A Naturalist in Utah

Although I am Georgia born and a creature of eastern N America’s low mountains, piedmont and coastal plain, there is no denying the majesty and amazing natural wonders to be found in the American west. So when we made a trip to visit family in Utah, I took the opportunity to enjoy the biodiversity of this very different landscape. The vertical gradient is the primary factor other than climate that affects ecology. Starting at one of my favorite areas, Antelope Island State Park, in the Great Salt Lake at a base elevation of about 4200 feet, you can look upwards almost 5000 feet to the nearby tops of the still snow-capped Wasatch Mountains in early June. You will note a herd of buffalo grazing on the shoreline plants and these add a touch of excitement to hikes in the area.

The Great Salt Lake is a bizarre place where strange birds such as the eared grebe feed on brine shrimp. Fresh water marshes nearby provide habitat for fish-eating birds such as great blue herons which are shown here nesting communally on a remarkable structure built at the Farmington Bay nature center. These marshes also support yellow-headed blackbirds which surprisingly are more closely related to meadowlarks than red-winged blackbirds; the male only is brightly colored in the yellow-headed, whereas in the meadowlark both sexes have a bright yellow breast. We also encountered a baby and adult great horned owl nesting in a barn where a barn owl was also seen.

The sage brush habitat on Antelope Island also supported the sage thrasher which only occurs in the West; it is related to our eastern brown thrasher. A group of possibly migrating Swainson’s hawks flew overhead and I show a photo of the underside of an adult while soaring in a thermal updraft, which reveals the distinctive light and dark pattern of the light-colored adult morph.

At high elevation near Park City in a creek valley we had astonishing looks at the MacGillivray’s warbler which is closely related to our eastern mourning warbler. We also saw this warbler on the top of a ridge at the head of Farmington Canyon where we found a profusion of alpine wildflowers, including the spectacular Indian paintbrush.

Visits to unfamiliar and exciting habitats can rearrange your thinking which can become complacent in your familiar haunts. So enjoy your summer travels and do not fail to explore the natural wonders to be found.

Bill Dunson

About Bill Dunson

Bill Dunson, born in rural Georgia, skipped 12th grade and went directly to Yale. Bill subsequent-ly received a PhD in Zoology from the University of Michigan, studying softshell turtles. Bill is Professor Emeritus of Pennsylvania State University thanks to a career spent entirely at that institution, teaching and doing research on the physio-logical ecology and ecotoxiciology of reptiles, amphibians and fish. Always curious about nature, Bill has dedicated his life to learning and sharing his knowledge with others. He has served on many advisory boards here in Southwest Florida to preserve the water that gives life to our region.

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