The Great Salt Lake’s Importance for Birds

Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater. Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
Decreasing water levels in the southern arm of the Great Salt Lake expose microbialite communities that are normally underwater.
Courtesy USGS, Hannah McIlwain, Photographer
I first met the Great Salt Lake in 1964 with two Central Michigan University college buddies on our way to Los Angeles. We heard you could float in its magical waters. Sure enough- it worked and we bobbed in its gentle waves oblivious to the many other virtues of this extraordinary water body. The Great Salt Lake’s Importance

This saltwater marvel is the largest wetland area in the American West. Its 400,000 acres of wetlands provide habitat for over 230 bird species traveling from the tip of South America, north to Canada’s Northwest Territories and as far west as Siberia. These wetlands and surrounding mudflats are vital habitat for 8-10 million individual migratory birds with many species gathering at the Lake in larger populations than anywhere else on the planet.

In 1991 the Great Salt Lake was declared a site of “hemispheric importance,” the highest level of designation given to a site by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network. The Reserve conserves shorebird habitat through a network of key sites across the Americas. Salt Lake receives the largest percentage of the world’s population of migrating Eared Grebes, nearly one-third of Wilson’s Phalaropes, more than half of American Avocets, and 37 percent of Black-necked Stilts. The lake’s shoreline, playas and mudflats also support 21 percent of the North American breeding population of Snowy Plovers, a species identified as one of greatest conservation needs by Utah’s Wildlife Action Plan.

These shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. But their numbers are dropping quickly. Shorebirds are showing the most dramatic declines among all bird groups. Species that undertake hemispheric migrations rely on specific habitats and food sources to survive, but these resources are increasingly under threat from human disturbance including habitat loss and degradation, over-harvesting, increasing predation, and climate change. As humans have continued to alter the landscape, shorebird populations continue to drop, with accelerated declines in recent decades.

Of 52 shorebird species that regularly breed in North America, 90% are predicted to experience an increase in risk of extinction. This includes 28 species already considered at high risk, and 10 imperiled species that face even greater risk.

At the base of Salt Lake’s food chain are microbialites, underwater reef-like rock mounds created by millions of microbes. These structures and their microbial mats form the base of the entire Great Salt Lake ecosystem, serving as a primary food source for brine shrimp and brine flies, which are the main food source for these aquatic birds. Falling water levels exposing the microbialites to air could trigger a collapse in the lake’s food chain according to a July study by the Utah Geological Survey.

So we humans aren’t the only one’s suffering from our disappearing Lake. Thank goodness we have awakened to this extraordinary resource found on our doorstep with many organizations and agencies attempting to save what remains for our health, wealth, and for the millions of threatened feathered friends that grace our skies, and our lives. Last May, Utah Governor Cox declared 2021 the year honoring shorebirds. We can do our part by taking action on conserving water and energy.

Jack Greene for Bridgerland Audubon Society and I’m wild about Utah and its magnificent great lake.

Credits:
The Great Salt Lake’s Importance
Picture:
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text: Jack Greene, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/
Additional Reading: Lyle W Bingham, Webmaster, and Jack Greene, Author, Bridgerland Audubon, https://bridgelandaudubon.org/

Additional Reading:

Jack Greene’s Postings on Wild About Utah, https://wildaboututah.org/author/jack/

Strand, Holly, Important Bird Areas, Wild About Utah, October 21, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/important-bird-areas/

Strand, Holly, One of the World’s Largest Shrimp Buffets, Wild About Utah, June 3, 2008, https://wildaboututah.org/one-of-the-worlds-largest-shrimp-buffets/

Chambless, Ross, When the Great Salt Lake we know is gone, what shall we name it?, Commentary, The Salt Lake Tribune, August 19, 2021, https://www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2021/08/19/ross-chambless-when-great/ [Accessed September 19, 2021]

Shorebirds are among nature’s most ambitious, long-distance migrants. Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network (WHSRN), https://whsrn.org/about-shorebirds/shorebird-status/

