Mountain Bluebird

xmountainbluebird

Mountain Bluebird photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

While traveling across southern Utah last week my wife and I kept seeing momentary flickers of blue from some unknown bird. On our final day at Arches National Park we finally got a clear view of one of them. An argument between two males high in a juniper tree caught our attention, and I was able to get a few distant shots of this Mountain Bluebird (Passeriformes: Turdidae: Sialia currucoides).

xmountainbluebird2

Mountain Bluebird photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Females are relatively drab-colored, sporting pale blue plumage only on their wing margins and tails. Males, in contrast, feature deeper blue coloration on their wings and tails, with light blue on their heads and chests. Since these birds inhabit sparsely-forested open areas of the west, however, females typically choose males based on the quality of their nests rather than their physical attributes. Males normally arrive at potential nesting sites early in the spring in order to secure nests from rival species like European Starlings and Tree Swallows. The males we witnessed in conflict may have been fighting for control of a desirable tree cavity that could be used to attract mates.

xmountainbluebird3

Mountain Bluebird photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

In warmer months Mountain Bluebirds use their relatively long, narrow beaks to pick off insects, spiders, and other arthropods. In colder months they often settle for the fruit of trees and other plants.

xmountainbluebird4

Mountain Bluebird photographed 04/15/2014 at Arches National Park, Utah.

Although human activities have historically caused a slight decline in Mountain Bluebird populations, in more recent years humans have worked to help this species. Man-made nest boxes have provided supplemental nesting cavities these birds require for breeding, and bluebird populations are now relatively stable.

Posted in National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Bryce Canyon National Park

xamphitheater2

The Amphitheater from near Sunrise Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

A wonderland of fiery rock formations mixed with rich evergreen forests and meadows, Bryce Canyon National Park preserves some truly amazing natural features in southern Utah. First protected in 1923, this park is perhaps best known for having one of the largest and most beautiful collections of hoodoos on the planet.

xamphitheater3

The Amphitheater from near Sunrise Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Hoodoos are tall, slender spires that form from the erosion of sedimentary rock under particular circumstances. Although they can be found across the globe, the geology and climate of Bryce Canyon have created an abundance of them in this unique location.

xamphitheater2b

The Amphitheater from near Sunrise Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The colorful beds that are exposed here are part of the Claron Formation, deposited in lakes and streams from the Paleocene to the Eocene epochs of the Cenozoic Period (approximately 60-40 million years ago). Changing climatic conditions and shifting shorelines and environments lead to the deposition of limestone, mudstone, siltstone, sandstone, and conglomerate in that approximate order of abundance.

xamphitheater

The Amphitheater from near Sunrise Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Since then tectonic collision and uplift helped to gradually elevate this region by thousands of feet. Formed from the massive Colorado Plateau to the east, several smaller plateaus fractured off from the margin. In this particular area the Paunsaugunt Plateau was created, and over the last few million years erosional forces have worked away at its edges.

xrainbowpoint2

View from Rainbow Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The main driving force of hoodoo formation at Bryce Canyon is frost wedging. Most of the park sits between 8,000 and 9,000 feet of elevation and experiences approximately 200 freeze-thaw cycles per year. Rain and melting snow seeps into fine cracks, freezes, and the expansion of ice helps force the rock apart. Over millennia this process has fractured the sediments into countless intricate shapes.

xnaturalbridge

Natural Bridge photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Rainfall also helps chisel away at the rocks. Water combined with atmospheric carbon dioxide forms a weak solution of carbonic acid, and this substance is particularly good at eating away at limestone. Thin, more resistant layers of siltstone, sandstone, and magnesium-rich dolomite that overlie limestone can often form caps on the weaker rock. These caps help preserve hoodoo shapes for a while. After these cap rocks are finally weathered away the limestone that remains is typically dissolved at a much faster rate. Resistant sediments are also interspersed with the limestone here, creating lumpy shapes as a result of differential erosion.

xaguacanyon2

View from the Agua Canyon Overlook. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

While the beautiful rocks take center stage at Bryce Canyon, the lush forests and meadows are also intriguing. Lower elevations are filled with pinion-juniper forests, while the highest elevations harbor firs, spruce, and ancient bristlecone pines.

xfarview

View from Farview Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The middle elevations that dominate most of the park are filled with ponderosa pines.

DSCF1321

Ponderosa pines and manzanitas near The Amphitheater. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

The understory of these pine forests features abundant manzanitas.

DSCF1356

Manzanita near The Amphitheater. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

In open meadows pronghorn and prairie dogs can often be found. A variety of smaller mammals, reptiles, and birds also lurk among the foliage and rocks.

xsunsetpoint

The Amphitheater from near Sunset Point. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah.

Although I only had a few hours to see the high points of Bryce Canyon, it was obvious there was much to be discovered among the hoodoos and pines. Many miles of trails traverse the wilderness and invite exploration of this magnificent landscape. Since winter brings abundant snowfall and summer brings abundant crowds, spring and autumn are perhaps the best times to visit. These shoulder seasons also present relatively mild temperatures, making the exertion that comes with hiking the varied elevations much more pleasant.

