places. I didn’t want to grow old in a world with people who had no understanding of, or connection to, the land that sustains us. I didn’t want to grow old in a world without advocates for conservation.

Here is what I know—getting outside to interact with the natural world matters. Spending time outdoors boosts our physical, mental, and spiritual health. We form connections with those we share our wild journeys with and we develop “a sense of where we are.”

I am Eric Newell and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Images: A Sense of Where You Are Courtesy Eric Newell with photo Copyright Michael L (Mick) Nicholls
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver Also includes audio Courtesy & © Anderson, Howe, & Wakeman
Text: Eric Newell, Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, Bridgerland Audubon

Additional Reading

WildAboutUtah pieces by Eric Newell, https://wildaboututah.org/author/eric-newell/

Mountain West Center for Regional Studies, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, Utah State University, https://www.usu.edu/mountainwest/

Edith Bowen Laboratory School, Utah State University, https://cehs.usu.edu/edithbowen/

Dashboard Shows
Peak Need for Dark Skies
and the Mantra to
Dim the Lights for Birds at Night

Milky Way above Chesler Park Canyonlands National Park Courtesy US National Park Service, Emily Ogden, Photographer

Milky Way above Chesler Park
Canyonlands National Park
Courtesy US National Park Service,
Emily Ogden, Photographer
Canyonlands is one of many parks in southern Utah with the International Dark Sky Park designation

 
BirdCast Migration Dashboard https://dashboard.birdcast.info/ Courtesy BirdCast, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology Cornell University

BirdCast Migration Dashboard
https://dashboard.birdcast.info/
Courtesy BirdCast, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Cornell University

Songbirds migrate at night to avoid predators, air turbulence, and daytime heat. Down here on the ground we are unaware of the miraculous and essential voyagers flying up to 10,000 feet above us, but thanks to dedicated scientists collaborating for years on end we have free access to the data and graphs of these massive population shifts. The BirdCast Dashboard uses weather radar to track bird migrations, providing real time data showing peak migrations at the website dashboard.birdcast.info.

Did you know that World Migratory Bird Day is celebrated in May and October? Those are the peak months for spring and fall migrations, and the magnitudes of those flocks are considerable. Two thirds of songbirds migrate at night.

It’s important to know when migrations are occurring because skyglow from artificial lighting causes bird disorientation and millions of bird fatalities each and every year. The declining bird population is problematic for many reasons, not least of which because some of the most intrepid travelers like the three-inch-long Rufous Hummingbird, which travels 3,900 miles each way from Alaska to Mexico, are keystone species with ecosystem services such as pollination and consumption of pests such as aphids and mosquitoes.

The Bobolink travels 12,500 miles to and from southern South America every year – those imperiled birds breeding at the west end of Logan may travel the equivalent of 4 or 5 times around the circumference of the earth throughout their lifetime. They come to Cache Valley for the habitat, stay to raise their young, and then head back to their distant winter feeding grounds.

A few top-notch steps toward bird-friendly living include the prevention of light trespass and skyglow, especially from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., March – May, and August – October. Close curtains to prevent the indoor light from escaping, and avoid blue light outdoors – choose warm white or amber lights, and shield light bulbs to direct light downward. Motion-activated light bulbs are a great way to safely light the way while cutting down on unnecessary outdoor lighting, especially since there’s no clear scientific evidence that outdoor lighting reduces crime. Excess light, on the other hand, is a crime, and light trespass is an enforceable infraction. Light pollution is harmful to humans and deadly for birds.

Logan Mayor Holly Daines signed a Proclamation to Dim the Lights for Birds at Night because reducing skyglow and light trespass saves energy and birds by reducing the often fatal disorientation caused by artificial light.

Dark Skies are filled with bright stars, so by jingles, what say we all “Dim the lights for birds at night!

I’m Hilary Shughart with the Bridgerland Audubon Society, and I am Wild About Utah!

Credits:
Images: Milky Way above Chesler Park, Canyonlands National Park, Courtesy US National Park Service, Emily Ogden, Photographer, https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?id=286169fc-2bab-40e0-bf8b-a13b5170aeb3&gid=2ADECB87-1DD8-B71B-0B09BD0B18C96667
Screenshot: BirdCast Migration Dashboard, Courtesy BirdCast, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://dashboard.birdcast.info/
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Kevin Colver, https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/collections/special-collections/kevin-colver
Text: Hilary Shughart, President, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Hilary Shughart and Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

WildAboutUtah pieces by Hilary Shughart, https://wildaboututah.org/author/hilary-shughart/

Miller, Zach, Dark Sky Parks, Wild About Utah, Nov 2, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/dark-sky-parks/

Leavitt, Shauna, Natural Quiet and Darkness in our National Parks, Wild About Utah, May 6, 2019 & August 3, 2020, https://wildaboututah.org/natural-quiet-and-darkness-in-our-national-parks/

Rask, Kajler, Dark Skies, Wild About Utah, Jan 1, 2018, https://wildaboututah.org/dark-skies/

Dark Skies, Bird-Friendly Living, Advocacy, Bridgerland Audubon Society, May 2022, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/advocacy/bird-friendly-living/dark-skies/

Dim the Lights for Birds at Night, Bridgerland Audubon Society, May 3, 2022, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/our-projects/advocacy/bird-friendly-living/dark-skies/

