Rigor Vitae: Life Unyielding

Sunday, April 29, 2007


When I arrived at my bioblitz site, just after 6am on April 25th, It was just getting light enough to see my breath. I hauled my gear the short distance to the water's edge, then carefully walked around the pond's perimeter, hoping (vainly) to see some mammals. There was ample evidence of Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) in the form of tracks and the remains of a doe that appeared to have been poached last winter, and a single recent set of Moose (Alces alces) tracks. Mule deer have always been common here. Moose were rare in the Wasatch Mountains until the late '70s, and a successful stocking program. Today, dozens of Moose from the Wasatch are unsuccessfully transplanted to Colorado each year. A Coyote (Canis latrans) scat and numerous vole (Microtus spp.) burrows rounded out the morning mammal signs. Around 3pm, I saw my only mammal for the day, a Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus). As it turns out, bringing a mist net would have been a waste—it's too early for bats.

Birds are always the easiest tetrapods to view, and they comprise 90% of my tetrapod tally. Where the cataloging of plants posed identification challenges, the main difficulty with birds was accurate censusing. When you spend 15 hours on a plot of land, how do you discount the individuals you've seen earlier? My numbers for common birds are little more than guesses. On my arrival, a single Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) floated on the west end of the pond, and 7 Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) were calling the place home. This was the first year I've seen a goose on the pond, and ducks are fairly recent arrivals, too—in fact, a pair of Mallards I flushed around 1969 about 4 miles from here were the only anseriformes I ever saw resting in Emigration Canyon prior to the 1980s. I attribute this to two facts: Game management has succeeded in expanding the overall population of anseriformes in the region during this period, and the inadvertently man-made wetland here is a fairly recent habitat in this mountain canyon. In my initial dawn patrol, I flushed a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), only the third time I've seen this bird here (bear in mind that I rarely show up here at 6am). Around 10am, five Red-winged Blackbirds (Agelatus phoenicus), wetland newcomers as well, dropped by for about half an hour. Marsh Wrens (Cistotherus palustris) have also grown in numbers, although I saw but one skulking through the cattails, a zone still dominated by Song Sparrows (Melospiza melodia). The goose remained in place until around 11am, when he flushed, and circled widely. Suddenly a pair of Ravens (Corvus corax) emerged from a nearby draw and mobbed him. Ravens are common in the desert lowlands to the west, but these were the first ones I've seen in Emigration. In another four weeks, a nest-hunting expedition will be in order.
California Quail (Callipepla californica) were introduced to this area early in the 20th century, and are common in the foothills. Small numbers have occurred in the Canyon as long as I can remember, but over the past decade they've seemed to really burgeon. I heard several roosters crow, but only saw two individuals during the day. Goldfinches (Carduelis spp.) are native here. When I was young, American Goldfinches (C. tristis) were not uncommon and Lesser Goldfinches (C. psaltria) were rare. I've noticed a marked increase in the latter species recently, and suspect they may have followed the march of invasive Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula). I couldn't confirm seeing any Lessers on Wednesday, but I was surprised how many Americans I saw. I estimated the number on my plot at 12, and saw as many as six individuals at once. Some common birds of the area were noticeably absent. The number of Scrub Jays (Aphelocoma californica) and Spotted Towhees (Pipilo maculatus) I recorded stands at one apiece, though I heard several of the latter. I can't explain not seeing a feather from a Black-headed Grosbeak (Pheuticus melanocephalus), or a bird of prey (Sharp-shinned Hawks (Accipiter striatus) and Belted Kingfishers (Ceryle alcyon) have both nested about 150m from the site for many years. It was probably still too early for many common favorites, yet too late for winter visitors. Also counted was a group of domestic Rock Doves (Columba livia).

Too early, as well, for most herptiles, too. A warm day like this one could have seen a Western Terrestrial Garter Snake (Thamnophis elegans) venture abroad, but such was not my luck. Tiger Salamanders (Ambystoma mavortium) are the first herps to stir. The adults emerge from hibernation soon after the ice melts, and head for the water to breed. This time of year they're aquatic, and I had hoped to spot an adult or two in the water, but only found a single egg to represent the classes Amphibia and Reptilia.

