Fall Delights in Utah

October 3, 2015

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

If you become jaded with the natural wonders of your home turf, a trip is just the thing to add spice to your enjoyment of nature. On an annual family visit to Utah we find the desert and mountain worlds a wonderful way to expand the horizons of our appreciation of nature. One of our favorite spots is Antelope Island which lies within the Great Salt Lake ecosystem. The causeway to the island is a waterbird migration hotspot despite its peculiar ecology which limits potential aquatic food primarily to fairy shrimp and brine flies. During our visit in late September the hordes of migrating phalaropes we had encountered on previous early September trips had left, but there were thousands of avocets and hundreds of shoveler ducks plus many black-necked stilts, 7 pipits, and other fascinating water birds . The avocets in their black and white non-breeding plumage gather in immense flocks which break up to feed by picking brine shrimp up one by one with a long narrow bill. The shovelers feed by sieving water through a very wide bill. White faced ibis, the western equivalent of the eastern glossy ibis, feed with an elongate bill that is much larger than that of the avocets.

There are of course terrestrial habitats on Antelope Island and one of the more unusual is the area of lush vegetation around fresh water springs in a generally arid landscape. The easiest place to look for migrating songbirds is at the historic Garr Ranch. We found some neotropical migrants there including this Wilson’s warbler lurking in the undergrowth. It breeds in Alaska, Canada and mountainous areas of some western states and migrates to Mexico and Central America.

One of the charismatic megafauna on the island is the buffalo/bison, which has been introduced and is thriving. This huge male was very impressive as it fed just along the roadside. They are of course wild animals even though they seem placid. The island visitor’s center warned that if a buffalo looked at you and raised its tail you should very quickly find a place to hide!

Utah is famous for its beautiful mountains and heavily dependent for fresh water melted from the snow pack. Thousands of feet above the valley floor where the Great Salt Lake is located the climate is much cooler and the leaves were changing color as shown by this reddish canyon or bigtooth maple leaf. Insect life was much curtailed by cool weather and this bumblebee was one of the very few insects I noticed still foraging on a thistle flower. Bumblebees can raise their body temperature by muscular contractions and specialize in maintaining activity in cooler conditions. One of the few butterflies I saw was this beautiful painted lady at 10,800 feet on the edge of Bald Mountain in the Uintas. It was warming up its dark body by basking in the sun with out-stretched wings. This butterfly is migratory and is one of the most widely distributed around the world. It can easily be confused with the usually less common sibling species, the American lady, which has much larger eye spots on its outer hind wings.

An unusual celestial event which occurred during our visit to Utah was the close approach of the moon to the earth, the so-called “supermoon,” coupled with a total eclipse. My photo shows an early advancing phase of this eclipse which was quite spectacular and became even more so when it later advanced to a complete dark phase with a reddish glow (the blood moon).

We returned to our lower elevation Blue Ridge mountain farm with its familiar flora and fauna , intellectually refreshed if physically tired by our trip. As Dorothy said in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, “there is no place like home” referring to Kansas; certainly your love of home and its particular ecology is greatly enhanced by leaving it periodically.

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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