Posted in Botany, Geology, National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Capitol Reef National Park

DSCF0985

View along the Waterpocket Fold from Panorama Point. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Centered around a 100-mile-long (161 km) wrinkle in the earth’s crust, Capitol Reef National Park preserves a region of south-central Utah that harbors beautiful landscapes as well as fascinating geology, cultural features, animals, and plants.

DSCF0977

View along the Waterpocket Fold from Panorama Point. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The geologic history of this area can be traced back to nearly 270 million years ago (mya). The rocks that are exposed here were deposited from the late Permian Period through the “dinosaur age” of the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous Periods (250 to 65 mya). Evidence for a variety of changing environments in those 200 million years can be found in the mudstones of the Chinle Formation (rivers and swamps), Navajo Sandstone (massive Sahara-like desert), and the Mancos Shale (shallow ocean bottom) .

DSCF0949

Section of rocks exposed along the Waterpocket Fold. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

From about 70 to 50 mya the Laramide Orogeny that helped form the Rocky Mountains uplifted and distorted this region. Locally a 100-mile-long monocline called the Waterpocket Fold was formed, and over the last few million years erosion has helped sculpt the landscape that exists today.

DSCF1166

View along the Waterpocket Fold from Scenic Drive. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Evidence for human habitation of this region goes back approximately 12,000 years. During the last 2,000 years Fremont and ancestral Puebloan people left their mark on the sandstone cliffs in the form of petroglyphs:

DSCF1038

Petroglyphs made by the Fremont people. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

When European-American pioneers reached this place in the nineteenth century they named it “Capitol Reef” for two reasons. First, the monoliths of white Navajo Sandstone reminded them of the Capitol Building in Washington DC:

DSCF1071

Capitol Dome and the Fremont River. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The “reef” in “Capitol Reef” may make one think of a coral reef in an ocean. Historically, however, settlers applied the term “reef” to any rocky landscape that presented a barrier to travel.

DSCF1077

View along the Waterpocket Fold from Scenic Drive. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Although seemingly impassable at first glance, more than one route through the reef was discovered by early European-American settlers. The first pass is located along the Fremont River where late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century settlements were established. The Behunin family was among the first, and they built a cabin and farmed the area beginning in 1882:

DSCF1371

Behunin Cabin photographed 04/13/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Further west a number of apple orchards were established by other settlers:

DSCF1055

Wild turkeys in a historic apple orchard. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Today the fruit and foliage of these relatively lush areas harbor wildlife including wild turkeys (Galliformes: Phasianidae: Meleagris gallopavo)…

DSCF1268

Wild turkey photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

yellow-bellied marmots (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Marmota flaviventris)…

DSCF1171

Yellow-bellied marmot photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…as well as numerous mule deer (Artiodactyla: Cervidae: Odocoileus hemionus):

DSCF1036

Mule deer photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Humans later established another route through Capitol Gorge:

DSCF1120

Gravel road into Capitol Gorge. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Among the rocks of the Waterpocket Fold are a number of cool features like the Golden Throne…

DSCF1162

Golden Throne photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…the scenery near the mouth of Capitol Gorge…

DSCF1101

View near the mouth of Capitol Gorge. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…The Castle…

DSCF1030

The Castle photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…Chimney Rock…

DSCF0966

Chimney Rock photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…and Sulphur Creek from the Goosenecks Overlook:

DSCF1008

Canyon along Sulphur Creek from the Goosenecks Overlook. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The Hickman Bridge Trail provides for some other excellent views. First is an overlook of the Fremont River:

DSCF1177

The Fremont River from the Hickman Bridge Trail. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Then Hickman Bridge, a massive natural bridge located within the park:

DSCF1221

Hickman Natural Bridge. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The rugged, rocky landscape itself provides an interesting hike along the way:

DSCF1260

View along the Hickman Bridge Trail. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

These isolated rocky outcrops nurture other wildlife like chipmunks (Rodentia: Scuiridae: Neotamias spp.):

DSCF1237

Chipmunk near Hickman Bridge. Photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

In April a variety of colorful wildflowers can be found throughout the park, including Indian paintbrush (Castilleja sp.Orobanchaceae)…

DSCF1088

Indian paintbrush photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…milkvetch (Astragalus sp., Fabaceae)…

DSCF1094

Milkvetch photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…Utah penstemon (Penstemon utahensisPlantaginaceae):

DSCF1131

Utah penstemon photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…globemallow (Sphaeralcea sp., Malvaceae)…

DSCF1186

Globemallow photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

…and cleftleaf wildheliotrope (Phacelia crenulata, Boraginaceae)…

DSCF1194

Scorpionweed photographed 04/12/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

The beautiful scenery, intriguing geologic and human history, as well as the abundant plant and animal life make Capitol Reef a rewarding place to visit. The high points can be seen in a day or two, but the extensive roads, trails, and backcountry through the varied terrain invite more detailed exploration. Capitol Reef sees fewer visitors than other parks in the region, so finding solitude in this magnificent wilderness is not hard to do.