International Dark Skies Association, Utah Chapter, https://utah.darksky.ngo/

Welzbacker, Hannah, Tracking a Night-Time River of Birds, Cool Green Science, The Nature Conservancy, April 13, 2021, https://blog.nature.org/science/2021/04/13/tracking-a-night-time-river-of-birds/?fbclid=IwAR18LKCQUmSlb-hHM1u4FXfVe-GqyWTwiPx91obUQbq2uB9kcPU2djlCnlk

BirdCast Dashboard, The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://dashboard.birdcast.info/

Global Bird Collision Mapper, Fatal Light Awareness Program (FLAP) Canada, https://flap.org/
See also https://birdmapper.org/

Lowe, Joe, Do Hummingbirds Migrate?, American Bird Conservancy, September 12, 2019, https://abcbirds.org/blog/do-hummingbirds-migrate/

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Species, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, https://fieldguide.wildlife.utah.gov/?species=dolichonyx%20oryzivorus

Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Bobolink

Lighting, Crime and Safety, International Dark-Sky Association, https://www.darksky.org/light-pollution/lighting-crime-and-safety/#:~:text=There%20is%20no%20clear%20scientific,cost%20a%20lot%20of%20money

2022 Proclamation “Dim the Lights for Birds at Night”, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/dim-the-lights-for-birds-at-night/

The use of the “by jingles” exclamation is in homage to Warren Dahlin’s moving Moth Radio Hour story “Open My Eyes”, in which he “makes a friend who stays with him in life and in death.” Heard on Utah Public Radio (5/28/22), The Moth, https://themoth.org/stories/open-my-eyes

Owens, Avalon & Cochard, Précillia & Durrant, Joanna & Farnworth, Bridgette & Perkin, Elizabeth & Seymoure, Brett. (2019). Light pollution is a driver of insect declines. Biological Conservation. 241. 108259. 10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108259. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2019.108259

Great-tailed Grackles

Great-Tailed Grackle Male
Courtesy US FWS, John & Karen Hollingsworth, Photographers
Great-Tailed Grackle Male
Courtesy US FWS, John & Karen Hollingsworth, Photographers
My formal introduction to great-tailed grackles was on a birding trip to Box Elder County. We stopped at the Walmart parking lot in Brigham City where Dick Hurren took a cup of cat food and tossed it out in front of our parked car. Then we watched the grackles fly in. We joked, at the time, that grackles seemed to spontaneously show up at new stores. It’s almost as if they hitchhike on semis.

The Brigham City grackles had long, V-shaped tails. Dick explained that three grackle species are native in the US. Florida’s boat-tailed grackles are found along the east and gulf coasts and common grackles are found mostly east of the Rockies. Mexican or great-tailed grackles have become the most common in developed areas of the West; although, according to eBird and UtahBirds.org, both common and great-tailed varieties frequent Utah.

Grackle species are also distinguished by their size and color: between a robin and a crow in size, they are about the same length as American crows, but not as heavy. Common grackles have more varied colors and long tails. Boat-tailed grackles have dark eyes; whereas great-tailed males are iridescent black with piercing yellow eyes. Female great-tails are dark brown above and paler below, with a buff-colored throat and a stripe above the eye. Juveniles have coloring similar to females with a dark eye.

Omnivorous, grackles forage in fields, feedlots, golf courses, cemeteries, parks, neighborhoods, and parking lots. Trees and reeds near water provide roosting and breeding sites where larger males claim their flock’s territory with song.

Great-tails have an unusually large repertoire of vocalizations that are used year-round. Flamboyant males perform a wider variety, while females engage mostly in chattering sounds. “Chut” from females and “Clack” from males warn of humans or other predators. Even though most female calls are low-key, there are reports of females singing their own territorial song.
Because they are loud, and large numbers of birds can leave great deposits of droppings, grackles are often considered pests. This designation is especially true in Texas and other southern states where flocks of 100,000 or more roam parking lots.

And they are smart! Icterids, the New World blackbirds, including bobolinks, meadowlarks, ravens, crows, and grackles are set apart from many birds by their intelligence. Grackles adapt their behavior with experience and habitat. The Audubon website notes: “They are clever foragers: Great-tailed Grackles can solve Aesop’s Fable tests, dropping stones into a container of water in order to sufficiently raise the level to pluck out a prize ….”

Sometimes I enjoy stepping back and observing parking lot ecology. I look for grackles. Then I marvel at how our world would look and smell without birds to clean up after us. Above all, I enjoy hearing male and female great-tailed grackles singing in the trees or watching them forage between cars. Take five and give it a try!

I’m Lyle Bingham and I’m Wild About Utah

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy US FWS, John & Karen Hollingsworth, Photographers
Featured Audio: Courtesy & Copyright © Friend Weller, Utah Public Radio upr.org
Text: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle Bingham, https://bridgerlandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading

Lyle Bingham’s Wild About Utah Postings

Great Tailed Grackle, AllAboutBirds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University, https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great-tailed_Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle – Quiscalus mexicanus, Utah Birds, Utah County Birders, http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/ProfilesD-K/GreatTailedGrackle.htm
Other Photos: http://www.utahbirds.org/birdsofutah/BirdsD-K/GreatTailGrackle.htm

Great-tailed Grackle, Field Guide, National Audubon, https://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/great-tailed-grackle

Everything is bigger in Texas: Grackle Flock at a Grocery Store in Houston-Courtesy YouTube and KHOU Houston Channel 11