Most arthropods were also still in winter mode. I took a total of 30 net swipes through the pond in 30 different spots, and pulled up very little in the way of aquatic insects. A few naiads of mayflies (Baetis spp.) and damselflies (Argia spp.), a few Backswimmers (Notonecta undulata), and an unidentified Rat-tailed maggot (probably an Eristylis sp.) were all I saw. Once the sun got warm, though, hundreds of wolf spiders of the genus Pirata began foraging on the surface in the pondweed zone. Evidently, their skills at seeing tiny arthropods trumped my own. I was surprised to see but one water strider (Aquarius sp.) share the pond's surface with the spiders. The warming air also brought out hundreds of hover flies of the family Syrphidae. I saw several small banded Metasyrphus sp. and hundreds of large brown Bombylius sp.

One of the censusing nightmares I foresaw came to be when I found a colony of mound ants (Formica rufa-complex). How many individuals? I decided to estimate the number visible to me. Most insect diversity lies in the order Coleoptera, but I only saw one beetle, a Great Basin Click Beetle (Ctenicera pruinina). Spring Whites (Pontia sisymbrii) and overwintered Mourning Cloaks (Nymphalis antiopa) are usually the first butterflies I see up here, and this year was no exception. I also saw several Stella Orangetips (Anthocharis stella), a new butterfly to the area, as far as I know, and an unidentified fritillary-looking thing I couldn't get close to. The biggest surprise of the day probably came from a confused and very early cicada (Platypedia putnami). Another two months and this species will be plentiful, but I've never seen one emerge this early. The only non-arthropod invertebrates I found were the plentiful Great Pond Snails (Lymnea stagnalis). The value of any data I gleaned during this process is pretty dubious, but it was of enormous benefit to me. As Americans go, I'm fairly observant of my natural surroundings, but executing this bioblitz forced me to notice and consider it in a new and deeper way. I look forward to doing it again next April, if not sooner. Special thanks to Jeremy, Sarah, Jenn, Bev, Madhu and Greg. A complete-as-I'm-able bioblitz species list follows (a number of the species assignments are questionable):

Class: Charophytes
Family: Zygnemataceae
Green Pond Scum (Spirogyra sp.)

Class: Dothideomycetes
Family: Venturiaceae
Black Knot (Apiosporina morbosum)

Class: Equisetopsida
Family: Equisetaceae
Horsetail (Equisetum arvense)

Class: Dicotyledoneae
Family Aceraceae
Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentum)
Boxelder (Acer negundo)

Family: Apiaceae
Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum)

Yarrow (Achillea lanulosa)
Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata)
Nodding Bur-marigold (Bidens cernua)

Family Berberidaceae
Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens)

Family: Boraginaceae
Short-styled Bluebells (Mertensia brevistyla)
Burdock (Arctium minor)
Common Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus)
Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense)
Hounds Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale)
Common Dandelion (Taraxacum officianale)
Meadow Salsify (Tragopogon pratensis)

Family: Euphorbiacae
Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia esula)

Family: Fagaceae
Gambel's Oak (Quercus gambelii)

Family: Fabaceae
Utah Milkvetch (Astralagus utahensis)
Yellow Sweetclover (Melilotus officianalis)

Family: Polygonaceae
Western Dock (Rumex aquaticus)

Family: Ranunculaceae
Creeping Buttercup (Ranunculus repens)

Family: Rosaceae
Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis)
Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
Woods' Rose (Rosa woodsii)

Family: Salicaceae
Fremont Cottonwood (Populus fremontii)
Peach-leaved Willow (Salix amygdaloides)

Class: Monocotyledoneae
Family Cyperaceae
Few-flowered Spike-rush (Eleocharis quinqueflora)

Family: Lemnaceae
Lesser Duckweed (Lemna minor)

Family: Liliaceae
Star Solomon's Plume (Smilacina stellata)

Family: Typhaceae
Broad-leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Order: Basommatophora
Class: Gastropoda
Family: Lymnaedae
Great Pond Snail (Lymnaea stagnalis)

Class: Arachnida
Order: Araneae
Family: Lycosidae
Running Wolf Spider (Pardosa moesta)
Water Wolf Spider (Pirata piraticus)

Family: Tetragnathidae
Silver Large-jawed Orb Weaver (Tetragnatha laboriosa)

Class: Insecta
Order: Ephemeroptera
Family: Baetidae
Small Mayfly (Baetis bicaudatus)

Order: Odonata
Family: Coenigrionidae
Dancer naiad (Argia sp. emma?)

