Nature in Some Western Mountains

October 9, 2014

Nature Notes by Bill Dunson

 

 

 

 

 

A bonus of a recent visit to our kids and grandkids that live out west is that I got to experience some wonderful montane habitats in Montana and Utah. It is not only exciting to see new habitats and critters but to renew a sometimes jaded outlook when one remains a long time in your home place. We encountered a fabulous forest of ancient cedars along Ross Creek in Montana; such old growth trees evoke an amazing feeling of pristine beauty. Although other nearby forests were made up of spruces, firs and pines of more modest proportions, there were giants of another kind present; we encountered a huge black bear just outside our room in northwestern MT, and the landlords had many tales of cougars and bears killing their goats. Whitetail deer were common and several were seen feeding in a pond; this aquatic behavior is thought to provide a needed nutrient, sodium, which is generally lacking in their diet of terrestrial plants.

A visit to the Kootenai River falls near Libby, MT, not only revealed a beautiful glacier-fed river but a spawning run of bright kokanee salmon (landlocked sockeyes). It is thought that prehistoric ice dams may have trapped a population of salmon, preventing their migration to the ocean, and they adapted to this new circumstance and were able to complete their life cycle in fresh water.

Some western birds are distinct species, and others are instead subspecies of a single widespread North American species. The red shafted version of the northern flicker is an example of the latter; this photo of an adult male primarily differs from eastern flickers by the reddish instead of yellowish color of the bases of the tail and wing feathers, and a red instead of black “mustache.” Certainly geographic isolation can lead to very distinct far western and high altitude species such as the Steller’s jay, which is a brilliant blue with a dark head and crest; this photo was taken in Whitefish, MT. A jay in Park City, UT, had white marks on the forehead which is indicative of a different population.

One of the strangest and most appealing of the far western birds is the dipper, a unique swimming songbird. It is generally difficult to observe closely in fast flowing streams where it lives but we found a group of them inhabiting Cascade Springs in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah that were habituated to human visitors. Their peculiar habit of bobbing as they walk is similar to the movement of unrelated spotted sandpipers and waterthrushes (warblers), which feed along the edges of water; one wonders what the function of this common behavior is.

The most beautiful insect I observed was the male flame skimmer, a predaceous dragonfly, near a pond in the Uinta Mountains of Utah. As is often the case in dragonflies, the males are much more brightly colored than the females. This appears to be a means of advertisement by the males who compete for territory and females. Indeed one guide book describes “Red Baron” aerial battles between males competing for perching sites.

So when you travel, enjoy the biodiversity of new areas and prepare to be dazzled by the surprising colors, behavior and structure of the new species you encounter.

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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