Drought Negatively Impacting Great Salt Lake Microbialites and Ecosystem, Utah Geological Survey (UGS), Utah Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 15, 2021, https://geology.utah.gov/drought-negatively-impacting-great-salt-lake-microbialites-and-ecosystem/

Chidsey, T.C., Jr., Eby, D.E., Vanden Berg, M.D., and Sprinkel, D.A., 2021, Microbial carbonate reservoirs and analogs
from Utah: Utah Geological Survey Special Study 168, 112 p., 14 plates, 1 appendix, https://doi.org/10.34191/SS-168

Riding, Robert, Definition: Microbialites, Stromatolites, and Thrombolites, Encyclopedia of Geobiology, SpringerLink, Springer Nature Switzerland AG. Part of Springer Nature., https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4020-9212-1_196

Romero, Simon, Booming Utah’s Weak Link: Surging Air Pollution, The New York Times, Sept. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/07/us/great-salt-lake-utah-air-quality.html

2015–2025 Wildlife Action Plan, Division of Wildlife Resources, Department of Natural Resources, State of Utah, July 1 2015, https://wildlife.utah.gov/discover/wildlife-action-plan.html

Governor Cox Declares 2021 as Year of the Shorebird at Great Salt Lake, Declaration celebrates 30th anniversary of Great Salt Lake as a Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network Site, Western Water News, National Audubon, May 12, 2021, https://www.audubon.org/news/governor-cox-declares-2021-year-shorebird-great-salt-lake
See also: https://wildlife.utah.gov/news/utah-wildlife-news/1182-cox-declares-2021-year-of-shorebird-great-salt-lake.html

Gov. Cox Issues Drought Executive Order, Governor.utah.gov, March 17, 2021, https://governor.utah.gov/2021/03/17/gov-cox-issues-drought-executive-order/

Our Native Grasses

Our Native Grasses: Indian Ricegrass Achnatherum hymenoides Courtesy Wikimedia & US NRCS
Indian Ricegrass
Achnatherum hymenoides
Courtesy Wikimedia
& US NRCS
In recent years, there has been an emphasis on ornamental landscape plants that provide bee and butterfly habitat. But did you know that you can also choose landscape plants to support Utah birds and other wildlife? In particular, ornamental grasses can provide both food and cover for birds and other wildlife and also materials for nest building.

A few ornamental grasses that you might consider planting in your landscape are Indian rice grass, blue grama grass, little bluestem, Indiangrass, and Miscanthus.

One of the most attractive native grasses, and the state grass of Utah, is Indian rice grass. This native, cool-season grass grows from 1 to 2 ½ feet tall. Widely adapted in Utah, it is important in foothill and semi-desert areas of the state, providing forage for both livestock and wildlife throughout the year. It has a lovely, airy texture and the seeds are an important food source for many birds and small mammals.

Blue grama grass, also native to Utah, is a warm-season grass with seed stalks standing 6 to 20 inches tall. In the wild areas of Utah, blue grama grass grows on plains, foothills and woodlands and tolerates a variety of soil conditions. In home landscapes, the distinctive seed heads of blue grama are very attractive and are sometimes described as resembling eyebrows.

Little bluestem, a warm-season perennial grass, grows from 1 to 2 feet tall. This drought-tolerant, native grass grows in many Utah plant communities including desert shrub, ponderosa pine, and pinyon-juniper. In ornamental landscapes, little bluestem transitions from blue/green colored grass blades during the growing season to a reddish color after the first frost, providing lots of winter interest in the landscape as well as food and cover for birds.

Indiangrass is a native, warm-season perennial grass with tufted stems reaching up to 5 feet tall. This grass is found in the hanging garden plant communities of southern Utah where annual rainfall is low but flooding from runoff water is common. It may also be associated with other riparian plants such as sedges, rushes, and willows. A tall, upright grass, Indiangrass has showy, golden bronze seed heads in the fall that provide seed for songbirds.