Order: Hemiptera
Family: Notonectidae
Back Swimmer (Notonecta undulata)

Family: Gerridae
Water Strider (Aquarius remigis)

Order: Homoptera
Family: Cicadidae
Cicada (Platypedia putnami)

Order: Coleoptera
Family: Elateridae
Great Basin Click Beetle (Ctenicera pruinina)

Order: Diptera
Family: Syrphidae
Brown Bee Fly (Bombylius albicapillus)
Banded Flower Fly (Metasyrphus gentneri)

Family: Calliphoridae
Green Bottle Fly (Phaenicia sericata)

Order: Lepidoptera
Family: Pieridae
Stella Orangetip (Anthocharis stella)
Spring White (Pontia sisymbrii)

Family: Nymphalidae
Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa)

Order: Hymenoptera
Family: Formicidae
Mound Ant (Formica rufa)
Brown Ant (Myrmica mutica)

Family: Vespidae
Paper Wasp (Polistes fuscatus)

Family: Megachilidae
Alfalfa Leafcutting Bee (Megachile rotunda)

Class: Amphibia
Family: Ambystomidae
Tiger Salamander (Ambystoma mavortium)

Class: Aves
Family: Ardeidae
Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax)

Family: Anatidae
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)

Family: Phasianidae
California Quail (Callipepla californica)

Family: Columbidae
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)
Domestic Rock Dove (Columba livia)

Family: Picidae
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)

Family: Corvidae
Scrub Jay (Aphelocoma californica)
Black-billed Magpie (Pica hudsonia)
Common Raven (Corvus corax)

Family: Paridae
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapilla)

Family: Troglodytidae
Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)

Family: Turdidae
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)

Family: Emberizidae
Spotted Towhee (Pipilo maculatus)
Green-tailed Towhee (Pipilo chlorurus)
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)

Family: Icteridae
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)

Family: Fringillidae
House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus)
American Goldfinch (Carduelis tristis)

Class: Mammalia
Family: Sciuridae
Least Chipmunk (Tamias minimus)

