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.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Changing In Parking Lots, Old Butterflies And Cat3 Upgrade

This post is about a butterfly, but this first part seems like a tangent because it’s all about me. But it’s really not, as will become apparent later in the post, when I come back to it*.

*In the meantime it sets me up to go on in a self-involved way about my current personal worry du jour, which fits perfectly into my Universal Blog Theory, which states that all blogs- regardless of theme- are really just excuses to go on and on about oneself.

You know that feeling where you get a really good idea, and you think, “Wow, this is a great idea. I should do it right now!” And so you do it, but then a couple days later you’re like, “Why did I think that was such a good idea?” That’s kind of how I feel right now.

No, no, no, there weren’t any drugs or alcohol involved, and no, I didn’t pull a Governor Sanford or anything. Early last week, in a fit of bravado, overconfidence and peer (teammate) encouragement, I applied to upgrade my racing category to Cat3. Thursday morning the request was approved, and I spent much of the rest of the day second-guessing myself. What was I thinking? I’m a 45-year old, not-very-coordinated, was always-the-last-kid-to-be-picked-for-teams suburban schlep with 3 kids and a full-time job. The Cat3’s are full of hyperfast 20-somethings fighting their way up to the 1/2s. I’ll never finish top 5 again; I’ll be that solo straggler who rolls up at the very end* as they’re taking down the finish line and wrapping up the awards ceremony. What was I thinking?

*You know exactly what I’m talking about. That last guy rolls in, and you and your friends all say to each other stuff like, “Good for him!”, or “Hey, the important thing is finishing!” But secretly you’re thinking, “Christ, that guy is just rolling in now?? That poor bastard. Man, it would so totally suck to be him…”

The guy (Tyler2) who beat me in the finish-line sprint at High Uintas is 24. 24! I could have a son that age*! What was I thinking upgrading? I should just be grateful I still have my hair, all my teeth and regular bowel movements!

*I guess it’s possible. Hey, it was the 80’s- people took risks.

But the next night, as I did some research for this post, I found reassurance, and I found it the remarkable life of a butterfly.

On To The Real Post Already

On Thursday I went on and on about last week’s Mill Creek lunch ride. Now let’s back up to the very beginning of that ride, to just moments before I got on the bike. I parked at the lot by the Mill Creek gate, took my bike out of the back and attached my front wheel. Then I changed into biking gear.

Changing In Parking Lots

Tangent: This right here- changing in parking lots- is something I’ve wanted to blog about for a long time, because I know it’s a repeated, common frustrating task that cyclists everywhere deal with.

So often when I’m doing a ride, I’m either coming from work, or going to work. My workplace doesn’t have a strict dress code, but I’m pretty sure sweaty lycra isn’t “business casual.” So I end up doing a lot of changing in parking lots, and in the case of a lunch ride, I change twice- once before, and once following the ride.

Many cyclists change inside their cars, like while sitting in the driver’s seat, but this has 2 big problems. First, it requires a series of fairly limber contortions, which are extra-difficult when you’re over 6’ tall. Second, the time you’re likeliest to get “stuck” is when your shorts are stuck somewhere in the ankles-knees-thighs region, and if someone walks by at that particular moment, well… you’re a middle-aged man sitting alone in a car with no pants on. Enough said.

So the method I use is the Surfer Method. If you’ve spent anytime in Southern California you know what I’m talking about: you wrap a beach towel around the waist, drop your drawers, pull up your shorts, or vice-versa. This method requires fewer contortions, but has 2 risks. First, if the towel comes undone at the wrong moment, you are standing outside with no pants on. And second, it’s actually pretty hard to get the shorts/ underpants/ trousers all the way up to the waist without momentarily flashing a healthy snippet of cheek or crotch. I try to “augment” the Surfer method by standing in between 2 open car doors, so as to limit my angles of exposure, but even so, in a crowded parking lot, where children are present (and in Utah, children are always present), it’s a tricky maneuver.

Changing in LotIn A Perfect World

What I wish was that in our culture the genitalia and buttocks of changing cyclists held the same social status as the breasts of a nursing mother. Normally, it’s not OK for an American woman go walking around in a public place- say a parking lot- with her breasts exposed. But if a woman exposes her breasts in that same parking lot because she’s nursing an infant, well that’s totally OK. If you walk by with your kid, and he/she asks, “Daddy, why is that lady’s shirt open?”, you just say, “Oh that’s OK, she’s breast-feeding her baby.”