Though not native to Utah, Miscanthus is another ornamental grass that provides food for birds. This large grass, growing up to 6 feet tall, has flower plumes above the foliage in the fall and you may see birds searching the ground underneath throughout the winter looking for leftover seeds.

Hopefully you have one or more of these grasses in your landscape already, but if not, fall is still a good time to plant them. And don’t cut these grasses back as we head into the colder months of the year. They provide a great deal of color and interest to the winter landscape and will continue to provide food and cover for birds and wildlife throughout the season.

As our weather warms into spring, birds will be particularly focused on the dried-out grass blades that remain, using coarse blades for the main wall of nests and finer blades as part of the softer, inner lining.

So, go ahead and try some ornamental grasses in your home landscape or maybe plant more. You’ll be well on your way to attracting and supporting birds and other wildlife.

I’m Kelly Kopp with USU Extension’s Center for Water Efficient Landscaping and I’m Wild About Utah.

Credits:

Images: Courtesy & Copyright , Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © Kevin Colver https://wildstore.wildsanctuary.com/
Text:     Kelly Kopp, PhD, Plants, Soils & Climate, Utah State University https://psc.usu.edu/directory/faculty/kopp-kelly
Additional Reading Links: Lyle Bingham

Additional Reading:

Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center:
Indian ricegrass, Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=achy

Blue Gamma, Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=bogr2

Little bluestem, Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=SCSC

Indiangrass, Plant Database, Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, https://www.wildflower.org/plants/result.php?id_plant=sonu2

Missouri Botanical Garden
Miscanthus, Missouri Botanical Garden, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderDetails.aspx?taxonid=250962&isprofile=1&basic=miscanthus

Miscanthus, Plant Finder, Missouri Botanical Garden, http://www.missouribotanicalgarden.org/PlantFinder/PlantFinderProfileResults.aspx?basic=miscanthus

Morton Arboretum
https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-plant-descriptions/chinese-silver-grass

Miscanthus sinensis, The Morton Arboretum, https://www.mortonarb.org/trees-plants/tree-plant-descriptions/chinese-silver-grass

USU Extension Range Plants of Utah
Indiangrass, Range Plants of Utah, Utah State University Extension, 2017, Indiangrass

Little bluestem, Range Plants of Utah, Utah State University Extension, 2017, https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/grasses-and-grasslikes/little-bluestem

Indian ricegrass, Range Plants of Utah, Utah State University Extension, 2017, https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/grasses-and-grasslikes/indian-ricegrass

Blue grama, Range Plants of Utah, Utah State University Extension, 2017, https://extension.usu.edu/rangeplants/grasses-and-grasslikes/blue-grama

Sagers, Larry, Ornamental Grasses, Utah Cooperative Extension Service, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2342&context=extension_histall

Roger Banner, Roger, Pratt, Mindy, Browns, James, Grasses and Grasslike Plants of Utah, A Field Guide,, Extension, Utah State University and Utah Partners for
Conservation and Development, 2011 (2nd ed), https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2188&context=extension_curall

Wheaton, Adrea, Rupp, Larry & Caron, Michael, 10 Low-Water Ornamental Grasses, Ideal for Water-Efficient Landscapes in Eagle Mountain, Utah, Extension, Utah State University, , https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=2875&context=extension_curall

Gunnell, JayDee, Goodspeed, Jerry L., Anderson, Richard M., Ornamental Grasses in the Landscape, Extension, Utah State University, June 2015, https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1739&context=extension_curall

In Equal Measure to Our Fears

In Equal Measure to Our Fears: Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) Drawing water from a stone: this juniper grew out of just a few fractures in the surface rock. Courtesy US NPS, Neal Herbert, Photographer
Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma)
Drawing water from a stone: this juniper grew out of just a few fractures in the surface rock.
Courtesy US NPS, Neal Herbert, Photographer
Doubt is a tricky thing. It’s neither good nor bad, it is simply the axis upon which the scales of hope and fear balance. It is the prerequisite of faith, belief, disbelief, and nihilism, all equal paths of equal circumstance. It is the fork in the road which Berra told us to take all the same. In Equal Measure to Our Fears