All Photographs taken by CPBvK at Perkins Flat, April 25, 2007

Saturday, April 28, 2007


Even with the help of global warming, my bioblitz site is still surprisingly sterile and wintery—but a lack of diversity was a blessing in disguise, and some interesting trends were still noticed, but we'll get to that in due time. First, a correction is in order: I previously described my study pond as the result of an anthropogenic excavation in the '50s. This had been my understanding since I was a kid, but after scrutinizing the Google satellite image of the place, it seems clear that it's a classic oxbow, stranded after the creek changed course. I would guess that the construction of the nearby skating rink in the late '40s caused this course change. As scheduled, I spent Wednesday at my study site. The weather couldn't have been more cooperative. It was the warmest day yet this spring—even so, the water is still very cold, with little visible insect life. There was still no sign of new pondweed (Potamogeton sp.) growth, but many new shoots of Broadleaf Cattail (Typha latifolia) pierced the chilly surface.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Perkins Flat was cultivated for nearly a century, and saw the erection of no fewer than six buildings prior to 1950. Since then, the land and ecology have mostly run things for themselves. In the 1970s, I remember the wooden floor that remained from Cannon's warming hut and a WPA outhouse, still in good shape. The wooden roof of the outhouse burned in the '80's, and today the remaining rubble of the sandstone and concrete edifice is inconspicuous. I was unable to find as much as a splinter of wood from the warming hut floor. Only a few chunks of concrete footing remain from the sturdy bridge I crossed the main creek on as a boy. But the chronicling of crumbling architecture isn't my concern here. The flora of the fallow Flat itself has changed steadily, affecting the ecology of the pond and its immediate vicinity.The plant life on each side of the pond is quite different. Not only does the north side receive more sunlight, but it is largely a continuation of the disturbed meadow-grassland system that took over from the adjacent abandoned farmland. The south side, on the other hand, is more a continuation of the native flora of the abutting hillside. Identifying the constituents of the meadow system was a real challenge that I can't claim to have tackled heroically. I purchased a copy of A. S. Hitchcock's excellent Manual of the Grasses, and crammed the night before, but after several hours spent trying to ID the various native and exotic grasses, I threw in the towel and banished the Poaceae from my tally, making myself a promise to develop a better understanding of this important plant family once its members start to flower.
The meadow's dicots weren't much more cooperative. Many of them hadn't sprouted yet, and most of those that had showed little more than a pair of cotyledons to distinguish themselves. Not surprisingly, most of the plants with sufficient growth for identification were invasives: Canada Thistle (Cirsium arvense), Hounds Tongue (Cynoglossum officinale), Dandelions (Taraxacum officianale), Burdock (Arctium minor), and Poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum). Grasses aside, the most conspicuous member of this community right now is one of the newest. Leafy Spurge (Euphorbia escula) invaded Emigration Canyon around 1980, and its range has swollen annually. I could find no specimens of another newcomer, Wild Teasel (Dipsacus sylvestris), on the study site, although it's numerous within ten meters of the west end. The flatter parts of the south end have probably changed much less ecologically. Burdock is plentiful, but so are such natives as Wood's Rose (Rosa woodsii), Arrowleaf Balsamroot (Balsamorhiza sagittata), Oregon Grape (Mahonia repens), Common Rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), and Utah Serviceberry (Amelanchier utahensis). Gambel's Oak (Quercus gambelii) is the dominant tree on the hillside to the south, but only two small specimens of the species occur on the site itself. A few relicts of the old riparian system still cling to life. Nine very old Bigtooth Maples (Acer granidentum) stand on the pond's east end, and five Fremont Cottonwoods (Populus fremontii) survive on the north shore. While a thick, healthy stand of Peachleaf Willow (Salix amygdaloides) thrives on the pond's sunny west end, shade and a small spring create very different conditions on the east end, where Star Solomon's Plume (Smilacina stellata) mixes with Horsetails (Equisetum arvense) and Short-styled Bluebells (Mertensia brevistyla), which, aside from Dandelions, are the only flowers blooming on the site.

A thick stand of Few-flowered Spikerushes (Eleocharis quinqueflora) lines the northeast shore. I would have liked to include in my tally the nearby stand of invasive Giant Rushes (Arundo donax - left) that appeared a couple of years ago, but it just wouldn't be fair to the other, more humble grasses. On the pond's surface, numerous young Lesser Duckweed plants (Lemna minor) are barely visible, floating amongst the Green Pond Scum (Spirogyra sp.). Within a month the two will claim most of the available surface area between them. The only fungus I was able to find was the Black Knot (Apiosporina morbosum) that grows on Chokecherries throughout the region. In the next post, I'll discuss the animals I cataloged.
Map and all photographs taken by CPBvK at Perkins Flat, April 25, 2007