DSCF1097

View along the Waterpocket Fold from Scenic Drive. Photographed 04/11/2014 at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Posted in Botany, Culture, Ecology, Geology, National Parks, Paleoecology, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Hickman Natural Bridge at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

This brief clip captures the size of Hickman Natural Bridge at Capitol Reef National Park east of Torrey, Utah.  Recorded 04/12/2014.

Posted in General, Geology, National Parks | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

A slow start to spring

After experiencing the snowiest and fifth-coldest winter on record in southeast Michigan, it’s no surprise that many plants have been slow to emerge this spring. Today I compared the current development of my garden perennials to photos I took in March of 2012. The winter of 2011-2012 was much warmer and drier than average, and by mid-March many plants were emerging and flowering. After the much colder and snowier winter we just had, it’s apparent many plants are several weeks behind in their development compared to 2012.

Here’s what my daffodils looked like on March 17, 2012:

DSCF5140

…and here’s what they looked like today (April 8, 2014):

DSCF0913

Here’s a hyacinth on March 17, 2012…

DSCF5139

…and the same plant on April 8, 2014:

DSCF0912

This was a daylily on March 17, 2012…

DSCF5137

…and the same plant on April 8, 2014:

DSCF0908

Clearly spring still has a lot of springing to do.

Posted in Botany, Ecology, General, Weather and Climate | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

The Worst Winter Ever is Finally Over

snowpocalypse2

Winter scene photographed 01/06/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Here in southeast Michigan older people still talk about “The Winter of ’78.” The 1977-1978 winter season saw record-setting snowfall and at least one significant blizzard, making it one for the record books. Until now. The winter of 2013-2014 shattered many previous records for both snowfall and cold temperatures, and was in general the most miserable winter I’ve ever experienced here. The Weather Channel even ranked nearby Toledo as the worst winter city of the season.

snowpocalypse5

Winter scene photographed 01/06/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

We ended up with over 85″ (216 cm) of snow, an all-time record for the area. Snow cover persisted from late December to mid-March, and throughout most of the winter we had over three feet (1 m) of snow on the ground. January in particular was the snowiest on record when we accumulated over 40″ (102 cm) of snow.

snowpocalypse4

Winter scene photographed 01/06/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Even worse than the snow was the brutal cold. It was the fifth-coldest winter in history, with winter temperatures averaging out to 20.4 F (-6.4 C). Nine days set new record low temperatures, we got below 0 F (-18 C) on 25 different days, and Toledo reached a near-all-time low of -15 F (-26 C). I think it got closer to -20 F (-29 C) here in the country.

snowpocalypse6

After our furnace died amid sub-zero temperatures, Muffin kept warm in front of several emergency space heaters. Photographed 01/06/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

The worst part of this winter was when our furnace quit working on New Year’s Day. It took almost a week to get a replacement, and in the meantime we had to rely on three small electric space heaters we borrowed. This was when the lows got below -10 F (-23 C) every night and the highs didn’t reach 10 F (-12 C) in the day. By the time our new furnace was installed and running, inside the house it was down to only 35 F (2 C) and some of our pipes had frozen (but thankfully didn’t burst).

snowpocalypse3

Winter scene photographed 01/06/2014 near Palmyra, Michigan.

Below-average temperatures persisted into late March. When average highs were supposed to be around 50 F (10 C), we struggled to get above freezing. Snow cover didn’t start breaking up until mid-March, and even now in April there are still piles of plowed snow sticking around. This week we’re finally supposed to see highs flirting with 60 F (16 C), and although spring is off to a late start things are finally looking up.

Posted in General, Weather and Climate | Tagged | 1 Comment

Antelope ground squirrel

DSCF9538

Antelope ground squirrel (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Ammospermophilus sp.) photographed 02/08/2014 at Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Antelope ground squirrels (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Ammospermophilus spp.) are common inhabitants of the deserts of the southwest United States and northern Mexico. They can often be found in the relative safety of rocky landscapes where cover from predators is never far away.

DSCF9541

Antelope ground squirrel (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Ammospermophilus sp.) photographed 02/08/2014 at Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

These small rodents are active throughout the year, and spend their days hunting for seeds, berries, plants, insects and other arthropods to eat. Capable of surviving body temperatures of up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit (42 C) these animals are out and about even in the most brutal summer sun. They breed in late winter and spring, and females can give birth to over a dozen offspring at a time.

DSCF9543

Antelope ground squirrel (Rodentia: Sciuridae: Ammospermophilus sp.) photographed 02/08/2014 at Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, New Mexico.

My wife and I found a lot of these squirrels scurrying around the dark lava rocks at Petroglyph National Monument near Albuquerque, New Mexico in February. They were elusive and camera-shy among the basalt boulders, making identification to the species level difficult. Although there are five species of antelope squirrels in the United States, only two can be found in the Albuquerque area. Based on that information, these individuals were either white-tailed antelope squirrels (A. leucurus) or Texas antelope squirrels (A. interpres). I lean towards the former since the white-tails are the most common and widespread species.

Posted in National Parks, Vertebrate Zoology | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment