Sunday, March 30, 2008

Western Meadowlark: Number One Songbird

Last Saturday I did a 97-mile bike ride that took me out into the West Desert. This wasn’t as big an undertaking as it sounds; I rode with 4 other guys in a rotating pace line, and our average speed was about 22 mph.

Tangent: I’m an amateur bike racer (Road, Cat 5). I only got into it over the last year or so, when I discovered- in my forties- that I actually have one (and only one) decent athletic skill: I can ride a bicycle at a decent rate of speed for a long time. That’s it. I can’t throw, play tennis, run fast, swim gracefully or even open pickle jars reliably, but I can ride a bike like a bat out of hell. This year I joined a team, which sounds impressive, but really means that you pay a few hundred bucks to buy jerseys and shirts that are plastered with logos, and get a nice discount on parts at the local bike shop. The main two benefits for me are that I’ve met some equally fast guys to ride with, and the bike shop discount extends to mountain bike parts, which I am constantly breaking or wearing out.

Our route was a counter-clockwise loop around the Stansbury mountains, which are the 2nd range heading West from Salt Lake City. Salt Lake sits at the foot of the Wasatch mountains, which are really the last range of the Rockies as one heads West. Although Salt Lake Valley is part of the Great Basin, it’s really at the very edge of the basin; if the Great Basin were an inland sea, Salt Lake City would be on the shoreline. When you travel a short distance West, the landscape, plants and wildlife change noticeably and quickly. The landscape turns into Basin and Range country, with isolated range after isolated range, with dry, empty scrub and sage-filled valleys in between. The first “island” range heading West is the Oquirrhs, the second is the Stansburys, the third is the (much lower) Cedar Mountains, after which come the salt flats, followed in turn by Toano and Pequop ranges, etc., etc., clear to the Sierras.

Our route started and ended in Grantsville, in the Northern end of Tooele Valley, followed I-80 for several miles to get around the Stansbury range, and then headed due South for 40 or so miles down Skull Valley, the almost empty basin between the Stansbury and Cedar ranges. We rode through Skull Valley between about 9 – 11AM. The morning was cool and sunny, and repeatedly, for better than an hour, I heard my favorite birdcall ever: the song of the Western Meadowlark.

I mentioned in the last post that the birds having been starting to be heard in the mornings. Around my house, the usual singers are birds like robins and goldfinches, as well as the occasional mourning dove. On my morning rides in the foothills, these are augmented or replaced mainly by magpies, scrub jays and sometimes Steller’s jays.

But the Western Meadowlark generally seems to stick to the Great Basin proper. My first exposure to it was a road trip several years ago to the Oregon Coast with my wife and young son. We overnighted in Winnemucca, Nevada, and the following morning, as is often my habit on family road trips, I tiptoed out of the motel room shortly before dawn to sneak in a pre-breakfast mtn bike ride. My ride took me through the sage-covered hills South of town, and I was treated throughout to the Meadowlark’s song, which I’d never before heard.

The Western Meadowlark is a “short-distance migrator” (range map on right), basically means that while it migrates, it doesn’t do so on the scale/range of many other birds. The desert due West of Salt Lake just a titch North of its year-round and into its Summer range. It sticks primarily to open grasslands. Males typically arrive in the breeding area couple of weeks before the females, and stake out a perch, which is often a fencepost, phone pole or branch, and sing their song to attract the ladies. Western Meadowlark males usually have 2 mates at the same time (which is somewhat cornily appropriate for Utah I guess), and the females do all of the incubation and chick-rearing.

With one exception, I’ve only heard the Western Meadowlark at least 20 miles West of Salt Lake. 2 years ago there was a male perched on a phone pole in April at the 2nd radio tower going up Ensign Peak, just North of downtown Salt Lake. I stumbled upon it one morning and returned 2 days later to hear and see him again in the same spot. 2 days after that he’d moved on, either having found a mate or having figured out that all the females were a couple valleys to the West…

In the Great Basin, where so many bird-“songs” are basically glorified squawks, the Western Meadlowlark’s song is a bit of pure musical happiness.

Tangent: My least favorite Western birdcall/song is probably the magpie, which I always find reminiscent of the cry of a late middle-aged woman who’s smoked 2 packs a day for the past 30 years, when she’s angry about something or other,,,

There are several variants of the song, and I found a few clips on YouTube, but none captured the song quite as a I heard it last Saturday morning. I came back with the song in my head and fiddled around on the piano till I could reproduce it. Now I couldn’t figure out how to write musical score online, so I’ll use a simpler notation here: I’ll use write the musical note (A, C, etc.), and then as I write the notes in sequence, if the next note is above the previous note, I’ll write it as an uppercase letter, and if it’s below the previous note, I’ll write it in lower-case. Then when a note is stressed or held just a bit longer, I’ll bold/underline it. Make sense? At any rate, here it is:


Try it on a piano/keyboard/recorder/whatever, play it again and again till it’s stuck in your head, then go take a drive into the West Desert on a sunny morning and listen for it.

Friday, March 28, 2008

The 4 Stages of Morning Birdsong

One of the great signs of Spring is the sound of birds in the morning. Every year there seems to be a 4-stage cycle that goes like this:

Stage 1: I notice birds in the morning. It’s cheerful, thrilling, and warms the heart after a long cold, silent winter.

Stage 2: The birds get noticeably, then amazingly, loud. With the bedroom window now cracked open during the night, the birds act like a natural alarm clock that wakes me between 5:00 and 5:15AM, in perfect time for a dawn pre-work mtn bike ride.

Stage 3: The novelty wears off, as my wife and I are unable sleep past 5AM on the weekends. We seal the window firmly shut before bed, but the cacophony of bird calls easily penetrates the double-paned glass and wakes us anyway.

Stage 4: The birds mellow out for the summer.

Right now we’re firmly in stage 1. I’ve never been good about attaching firm dates to the 4 stages, but I will this year. I’m nowhere near even an amateur ornithologist, and know nowhere near about birds what I do about plants for example, but I know that the basic gist of the whole spring-morning-birdsong thing is about courting and mating. In my mind, I’ve mapped the 4 stages to the 4 stages of the human courting/mating experience:

Stage 1: Young adolescent noticing women’s breasts, stumbling across discarded Playboy magazine…

Stage 2: Enthusiastic-yet-polite courting, dating. Similar to the “best behavior” dating typically exhibited on first and second dates.

Stage 3: Drunken frat party, replete with inappropriate behavior, altercations, brawls, and (realized or attempted) hook-ups.

Stage 4: Post-marriage ennui. Night in bed reading and/or watching TV, interspersed with occasional action.

Upon reflection, I’m not sure if what really bugs me about Stage 3 is the damn noise, or the embarrassing evocation of past memories of my own rather un-admirable courting-related behavior of my late teens and early twenties. Loud, dopy, (completely unjustifiably) self-confident and overwhelmingly unsuccessful all at the same time. Pretty much like a Stage 3 male bird around 5AM.

Tangent: The term “The Birds and the Bees” has long been used as a euphemism for the divulging the actual mechanics of human reproduction to a youngster. The funny thing is that the more you learn about how birds and bees actually reproduce, the more you realize what an utterly awful metaphor this is. The reproduction of bees, a saga replete with fratricide, genital mutilation and bizarre chromosomal math is so phenomenally alien to the human reproductive experience that it would seem to be almost the perfectly worst analogy possible. Though nowhere near as odd or horrifying, the bird comparison is also a bit forced. Avian sexual anatomy is extremely un-human-like, the most common sexual organ- for both males and females-being the cloaca, a single, combined genital/anal orifice. And sex determination in birds is totally opposite from sex determination in humans. In humans of course, gender is determined by the X and Y chromosomes, with the mother providing only an X and the father providing an X or a Y. In birds, gender is determined via the analogous “W’ and “Z” chromosomes, (the human sex chromosomes are so named because they actually look a little bit like an “X” and “Y” under the microscope. Just to be clear, I don’t believe “W” or “Z” look anything like their namesake letters…) but with the father always providing only a “Z” and the mother providing a “W”or “Z”. Or in other words, completely ass-backwards from the human model…

I recognize that this is a somewhat whimsical, or “lite”, post, but it sets the stage for tomorrow’s entry, when I will tell you about the Best Bird Ever.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Willow-Palooza (more willow shots)

Finally remembered my camera yesterday, so here are some better willow- budding pics.

Also, this great twig pic. It shows very clearly the boundary between the old/gray bark, and the new/ green/ photosynthesizing(?) bark. All of the new leaf-buds sprout from the green bark, none from the gray.

Quick snowstorm put down a couple inches on the benches this morning, so I may be off the foothills for a couple of days… Already sunny and melting though. I never cease to be surprised at how quickly the weather changes here, especially in the Spring.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008


In Salt Lake the transitional seasons- Spring and Fall- are staggered by about a month. In the Fall the Aspens, Maples and Oaks all turn and drop their leaves between about September 10 and October 20, but in the valley, the (planted) trees all change and drop between around October 15 and Thanksgiving. In the Spring, trees generally sprout leaves around the first 10 days of April, but in the foothills, the oaks and maples don’t usually sprout leaves till the first week of May.

In the valley, the first trees to start showing green are always the globe willows. Before I moved to Salt Lake, I had a couple of “almost-moved-theres”. The last was in March 1995 when I flew out for a job interview. It was a dark, gray, rainy day, but as I drove back to the airport I kept seeing the bright, parachute-shaped masses of vivid lime green off to the side here and there from the freeway. When I finally did relocate out here, I learned what they were: Salix Matsudana ‘Navajo’, or Globe Willow, sometimes called parachute trees.

Every morning I drive by a string of globe willows by an apartment complex a couple blocks from my office. For the past 2 weeks, they’ve been showing hints of green, and I thought I should take a closer look. So yesterday at lunch I walked over to the apartment complex, camera-phone in hand (I have got to start taking my real camera with me everywhere if this blog thing is going to work), entered the parking lot through a hole in the fence, and checked out the willows.

Tangent: My father put my siblings and me through college largely by buying, fixing up and flipping slightly run-down apartments in various lower-middle class suburbs around Boston. Part of the fix-up included painting apartment interiors, a task often (usually?) performed by (teenaged) me. I hated the work, the monotony, the shabby apartments, and the smell of paint. To this day, when strolling in or by slightly run-down apartment complexes I get a knot in my stomach, as though my Dad will pop out of a hedgerow and hand me a roller…

As a kid in Massachusetts, the only “willow” I was familiar with was a “weeping willow”, of which there was a great big one by our town library, drooping over a small pond. It turns out that weeping willow is not only non-native; it’s not even an actual willow species, but rather a hybrid of

Peking Willow (Salix Babylonica) from China and White Willow (Salix Alba) from Europe.

There are somewhere between 350 and 400 species of willow in the world. Many look very similar and many hybridize freely, which means that a) nobody can agree on how many species there really are, and b) they’re tough to tell apart. Utah has about a dozen native species of willow, usually found on or near watercourses. The globe willow is not one of them. It’s an import from China (which is home to the greatest number of willow species) that was apparently bred into its present variety in the American Southwest (New Mexico?)

Most willows I’ve been familiar with as an adult have been the brushy kind that grow in canyon bottoms and whack you in the face as you’re trying to bushwhack- one nearly put my right eye out in a side canyon of the Dirty Devil River (pictured) in 2001.

There’s a stand of willow- maybe Coyote Willow (Salix Exigua)- along my usual morning mtn bike route, at the mouth of Dry Creek, which is still completely brown. (Photographed this morning… photo not saved on hated camera-phone…)

But down in the valley, the Globe Willows are coming to life. Globe Willows seems to show green so early, because the very twigs turn green even before the buds start to bloom. In this shot here you can see the strong green tint if the twig bark, as well as the now active (green) leaf buds bursting from the older (brown) bud sheaths which covered the juvenile, then-dormant buds over the winter.

I haven’t been able to find out about the green bark, but I wonder

if this is an adaptive advantage of photosynthesizing via chlorophyll directly in the bark, getting a pre-bloom jump on growth, through a mechanism similar to Palo Verde, for example.

So other than there being lots of them and some turning green early, what’s so great about willows? Here’s what: Pollination.

Willows, like all flowering plants, are angiosperms. It’s thought that all angiosperms descended from a common ancestor. There’s a lot of background behind this consensus, but the Reader’s Digest version (I haven’t seen a “Reader’s Digest” since about 4th grade- do they still exist?) is that the way in which angiosperms reproduce is so phenomenally complicated and bizarre (and I’ll cover it in a future post) that it seems terribly unlikely to have evolved more than once.

It’s also thought that this common angiosperm ancestor was insect-pollinated. Today, many angiosperms are insect-pollinated, and many are wind-pollinated. Overwhelmingly, the wind-pollinated angiosperms- including aspens, cottonwoods, oaks, maples, beeches- have really lame-looking flowers, while all the plants with spectacular-looking flowers- orchids, roses, cherry trees- are insect (or bird or bat) pollinated, the thinking being that if you don’t have to attract a bee or a hummingbird, why spend so much energy growing a showy flower? But even in the lame-o wind-pollinated flowers, there are remnants of the showier, more extravagant flower-structures (petals, etc.) that hint at a glitzier, insect-pollinated past. So modern oaks for instance, apparently descended from insect-pollinated ancestors who for whatever reason later abandoned insect-pollination for the wind-pollination of their ancient, ancient, ancient gymnosperm ancestors.

Willows are dioecious, meaning that a given plant will have either all male or all female flowers, but not both. But male or female, their flowers are pretty lame (see diagram.)

And because they’re so lame, it was assumed for a long time that willows were wind-pollinated. But it turns out that they’re in fact insect-pollinated, and that apparently, they went through an evolutionary-pollination-strategy-story (EPSS?) that went something like this:

Ancient, ancient wind-pollinated gymnosperm ancestor evolved to…

Ancient common insect-pollinated angiosperm ancestor evolved to…

Ancient wind-pollinated ancestor of Salicae family (willow and poplars) evolved to…

Modern insect-pollinated willows.

Which means that willows have switched between wind and insect pollination at least 3 times. This is what’s so cool about plants; every plant tells a story, and the more you know about plants, and better understand their stories, the better you can see the Beauty of the World.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Point of this blog

Every year it seems that winter drags on for ever. And then all of a sudden, spring explodes into summer. During the every spring and summer I catch neat little glimpses of the change of seasons- new leaves on a tree, wildflowers on the hills above my house, a new bird call when I wake up in the morning. As Spring builds into Summer, and I work my way higher on outings into the mountains, I see the changes continuing higher up- aspen leaves darkening, and columbine giving way to Indian paintbrush.

And then before I know it, the maple leaves are turning red, and I know that another living, growing year is almost gone. And always, I have a sense of having somehow missed it. Missed the essence of the Living Year itself.

I’m in my forties now, and like most forty-somethings, I’m starting to have those I-won’t be-young-forever thoughts. Most of them are pretty standard- thinking about spending more time with my kids, where I’m heading in my career, etc. But this past winter (a long cold winter) I had a different forty-something thought, and it was this:

One day, most likely some thirty-five or forty years from now, I’ll be facing death. And when I do, unless it’s smack in the middle of Spring, I will think wistfully that I never did take the time and spend the effort to really see, experience and understand how the world wakes up in and through every Living Year.
I know rationally that everyone who dies with at least a moment’s warning is bound to die with at least some regrets. I know I can’t change that. But this year, above all else, I will change one thing about my future, so that when I face death one day, my regrets will at least not include having missed the change. This year, I will watch the world wake up.


I live in Salt Lake City, Utah, near the mouth of Emigration Canyon. I work 5 days/week, and travel frequently out-of-state. When I’m in town, I usually get out into the foothills or mountains several times per week. In the spring, I’m mainly in the foothills, and work my way up higher as the season progresses. Most commonly I explore the foothills before work, by foot or mountain bike. The past couple weeks I’ve been biking out from my house in the dark, riding up into the foothills as the sun comes up, and returning home shortly before dawn. This is what it typically looks like ½ way through my morning ride:

I tend to cover the same ground a few times a week this way, and on the weekends I usually hike somewhere in the same area with my kids, most often the Wasatch foothills between Emigration and City Creek canyons.

For much of its length, the Wasatch doesn’t have foothills. Down between Mill Creek and Corner canyons, the mountains pretty much launch straight up at the sky. But up North the valley benches lift up into true foothills. Between 5,000 and 7,000 feet the foothills are covered with a mix of open grass/scrub and woodland/chaparral.

The keyword for all of this cover right now, is BROWN. Brown grass, brown brush, brown trees. But over the next 2 months it’ll explode into life, and I plan to watch closely as it does.

The grass/scrub will be carpeted with a succession of wildflowers, which I’ll photograph and research as I find them. Even now, in the brown and mud, I’ve found these two tiny flowers over the past 3 days, which I’ve been as yet unable to ID.

The woodland/chaparral consists almost overwhelmingly of exactly 3 species of trees, in order of preponderance: Gambel Oak, Bigtooth Maple, Curleaf Mountain Mahogany.

Right now the Mountain Mahogany is the only bit of green on the foothills. You can see a few in this photo towards the top of Wire Peak, across the street from the zoo:

It’s an evergreen, and I’ll write more about it in future posts.

On this morning’s ride, I saw:

-1 porcupine (in the dark, by the mouth of Dry Creek as I was heading up)
-1 coyote (in the light, same place, on the return)
~dozen or so deer (several places. These things are so common I hardly notice them…)
-2 scrub jays and a bunch of magpies getting into it over something, near Huntsman Cancer Institute
-1 human. A paraglider. He passed over me as I was returning on the Bonneville Shoreline Trail, right by Huntsman. A moment later I pooped out of the trailhead onto Colorow Way and there he was, just having landed, folding up his chute. He said he’d hike up Wire Peak and glided back down. “Nice way to start the day” he said. I agree.