Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Trifecta Road Trip: The Sublett Range, Cool Hawk Video, Plus More Bonus Marital Advice

IMG_1097 The Trifecta and I had a great weekend. We did a 1-night camping trip to the Sublett Range* up in Idaho. (pic left = Twin B collecting wild onions for one of my ill-advised culinary experiments.) It was a great weekend for a couple reasons. First, for some reason as a parent I always find I get more quality time with my kids when traveling together. We spend pretty much every weeknight, and most of most weekends, at home together, and yet we seem to spend so much more time together on a quickie weekender road trip together than we do in a couple of weeks at home. Isn’t that strange?

*Yes, I know you never heard of it. That’s OK- I’m going to tell you all about it.

Sublett Map Caption Second, because I finally visited the Subletts, a spot I’d been meaning to visit for over a decade.

Some Marital Advice For Married Male Readers

Tangent: But first I’m going to kick off the post with some advice specifically for married male readers. This doesn’t mean you can’t read this part if you’re not a married male- only that the advice isn’t intended for you.

Guys, here’s some news: No matter how kind and supportive and considerate and dependable a husband you are, every once in a while- maybe once every few months, maybe once every several years- for reasons you will probably never manage to fathom, your wife will get sick of your shit. No, no, I don’t mean she’s going to leave you or run off with your bishop or anything*, I just mean that at certain points in your marriage, she will find you grating and annoying. When this happens, rather than nudge or press her (“Is something wrong, honey?”) sometimes you just need to give her a little break, from, uh… you.

*Although for all I know, maybe she is. Hey, I don’t know your wife. Or your bishop.

Nested Tangent: This “sick-of-your-shit” (SOYS) thing is distinctively separate and different from the “you-are-a-shitty-husband” thing, which is a different deal altogether. If you are a shitty husband, my advice to you is entirely different, and is specifically this: Quit Being Such A Dick.

But assuming it’s the occasional, SOYS thing I’m talking about here, I don’t pretend to know how or why it comes about. But as long as I’m rambling on about it, here are 2 half-baked “theories”:

1- Every few years, your wife takes a hard look at you and says, “This is it? This is the best I could do? There were probably 10,000 single guys in the state when I married, and this turkey was the best one I could manage to land?” This one isn’t as dismal as it sounds. You know how some days you’re at work, and you think- even if you have a really great job- “This is it? This is what I went to college for?” And then a couple weeks later you get off your high existential horse and things seem just fine again…

indigogirls 2- Every few years, your wife realizes how much of her time she spends dealing with domestic-logistical issues- carpooling kids, dealing with school/home stuff, piloting a minivan, and she thinks, “Why was I so hip to get married and have a family and all this hassle? Maybe I should have become a lesbian instead. Or a nun. Or both. Instead of driving kids around in a minivan right now, I could be kicking back in some convent, listening to the Indigo Girls…” (This is really a variant of the SOYS thing that should be more probably labeled, “sick-of-my-husband-and-kids.”)

IMG_1063 In any case, after you’ve been married for some years, and assuming you’re not completely out-to-lunch but actually pay attention to your wife, you can get sort of a vibe when one of these SOYS episodes is coming on. And probably the best thing to do in such cases is give her a little space. But here’s the thing: you can’t just take off for a weekend with the guys- that’ll just make SOYS worse. No, you need to get yourself and the kids away from her for a bit. (pic left = Bird Whisperer entertaining the Twins on the drive up.)

IMG_1067With a little breathing room, your wife can kick back a bit. And in your (and the kids’) absence, you start to look just a little bit better, and out of the day-to-day busy haze of suburban life, your wife might just remember some of your good qualities. And if it so happens that you are an Excellent Camper, one of the best ways to do this is to take the kids camping.

All About The Subletts

IMG_1084 The Subletts are the low range (up to 7,500 feet) off to the East of I-84 in Idaho just North of the UT/ID border. They’re a typical Great Basin “Island” range, supporting running water and real forest, but surrounded on all sides by treeless steppe, and were created by the same basin and range faulting that created hundreds of other North-South ranges in this part of the country. Years ago, when my sister lived up in Boise, I drove by them several times, thinking- as I do about dozens of ranges I drive past- that someday I’d have to check them out. Looking for a close-by overnighter with the Trifecta, “someday” was Saturday.

Side Note: Technically, the Subletts lie outside of the hydrographic Great Basin; Sublett Creek drains North into the Snake River. But the range is clearly part of both the physiographic and floristic Great Basins.

IMG_1120 When you get dialed into trees and plants in general, one of the fun things about road trips to other ranges is noticing how the plants are different than the plants back home. With any range in the Great Basin, the trees- and plants in general- are almost always a subset of what you see in the Rockies, and specifically the Wasatch.

