Tuesday, July 1, 2014

A Naturalist Visits Utah

Rocky Mountains west of Denver
Modern day families are often widely dispersed so visits involve travel to unfamiliar territory and the opportunity to experience very different flora and fauna, in this case a visit to Utah.  The first opportunity to learn about the new habitats comes on the plane.  The somewhat monotonous travel from the east coast across the western plains suddenly changes when the Front Range of the Rockies is reached.  We were traveling in late May so that there was still considerable snow on the peaks.  The lack of trees on lower slopes and valleys except for the river courses was also striking.  
Princess Plume flowers Canyonlands
I accompanied our daughter’s and son’s families to bike the somewhat treacherous 100 mile White Rim trail of Canyonlands National Park.  They needed me to drive a 4-wheel drive truck carrying food, water and camping supplies.  Scenery of Canyonlands National Park is spectacular, with stunning drop-offs into deep canyons, the Colorado and Green Rivers, mesas (islands of beautiiful rock formations) and a harsh desert landscape with a limited biota that is adapted to these dry conditions.  
Cactus flower Canyonlands
We arrived during an unusual period of intense flowering as illustrated by the spectacular Prince's plume and an unusual to us reddish flowered prickly pear cactus.  There were very few birds present in those areas which had no surface water, except for the desert specialist black throated sparrow.  
Sego Lily near Heber, Utah
After our return to Park City, we took a day trip to the dry foothill habitats in the Uinta Mountains where we encountered the Utah state flower, the beautiful sego lily.  It has an underground bulb that was eaten by the Indians and early pioneers.  But you have to be careful what you eat since nearby there was the death camas.   We did not observe the pollinator but the flower has a distinct nectar guide which might attract bees. 
Yellow headed blackbird, Antelope Island
Utah generally receives little rainfall but the heavy snowpack on the mountains melts and runs into the valleys.  So paradoxically there are some famous marshes and lakes that provide habitat for migrating and breeding water birds.  One of our favorite places to view these birds is at Farmington Bay where you can get close to striking yellow headed blackbirds, the males of which are amazing if you have not seen them before.  
Avocet and black necked stilt, Farmington Bay, Utah
Even more bizarre birds, the avocet and black necked stilt, are seen wading in shallow water with their unusually long legs.  The avocet feeds by sweeping its bill side to side, while the stilt picks up items with a shorter bill.  This difference in bill shape and feeding strategy may diminish competition between them.
Black throated sparrow, Canyonlands
So take the opportunity while traveling to distant and strange habitats to enjoy the very different animals and plants.  The experience can stimulate your mind out of its complacency as you see unfamiliar species, try to identify them, and wonder about their place in the cosmos.
Bill Dunson

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