Similarly, I think it would be great if I could just get out of the car, stand up, drop my drawers and put my bike shorts on without causing a scene. Little kids would walk by and say, “Mommy, why does that man have no pants on?”, and their mothers would be like, “Oh that’s OK, he’s changing into bike shorts.” , and it would totally be no big deal. Now wouldn’t that be great*?

*When I become KJIoSLC, that is the 3rd change I’m making, right after I take care of the museum site and the Mill Creek gate.

IMG_0919 After I changed, I walked about 20 feet over to the outhouse to pee before the ride, and on the way, something caught my eye- a butterfly. It was a pretty butterfly, black wings with white markings (pic left), and I thought, “Gee, I’m always thinking I should learn more about Butterflies. I should check this one out, try to ID it and learn something about it.” So I stopped, clicked a few photos, and continued on.

Men Peeing Tangent: I can’t count the number of times I’ve noticed something really interesting in the natural world either while peeing, or going to pee*. Examples include the first Gambel-Turbinella hybrid oak I discovered, the first Black-Headed Grosbeak I ID’d, the first Coati I spotted (in Costa Rica), and of course this Butterfly, which as we’ll see in a moment, turned out to be rather remarkable. If I ever write a book, I’ll entitle it something like “Discoveries While Peeing: An Amateur Naturalist Learns About Nature While Urinating Across America.”

*Digging up that old graphic from last August I realize now that I had East-West backwards. Why didn’t anybody tell me? Oh yeah, no one read my blog back then…

That evening I poked around online for about 10 minutes (I don’t own a butterfly guide) and ID’d it.

All About Butterflies

A “butterfly” is an insect of the order Lepidoptera, which includes all butterflies and moths. There are at least 180,000 species of Lepidoptera in the world, which are in turn part of a larger “superorder” called Holometabola which includes more like 700,000 species (including everything from flies to fleas to wasps), all of which have in common the characteristic of radical metamorphosis. This metamorphosis includes 4 distinct life stages, which in Lepidopterans are: Egg, Larva (Caterpillar), Chrysalis (Cocoon) and Adult (Butterfly). All Lepidoptera do this. Any Butterfly or Moth you’ve ever seen used to be a caterpillar.

The Most Bizarre Thing Ever

Tangent: I could stop the post right here, and just marvel at the shocker of commonplace complexity that is radical metamorphosis. Think about it- it’s probably the single most bizarre thing that all of us see all the time. A thing is “born”, and it’s a caterpillar- a long, fat little crawling thing that munches leaves and has dozens of legs. After a while, it exudes this weird silky/mucus-y stuff all around it and then sits still for some weeks/months. Then when it pops out, it’s a completely different thing- a six-legged insect with huge wings and big antennae. How weird is that?

woman gpig Imagine if people were like that. A pregnant lady goes to the hospital, and gives birth to say, a Guinea Pig. Everyone congratulates her and her spouse, and they take the guinea pig home and coddle it and feed it or whatever. (Yes, I actually was able to find a photo of a woman holding a guinea pig. You can find anything online these days…) They spend the next say, 6 or 7 years feeding, bathing and caring for the guinea pig, maybe even giving it piano lessons or taking it to special little classes for gifted guinea pigs. Then when the guinea pig is maybe 8 or so, it scuttles off to its room/basket/whatever, and starts belching or pooping out all this weird, gross mucus-y stuff, on and on, until it’s completely encased in mucus. The mucus-shell hardens, and the guinea pig just sits there for like a month, after which it wiggles around, the mucus-shell/cocoon break open, and an 8 year old little boy or girl climbs out and starts talking and eating and collecting Pok√©mon cards. How weird would that be??

Pretty freaking weird, you say, but of course it’s all made-up/what-if. Only it’s not. It happens every year, millions and millions of times all around you*, even in your own backyard, and the proof is right there every time you see a butterfly.

*Only it’s even weirder in real life than in the what-if example above, because a guinea pig and a human are far more structurally similar than a caterpillar and a butterfly.

Butterflies and Moths may seem immediately and obviously different, but apparently entomologists still debate the exact defining characteristics of one or the other. Some of these characteristics are pretty technical details, like the specifics of wing-coupling mechanisms, but the most basic agreed-upon difference seems to be the antennae. Butterflies have long, slender antennae that are club-shaped at the ends, while those of moths look like little combs or feathers.

Of the ~180,000 species of Lepidopterans, maybe 20,000 are butterflies, and of those roughly 5,000 belong to a family Nymphalidae. Most of these species are larger butterflies, with “reduced” (small) forelegs (think Tyrannosaurus Rex) and tend to hold their wings flat when resting, which often makes them a bit easier to ID. Nymphalidae are further divided into a dozen subfamilies, one of which is Limenitidinae, or the “Admiral subfamily”, whose “namesake” genus is Limenitis, the “Admiral” butterflies. Limenitis includes a couple dozen species around the Northern hemisphere, several of which are native to North America. The Mill Creek outhouse butterfly was a Weidemeyer’s Admiral, Limenitis weidemeyerii.

Lweidemeyerii range map I recently mentioned another Limenitis species, the Red-Spotted Purple, the Chokecherry-munching butterfly native to the Eastern US, but Weidemeyer’s Admiral is a true Utah native, with a distribution limited to the Intermountain West. (Range map right.) At some point in its evolutionary past its ancestors apparently made a host shift to Saliceae, the Willow family, and today it favors the leaves of Cottonwoods and Aspens for egg-laying sites and food, while in Caterpillar stage. Adults feed on nectar, sap and carrion.

IMG_0920 Weidemeyer’s Admiral (pic left) isn’t unusual in the Wasatch, but it’s attractive and has a couple of interesting characteristics. The first is super-geeky (and not really relevant to this post) but it’s so cool that I’ll mention it anyway. Last Fall I did a post talking about color vision in birds, mammals and specifically human women. Insects of course have evolved image-resolving vision along a completely separate path than that followed by us vertebrates, using a radically different eye-architecture (compound eye.) Many insects have also independently evolved color vision, including Weidemeyer’s Admiral, which appears to have trichromatic color vision across a similar spectrum to that seen by primates.

Geeky Part, Skip If You Have Low Science-Tolerance

butterfly eye Just like in primates, Admiral (and other) Butterflies have evolved proteins that determine the frequencies to which a given photo-receptor cell (what we call “cones” in our eyes) is receptive. And over the course of butterfly evolution- just like in primate evolution, new proteins, which enabled receptivity to additional frequencies, evolved through amino acid substitutions, in which one amino acid took the place of another at a given spot in a protein, altering that protein (and in this case, its function.) (pic right = butterfly eye, not mine, species unknown. But it’s a cool pic, eh?)

Researchers have tracked down 4 such apparent substitutions in the evolution of Admiral Butterfly eyes, and remarkably, 1 of these seems to be the exact same substitution that occurred in the corresponding primate protein. We’ve seen plenty of examples of convergent evolution in this blog (C4 and CAM photosynthesis were 2 of my favorites) but this one takes the cake. Butterflies and primates are separated by more than half a billion years of evolution, and yet gazillions of generations later effected the exact same amino acid substitution to evolve color vision. That’s pretty wild.

OK, Start Paying Attention Again

OK, now for something way less geeky. Here’s the biggest thing I didn’t know about many male butterflies, including Weidemeyer’s Admiral: they’re aggressively territorial. Males stake out and patrol choice territories from which to keep a (compound trichromatic) eye out for passing females. When another male enters an established territory, the resident male aggressively confronts and chases off (sometimes even dogfighting) the intruder.

Back in the 1970’s, research done on Limenitis butterflies showed that a) they were territorial, and b) the bigger butterfly won male vs. male contests the vast majority of the time, and so for many years it was generally accepted by entomologists who study butterflies that “Bigger is Better.”

Older Is Better

IMG_0921 But more recent research suggests that what actually is going on is “Older is Better”, and that the vast majority of such contests are actually won by older males, who generally - but not always- are bigger than younger males. Researchers figured this out by looking at the behavior of related species in which older males are bigger earlier in the season, but actually smaller than younger males later in the season (I don’t know why this is.)

There are 2 hypotheses as to why older males might tend to prevail in such contests. First, older males might just be the toughest- those who’ve been able to survive predators and bad weather and car windshields the longest. Second is that older males take more risks, because the evolutionary cost of doing so is theoretically lower to a male at or near the end of his life than it is toward the beginning (when he still faces a long life of full of possible future breeding opportunities.)

Side Note: This second hypothesis, the “Less-to-Lose” idea, is pretty much the same logic as my Cricket-Chirping “Theory” from last Fall. Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once used similar logic in a routine in which he suggested that drivers should be allowed to drive at a speed limit equal to their age.

In any case, I take great comfort from the competitive success of older Weidemeyer’s Admiral males. I’m looking forward to my first race with the Big Boys. Maybe I’ll change my blog-handle from “Watcher” to “Admiral.”

Final Note: Before leaving the whole issue of butterfly territories I should mention that the other decisive factor in such contests is residency. The vast majority of the time, the butterfly who is already resident in the territory will prevail over an intruder, making territory displacement relatively rare (though in the big picture it happens all the time.) Of course, “resident” males tend to be “older” males (who got there first), so it’s not entirely clear how the two factors are related, and which is cause or effect.

Friday, June 26, 2009


IMG_1029 Sorry I didn’t get the butterfly post up today. Too much going on at work, home, blah, blah, you don’t care so why make excuses… But tonight after dinner I was out in the driveway loading up the rig for a Daddy-Trifecta camping trip when I saw this: a full-on, end-to-end double rainbow.

IMG_1030 Full doubles are one of those things that you should always stop doing whatever it is you’re doing to check out. Because unless you're saving a drowning child or intercepting a North Korean missile, chances are nothing you're doing is anywhere near as cool as a full double. My camera lens wasn’t wide enough to catch it, so here’s a video panning from one end to the other.

IMG_1040 The South end appeared to be right in front of Mt. Olympus, about 7 miles away. For the Best Ever explanation of How A Rainbow Works, check out this post from last August. I’ll have the butterfly post up Sunday PM/Monday AM. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Mill Creek Canyon, Wild Geraniums And Kim Jong Il

Boy, all week I’ve been feeling really great. Just that all-round, happy-to-be-alive feeling. I spent a few minutes yesterday thinking about why this is, and came up with 2 major reasons (plus, a 3rd, tangential reason, which I will cover, appropriately enough, in a tangent.)

First, I think I’m still on kind of a high after the High Uintas Classic. After a day that miserable, that cold, that dismal, simply being warm and wearing dry clothes is just a huge pleasure. I guess I just feel normal, but after Saturday, “normal = “great”.

Second, Summer has finally arrived. Sunday was our last stormy day; so far this week had been perfect. Just walking across the office parking lot in the morning feels delightful, and the rides I’ve done this week have been some of the most pleasant all year.

Sunrise 6 23 09 Tangent: Of course, Summer really did arrive- astronomically- this past weekend. Earlier this week I took a couple of photos that’ll be fun to look at again come December. First is the sunrise from my driveway (which faces almost due North. In Winter my driveway practically never melts out.) on June 23. North ShadowSecond is my shadow @sunrise on the North-facing garage door. Sunlight from the North- that never ceases to freak me out! And third is sunset seen from Donner Park over Antelope island, at an astounding azimuth of 59 degrees, placing it just South of Frary Peak on Antelope Island.

Sunset 6 23 09 Nested Tangent: I had to spin up to Donner Park for the shot because you can’t see the sunset from our house. Yes, despite living up on the East Bench, our house is one of probably <a dozen in the Salt Lake Valley that Has No View. Which is embarrassing, because in Salt Lake, every house has a view. Seriously, there are trailer parks out in West Valley that have astounding, national-park-class views, but in our hoyty-toyty East Bench ‘hood, the best I can see from the back yard is a piece of scrubby Perkins Peak.

Anyway, I’ve been feeling great all week.

IMG_0979 Tangent: OK, here’s the 3rd reason I think I’m feeling great- I bought a new pair of shoes for work, and they’re pretty much the Most Comfortable Shoes Ever. Don’t laugh- when you reach middle age, it’s the little things that matter, and I am telling you, every step in these babies is a cushiony little podia-gasm. And check out the cool Euro-styling- these are some fine-looking shoes!

Nested Tangent: Yes, yes, I know, I have really big feet. (You know what they say* about guys with big feet…) But really they’re not all that big for a guy my size. My size is 11 ½, and I’m 6’2”. My neighbor, Hunky Chris, is 6’4”, and is only size 10. I’m always like, “Dude, how do you keep from falling over all the time on those tiny feet?”

*Big shoes. Big socks.

Yesterday the day was so nice that I took a long lunch and did a combo road/mtn ride up past the Mill Creek Canyon gate.

Side Note: It is like a law of physics that you take a long lunch out of cell range, your boss will choose that time to try to call you repeatedly. Why is that? My boss is in another state, calls me maybe once every 2 to 3 days. But the moment I get out of cell range, suddenly there’s some time-critical-work-emergency that requires my immediate attention…

IMG_0957 I love Mill Creek Canyon. Across the Intermountain West of course, mountain canyons are so often wonderful micro-climates, each one its own little botanical garden, full of cool air, running water and green growing things. But here in Northern Utah, Mill Creek is possibly my favorite, for reasons I’ll come to a moment. But first, let’s talk about the gate.