When I go outside, breathe in the thick charcoal air, see the dribbling water in the once-mighty streams, and hear more stories of growing sickness, I’ll admit that I have doubts which edge on fear. I doubt that this is the last year of record-breaking heat. I doubt that this is the last year of record-breaking drought. I doubt that this is the last year of record-breaking hospitalizations. Such doubt can make you feel hopeless, powerless, and just plain sad. What have we done? How did we get here? Wasn’t this all avoidable? It takes me some time, then, to remember to move on from that doubt and to take a path, but to never forget the place in which drove me to rest and reflect. Though it can feel like a good place of respite, a shady tree to rest one’s laurels or wallow and say uncle to what we’ve sown, there’s still work which can be done. To rest in doubt is to be a bump on a log and not the tree itself. I remember the lessons of the humble tree.

The tree lives because of doubt’s prodigy of conjoined fear and hope. We must also harness both in equal form and measure in order to grow, and to live. In seeing the unified balance there is motion. The tree’s roots reach downwards, clinging to the earth in fear. In this way the world is its. The tree’s branches reach skywards, opening to the sky in hope. In this way it is the world’s. The tree’s roots drink water and move the earth: from fear comes motion and matter. The tree’s leaves drink fire and move the air: from hope comes life and form. Without fear, we would shrivel. Without hope, we would rot. Without fear, we would fall. Without hope, we would suffocate. To be subject to hope, you must make fear a part of you. Latch onto it, and feel that this shade of love is life given purpose. Then you may reach upwards and see that you do so only because you contain that which you cling to.

The fear I feel when I breathe in our Utah air, see green lawns, and hear new numbers on the radio is necessary for hope, and both are only possible because of the blessings of doubt because the future is not fixed. And yet, there is another hidden secret to fear and hope, and that is action. The tree is not a static being. Like all of us, it is in a constant state of becoming. We may be where we are, but where we are does not mean we must remain. Trees grow over boulders, thrive upon cliffs, and so can we. We can move on from La Brean doubt on what shall be. We can continue our journey in becoming. Given this, we then have a question in which to answer for ourselves: the question though is not what shall we become, but towards which light do we choose to work towards in equal measure to our fears?

I’m Patrick Kelly, and I’m Wild About Utah.
 
Credits:
Images: Courtesy US National Park Service, Neal Herbert, Photographer
Audio: Courtesy & © J. Chase and K.W. Baldwin. https://upr.org/
Text:    Patrick Kelly, Director of Education, Stokes Nature Center, https://www.logannature.org
Included Links: Patrick Kelly & Lyle Bingham, Webmaster, WildAboutUtah.org

Additional Reading

Wild About Utah, Posts by Patrick Kelly

Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon, https://www.logannature.org/

The Indomitable Juniper, Canyonlands National Park, US National Parks Service, US Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/cany/learn/nature/utahjuniper.htm (Image source)

White Pelicans and Team Fishing

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Pelicans at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
I first caught sight of the eight pelicans swimming in s straight line towards the waters edge, looking a lot like a tank division in in an old WWII movie I slammed on the brakes just in time to see them all dip their bills into the water, come up spilling water and cock their heads back And then, gulp! Fish slid down their throats.

Wow, I thought. These pelicans are working together to to drive the fish into the shallow water’s edge where they can easily scoop the up And then it got better. Fanning out, the pelicans regrouped in a circle Swimming towards the center, they tightened the noose. And bam! Dip, scoop, knock back some more fish

I was amazed at how soundless and seamless it all was and could have watched for hours, but I was on the one lane auto route at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and the cars behind me were starting to honk their horns, so I reluctantly moved on.

As soon as I got home I plunged into research on this majestic bird, beginning with the bill. When the pelican dips its bill into the water, the lower portion expands into a flexible sac that allows the bird to to scoop up as much as 3 gallons of fish and water.