Tangent: There are 2 way fascinating aspects to this “subset” aspect of Great Basin forests. The first is that Basin ranges support a subset of Rocky Mountain species in general, not just plants. Way back in the early 1970’s, a researcher named James Brown* surveyed small mammal species across a few dozen Basin ranges, and found that the number of species present declined dramatically based on the size of the range. 600px-DiamondValleyNV He also determined that no new migrations of such small mammal species were occurring; the species present had been isolated on those ranges since the end of the last ice age, and are now unable to migrate across the treeless basins below. Though details of Brown’s work have since been updated/corrected, the basic principle seems to hold: a form of Island Biogeography is at work in the Great Basin, with large “islands” supporting more species than small ones, just like real islands in the ocean.

*Yeah I know- cool name. But totally different guy.

liberty_lk_08-15-02 With plants the situation is more complicated, in part because migrations still do occur- Corvids transporting Pinon or Whitebark Pine seeds being a clear example, but larger high ranges do seem to support more tree species than do small ranges of similar altitude. (pic left = Whitebark pines around Liberty Lake in the Ruby Mtns.)

IMG_6438 The second weird thing about Great Basin mountain forests (pic right = forests in Snake Range, Nevada) is that the trees are almost all trees of the Rocky Mountains, as opposed to the Sierra Nevada. This is the case not only in ranges close to the Wasatch, like the Subletts and the Deep Creeks, but even with ranges clear across Nevada, such as the Toquimas or the Toiyabes. Whatever high range you go to in the Basin, climb up, and you’ll find trees like Bristlecones and Douglas Fir or Engelmann Spruce or Limber Pine; you’ll never find Incense Cedar or Jeffrey Pine*. The are 3 possible reasons for this.

*Well, almost never. They show up in the Warner Mountains in California, just inside the Basin.

IMG_6535 First, Sierra conifers are presumably adapted to the warmer, wetter winters of the Sierra Nevada. (pic left = Sierra forest near Donner Pass, California) Most Basin ranges have colder winters, more like the Rockies. Second, they’re also adapted to the highly acidic soils of the Sierra Nevada. Basin ranges, like the Rockies, have soils of more basic pH.

800px-SandMountainNV And third, the Sierra rain-shadow is most severe, and conditions driest, in the Westernmost basins of the Great Basin, which might further inhibit range-to-range migration of tree species. (pic right = road to Sand Mountain, East of Fallon, Nevada) The individual basin “floors” are also much lower in this part of the Basin, compared to the Eastern Basin, exacerbating the rain-shadow effect.

DFir New Needles The Subletts are only a hop and a skip away from the Wasatch, but to someone who spends plenty of time in Wasatch forests, the similarities and differences quickly become apparent. IMG_1129 Douglas Firs are everywhere in the Subletts over 6,000 feet, with immature purple cones (pic right), and soft, lime-colored shoots of new needles, but the other standard Wastach PLTs- Engelmann Spruce, White Fir and Subalpine Fir, appear to be completely absent. Aspen is still common, as is Mountain Mahogany and Juniper (both Rocky Mountain and Utah.)

IMG_1106 Interestingly, there’s one tree- one plant actually- present in the Subletts that’s not present in the Wasatch- Lodgepole Pine. I’ve covered the mysterious dearth of pines in the Wasatch in a previous post (which you can check out here if you’re interested.) In the Subletts they reappear, never as continuous forests, but as solos (pic left) or in small stands. How and why they manage here, and in the Uintas, but not in the Wasatch in between, I can’t say.

IMG_1101 The shrubs are also a Wasatch-subset. Most notably, Gambel Oak and Bigtooth Maple are completely absent here; the Subletts lie just Northwest of their range. But in their absence, some “minor” Wasatch shrubs are flourishing. Rocky Mountain Maple (pic right)is common throughout the understory of mixed Douglas Fir-Aspen forests in a way it never is in the Wasatch. And Chokecherry is everywhere, reaching almost 2 stories high, like I never see it back home.

Tangent: Though I don’t have time to do raptors justice in this post, I caught some cool Red-Tail Hawk video that gives you a feel for the forests and open hillsides of the range. This one’s better with the volume ON.


(For more raptor reading, probably the best posts I’ve done are on the color and foveal vision of birds.)

IMG_1166 Even the wildflowers were a subset of those in the Wasatch. There were no Penstemons or Scarlet Gilia or Blue Camas anywhere, but there were plenty of Tapertip Onion, Pale Stickseed, Larkspur and Columbine. The Columbine (pic left) in particular was everywhere, almost pure white, with only the teensiest hint of blue (or was it just my imagination?) and in greater profusion than anyplace I’ve ever been save one*.

*The Medicine Bow range in Southern Wyoming.

IMG_1128 The Larkspur is peaking in the Subletts right now at 6,000 to 7,000 feet (It’s now largely absent in the Wasatch below 7,500 feet) and it seems to be a favorite with this guy, the Western Tiger Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio rutulus. This is a common butterfly in the Wasatch as well, but I’ve never seen them in anywhere near the numbers as we did this past weekend. Its caterpillars favor Chokecherry and Aspen leaves, and it’s obviously thriving here. The adults feed on nectar, and though I hadn’t read of a Larkspur preference, it’s obviously their favorite in the Subletts; every one I saw was flitting from one stem to the next.

Papilio_rutulus_range_map The Western Tiger Swallowtail (range map left) is closely-related to the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, P. glauca, and the Canada Tiger Swallowtail, P.canadensis, and they hybridize where their ranges overlap. An interesting characteristic of the Eastern Tiger (and possibly the Western, but I’ve been unable to confirm) is that while the males are always yellow with black markings, the females are either similarly yellow with black markings or black with blue markings- in other words, completely different!

ETS Female These black-colored females (pic right, not mine) are apparently mimicking another Swallowtail, the Pipevine Swallowtail, which is bad-tasting and even poisonous to predators.

Side Note: The Pipevine Swallowtail, Battus philenor, is so named because its caterpillars feed exclusively on the foliage of Pipevines (genus = Aristolochia) from which they obtain the toxin Aristolochic acid (diagram left). Aristolochic_acid This is analogous to how Monarch butterflies protect themselves by obtaining cardenolides from the Milkweeds they consume, which we looked at last year when talking about the cardenolide-immune Black-Headed Grosbeak. Pipevine Swallowtails don’t occur in Utah, as their range is closely limited to that of available Pipevine species. The closest Pipevine to Utah is Watson’s Dutchman’s Pipe, Aristolochia wastonii, which occurs no closer than Northern Arizona.

The advantage to the mimicking females- avoidance by predators- seems obvious, but it raises 2 questions: first, why do only females mimic Pipevine Swallowtails, and second, why don’t all females mimic them?

The answer to the first question has been the subject of a fair amount of research, but one theory is that the mimic-coloration gene is carried on the W chromosome. Swallowtails have a W-Z system of sex determination, like birds. A male has 2 Z chromosomes, while a female has one W and one Z. A male Swallowtail never carries a W chromosome, just as a human female never carries a Y chromosome. If the genes for mimic-coloration lie on the W chromosome, a male Tiger Swallowtail would never have them.

IMG_1127 The answer to the second question isn’t 100% clear either, but it seems that while the black females do enjoy higher survival rates, the yellow females are preferred by the Tiger Swallowtail males, and therefore tend to reproduce more. Apparently the 2 factors- higher reproduction vs. higher survival- seem to balance each other out on the whole, such that both types of females continue to occur within the population.

Tangent: Wow, this butterfly thing is starting to suck me in. Just like trees or birds or flowers, each one turns out to have some really cool story behind it. I’ve been at this blog-thing for 15 months now, and the vast majority of the time, when I’ve noticed some interesting bug or bird or flower or shrub (or even moss or lichen) and then put in the fairly minor effort needed to figure out what the things is and what it’s deal is, it almost always turns out to be way more interesting than I imagined.

IMG_1082 Each Basin range is just a little bit different- sort of like home, but sort of not like home at the same time, like a little alternate-universe mini-Wasatch. Someday, maybe 20, 30 years from now when I’m retired and the kids are off on their own, I’d love to spend a summer doing what I did this weekend, over and over again, exploring and checking out little, hardly-known ranges, one after the other, all across the Great Basin.


Christopher Taylor said...

Another point that may or may not be related to why not all swallowtail females are mimics - one of the downsides to being a non-toxic mimic of a toxic species is that it only works if the mimics are much rarer than the species they are mimicing. If the non-toxic mimics become too common, then potential predators are more likely to try to eat a harmless mimic than a toxic original, and so are less likely to learn to associate the mimicked features with toxicity. But if not all individuals are mimics, then swallowtails may be able to maintain higher population densities than if they were all mimics.

Ski Bike Junkie said...

I've always just driven past and mostly ignored the Subletts. Thanks for letting me know what I've been missing.

Fun to finally ride with you last night. Really fun, in fact. Let's try and get the kids out hiking one of these days.

Watcher said...

Christopher- Thanks for the comment. I did some quick follow-up during lunch, and located another text that makes your suggested point (on pg 111) actually using the Eastern Tiger (and a couple other) Swallowtails as examples. So you were right on- thanks!

SBJ- Likewise, it was great to finally meet and ride with you. I think that was the best upper Mill Creek ride I've ever done (and only strengthens my desire that the gate should remain closed year-round!)

Cathy Crandall (aka cescoutdoors) said...

That was a cool video. And I had to laugh because someone ALWAYS talks when I get a good video. I like the whispering thing, because I hate to be rude and not answer a question, but I also hate the sound of my voice on video!

Watcher said...

Cathy- I know, I hate the sound of my own voice in videos as well (I'm always like, "Really? I sound like *that*?)