The Gate

What makes Mill Creek so super-extra-cool this time of year is that the road is gated and close to traffic 4 ½ miles from the top, which makes it a cycling wonderland. The smooth, sinewy road is car-free, and the trails accessed by it largely deserted. The upper road and trails don’t melt out till mid-June, and the gate opens on July 1, so right now is the best time to bike in upper Mill Creek.

President_Obama Tangent: This brings up the wonderful topic of what I would do if I Were President. We all have these fantasies, right? Where we say things like, “If I were President, I’d make all those AIG executives give their bonuses to all the people who lost their houses!”, or “If I were President, I’d make the Air Force hold a bake sale to buy a bomber!”, or “If I were President, I’d deport Lou Dobbs!”, or whatever.

Nested Tangent: This reminds me of the Worst Commercial Ever, a shampoo ad that aired in the early-to-mid 1980’s. (Unfortunately I can’t recall the brand.) The camera zooms in on a beautiful, sultry-looking woman, who turns and stares sulkily at the camera, and a narrator’s voice comes on and says, “If you could have one wish, for the rest of your life, what would that wish be?”

shampooAd Of course, you immediately assume she’s going to say, “World Peace”, or “A Cure for Cancer”, or some such. But no, she would say- I swear I am not making this up- “Shiny, manageable hair for the rest of my life.” What?? That’s it? Are you shitting me? That’s your one wish? You’d leave thousands/millions starving in Africa or suffering in Soviet gulag camps, so you could have nice hair??

But what we gloss over with these “If I were in charge…” type statements, is that by and large the President of the United States doesn’t have the kind of sweeping autocratic powers implied by them. The other problem is that much of the time, we use these “If I were in President…” statements about purely local issues, like “If I were President, I’d make my neighbor clean up that yard of his. It looks like hell!” Really? That’s what you’d do? If you got to be President, you’d come back to your old neighborhood and start ordering landscaping?

Kim Jong Watcher

Kim Jong Watcher No, what most of us really wish is not that we were President, but that were the local municipal executive (i.e. mayor), but with sweeping, near-dictatorial powers. Personally, my dream is to somehow become the Kim Jong Il (KJI) of Salt Lake County (SLC).

As KJI of SLC, there are a number of important things I’d do, beginning straightaway with the demolition of the new, nearly-completed Utah Museum of Natural History building, and the restoration of the site to its formerly quasi-pristine foothills-open space condition*, regardless of the cost.

*Hopefully by this point in the post it is apparent even to the even the most casual reader that I would be a thoroughly dismal public servant. Seriously, if I ever run for anything, don’t vote for me. I wouldn’t.

But the second thing I’d do- and the one that actually has something to do with the point of this post (and yes this post does have a point and I am finally getting to it) is close upper Mill Creek Canyon to automobile traffic year-round. Seriously, think about it for a second. The road doesn’t go anywhere. Why does anybody need to drive to the top? Make it a permanent bikeway/walkway, repaint the lanes to minimize hiker/biker/runner/canine conflict, and keep it muscle-powered-only year-round. Wouldn’t that be sweet?

Although all the Wasatch canyons are inviting, I’m convinced that Mill Creek is the most botanically interesting of them all*. It encompasses several distinct ecological zones, from dusty foothills, up through thick Oak-Maple woodland, clear on up to deep, cool PLT/Aspen forests, and yet the scale of the canyon is such that all of these different zones can be visited in a single couple-hour-ride.

Map Caption cut On yesterday’s lunch ride, I started at the gate, pedaled up the road to the Big Water trailhead, took the trail up to Dog Lake, descended the trail, then the road back to Elbow Fork. From there I followed Pipeline Trail through the shady Oak-Maple canopy down to Burch Hollow, and then returned to the gate. In 2 hours I went up nearly 3,000 feet and back, and saw all kinds of different trees, hummingbirds and butterflies**.

*With the possible exception of Red Butte Canyon, which I still need to get around to poaching…

**Cool post about one tentatively planned for tomorrow. Seriously, way, way cool. You won’t want to miss it. It’ll be the post everyone is talking about. Well not really, but it was one seriously good-looking bug. I mean insect.

IMG_0934 Of course you can do that on countless Wasatch rides, but for reasons not quite clear to me, Mill Creek often supports slightly different species or mixes of species than the other canyons around. Here are a few examples from the roadside between the gate and the top, easy for anyone to check out.

The South side of the road (climber’s right) features extensive, repeated stands of IMG_0933Rocky Mountain Maple. (pic above left) This is one of Utah’s 3 native Maples (the other 2 being Bigtooth Maple and Box Elder) but you don’t run across it nearly as often. RM Maple is smaller than its fellow Utah Maples, and occurs mainly as a shrub, but it’s got much different, and easily-recognizable, toothed leaves (pic right). It tends to favor shadier, wetter sites than Bigtooth, and seems to do well along the North-facing roadside, probably benefitting from runoff from the pavement.

IMG_0930 Another interesting shrub is the Serviceberry, also along the South side of the road. Serviceberry of course is all over the Wasatch, but check out the size of these leaves! (pic left, hand for scale) Serviceberries are notoriously problematic taxonomically, with very subjective lines between species, but I’m thinking that rather than our ubiquitous Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis), this might actually be Saskatoon Serviceberry (A. alnifolia) common through the Colorado Rockies clear up into Alberta and BC. If so, it’s the first place I’ve managed to recognize it in the Wasatch.

Wild Geraniums

IMG_0941 The road up is also a great place right now to check out native geraniums, because both of our common species are blooming in abundance along the roadside right now. Both are smallish, fairly simple-looking 5-petaled flowers atop stems maybe 1’ -2’ high. The (possibly para-carnivorous) Sticky Geranium (Geranium viscosissum) (pic right) is pink, while the Richardson’s Geranium (G. richardsonii ) (pic below, left) is white. The leaves are very similar, though on closer inspection they appear to be lobed slightly differently.

IMG_0936 Now both these flowers are pretty common throughout the Wasatch, so spotting one or the other is really no big deal. But what is a bit unusual is seeing so many of both in the same place. Typically I see Sticky Geranium all over the place in relatively sunny spots, lining trails through aspens for example. (The aspen sections of the Northern half of Mid-Mountain trail up by The Canyons Resort is an excellent place to see them throughout July and most of August.) But when I see Richardson’s Geranium it’s usually in shadier, cooler spots with less direct sun. (The upper, shadiest parts of Flying Dog trail in Jeremy Ranch is a great place to see them right now.)

Geranium Lobes But along the upper Mill Creek road you can see both all over the place, though what’s interesting is that the “Stickies” are mostly on the sunny, North, South-facing side of the road (climber’s left) while the Richardson’s are on the opposite, shadier side.

IMG_0942 Side Note: Here’s something cool I saw about ½ way up between the gate and Big Water trailhead. See what’s different? It’s a Sticky Geranium with 6 petals, something I’ve never noticed before. I’ll be keeping an eye out for more in the coming weeks, and try to get a feel for how much of a 4-leaf-clover type thing it is…

IMG_0955 The ride just up to the end of the rode and back is fun by itself, but yesterday I continued up on the dirt. Everyone loves the trails in upper Mill Creek, but unfortunately they probably get a bit too much love. By mid-summer the get beat and dusty, and on a weekend they can be so busy it’s sometime not worth trying to bike them. But right now, early in the season, after weeks of rain- and with the gate closed- they’re perfect. Smooth, tacky and empty (pic left). If you love to fly down Big Water, this week is the absolute best week of the year to do so. I didn’t see one person on the entire dirt portion of the ride.

IMG_0956 The 3 miles of pavement back down to Elbow Fork is fast and fun. When you jump back onto dirt on Pipeline, you’re in a completely different world from the one you left up at Big Water 5-7 minutes earlier. Now it’s warm and you’re zipping along under an arching 15-20 ft high canopy of Gambel Oak and Bigtooth Maple. (And still, no people!) But most impressive yesterday was the grass. Our rainy month has left the smooth, tacky trail lined with lush, green, 3-foot high grass that softly brushes your shins at 20 MPH (pic right).

Red Light Flashing I dropped the switchbacks down to Burch Hollow, pedaled the ½ mile back up to the car and sped back down the canyon, down into the valley, and cell range, back to the land where the red light is always blinking on my Blackberry, full of voicemails from my boss. It was a great lunch.

Within a week the gate will be open, the road busy with cars, and the tall grass already starting to brown and wilt. If you can work it in, try to get up there this week.