White Pelicans and Team Fishing: American White Pelicans Fishing at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
American White Pelicans Fishing
at the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
When the pelican cocks back its head, the sac contracts, the water is expelled through a barely open bill, and the fish swallowed. The huge pelican bill, which at first glance looks like a formidable weapon, is actually an exquisitively designed fishing net.

Archeologists have found pelican skulls dating back 30 million years, so this unique bill has definitely passed the test of time.

Back at the refuge I was able to turn into a visitor pull out and pick up the rather stunning bit of information: these pelicans fly in from Gunnison Island in the Great Salt Lake, over the Promontory Mountains, daily to forage for fish. That’s a 30 mile trip each way!

Long before the Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah, pelicans were building their nest on Gunnison Island. They were briefly disturbed when an artist, Albert Lambourne, tried to homestead for a year in 1850, and a guano mining company dropped off a crew – a Pole, a Russian, a Scot and an Englishman- to mine the bird poop. But the operation wasn’t profitable, and when it closed down, the pelicans reclaimed the island. Each March the birds fly in from as far away as Mexico, build their nests, and raise their chicks. The rookery is the largest in the US. In 2017 the pop was estimated to be as high as 20,000.

Jordan Falslev's Pelican Perch at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir, Click to view a larger image. Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Jordan Falslev’s Pelican Perch
at the Benson Marina on Cutler Reservoir,
Click to view a larger image.
Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers

Back in Cache Valley in 2010, Jordan Falslev built a viewing platform near Benson Marina, The Pelican Perch, as his Eagle scout project. There used to be hundreds of pelicans out there on the water, but when I stopped by last week I didn’t see a single one. Numbers are way down now largely because the dropping water level in the Great Salt Lake have exposed a land bridge to Gunnison Island that allows predators to ravage the nesting site.

You can still catch sight of a pelican in flight in Cache Valley. (Their wingspan is 10 ft. Rudy Gobert, in comparison, has a wingspan of 7 ft 9 in.) But for my money, the best show in town is watching packs of pelicans hunt for fish at the Bear River Migratory Bird refuge.

This is Mary Heers and I am Wild About Utah.

Credits:
Photos: Courtesy & Copyright © Mary Heers
Featured Music: Courtesy & Copyright © Anderson/Howe, Wakeman
Text: Mary Heers

Additional Reading

American White Pelican Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, Utah Conservation Data Center, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://dwrcdc.nr.utah.gov/rsgis2/Search/Display.asp?FlNm=peleeryt

American White Pelican (AWPE), Aquatic Birds, Great Salt Lake Bird Survey 1997-2001, Utah Division of Wildlife Management, https://wildlife.utah.gov/gsl/waterbirdsurvey/awpe.htm

Larsen, Leia, As Great Salt Lake shrinks, fate of nesting pelicans unknown, Standard Examiner, October 11, 2015, https://www.standard.net/news/environment/as-great-salt-lake-shrinks-fate-of-nesting-pelicans-unknown/article_d2f8ff29-aee5-5a59-b377-62369934fdc9.html

Butler, Jaimi, The Great Salt Lake Is An ‘Oasis’ For Migratory Birds, Science Friday, September 21, 2018, https://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/the-great-salt-lake-is-an-oasis-for-migratory-birds/

Hager, Rachel, Great Salt Lake Pelicans Under Threat, Utah Public Radio, May 28, 2018, https://www.upr.org/post/great-salt-lake-pelicans-under-threat

Leefang, Arie, Gunnison Island, Heritage and Arts, Utah Division of State History, September 16, 2019, https://history.utah.gov/exploring-the-history-and-archaeology-of-the-great-salt-lakes-gunnison-island/

Hoven, Heidi, Gunnison Island: Home of up to 20,000 nesting American White Pelicans, Audubon California, National Audubon Society, September 25, 2017, https://ca.audubon.org/news/gunnison-island-home-20000-nesting-american-white-pelicans