Tuesday, April 24, 2007


When T.S. Eliot called April the cruelest month, he didn't know the half of it. April marks an annual convergence of wildlife art deadlines that makes my normally stress-free life...well, still pretty stress-free, actually—but still, the kind of time I'd like to devote to an exercise like the Blogger Bioblitz is hard to come by. I just returned from Fedexing the last of those deadlines into my past, though, and am ready to dive headlong into my own bioblitz, and not a moment too soon. Before dawn tomorrow, I'll load up my gear and drive to my selected study spot, prepared to make every effort to catalog its macroscopic residents. As I mentioned before, my study site is a stagnant pond a couple of miles from where I grew up, that I've visited numerous times each year for the past forty or so years. Painting Discipline (above), with its panoply of Wasatch Mountain flora and fauna, is probably the closest thing I've ever done to this bioblitz. I have no idea how long it will take, so I'll start at one end of the long, narrow pond, and work my way down, trying to tally the plants, animals and fungi that I observe, and see how far I get. I've set a few rules for myself that will surely be amended as work progresses. We're being asked to identify organisms to species, and I'll do my best to do that, but I'll try not to sacrifice too much accuracy in fealty to this rule. Identifying tetrapods to species shouldn't be too tough during the day, as long as I don't see any voles or shrews. My efforts to borrow a mist net for some bat trapping proved fruitless, and the Hoary Bat (Lasiurus cinereus) is the only local bat I can ID on the wing, so I probably won't go past family on them. Large animals will probably be over-represented, since I've decided to count any animals that I can see from the site (they don't actually have to step within ten meters of the water's edge). Signs like tracks, scats, calls, etc., won't be officially counted, but any noteworthy signs will surely be mentioned. I'll bring nets, field guides, notebook...and since I draw pictures for a living, I'd be a schmuck not to bring a sketchpad. In anticipation of tomorrow's activities, I'll fill out the rest of this post with an in-depth description of the site, which is in Emigration Canyon, a drainage into the Salt Lake Valley to the west, from the Wasatch Mountains. Emigration was not only my boyhood home, but was the route that Brigham Young and his band of Mormon pioneers followed in 1847 to their promised land.

The pond itself is some 600 feet long, running from latitude 40.764486356930334 and longitude 111.77342176437378, east to latitude 40.764860152779484 and longitude 111.77185535430908. In width it varies from about 30 feet to two feet. Seen as a tree-lined, transverse gash in a satellite photo, it's situated in “Perkins Flat,” the remnant of a small Pleistocene lake bed. Ute and Shoshone Indians must have frequented the area in recent centuries, and before them, the Fremonts, but they all left very little evidence behind them. Perkins Flat was first homesteaded by Willie Strong, who grew potatoes, alfalfa, grain and garden vegetables, before moving off of the land around 1891, when Walter Perkins took it over. The Perkins family farm was active for over 30 years, and was later leased to Fran Meik, who usually told folks he owned it, and farmed there until 1947, when Edwin Cannon bought it from Perkins' heirs.

Cannon, who built a tiny amusement park across the street from my house where I used to play as a kid, installed an ice skating rink on the Flat. Digging a circular depression, he rimmed it with a dirt berm, and connected it to the creek with a narrow channel. He hauled in two old army barracks, and enlisted Mel Humphries to plow the frozen pond in winter with his pickup truck, and manage the rink, rent skates and sell hot chocolate. Harm Walker leased a section of the Flat west of the rink, where he built a small riding stable (above), and rented ponies and donkeys, and an eatery, where he sold hamburgers, hot dogs and beer, and lived in the back. These enterprises weren't particularly successful, thanks in part to a succession of mild winters. Cannon sold the two barracks to neighbor E. B. Osguthorpe, who moved one of them to his property, where it still sits today. The other one burned down before E. B. could move it. In 1956, sheepmen Leo and Jay Bertagnole bought the land, and considered a number of enterprises, but did nothing with it but doze out a number of truckloads of dirt immediately west of the old rink, which were sold as topsoil. In the 1970s, Real Estate Developer James Sorenson began buying property in the area, with plans to build a high-end gated development, which eventually saw its grand opening in 1994. Today his colony of garish and poorly-built mansions sits on the hillside above the Flat. A wonderful grove of Bigtooth Maples (Acer grandidentum) was sacrificed for the subdivision, but only the access road insults the Flat itself, which is about as wild as it's been in the last century.

When I first explored Perkins Flat about 40 years ago, two large ponds stood as its main features: the circular, abandoned skating rink, and the long furrow left by Bertagnole's soil excavation, flooded with groundwater. At some point, Mosquitofish (Gambusia affinis) had been introduced to both ponds, and large, persistent populations were in evidence. Young Black Bullheads (Ameiurus melas), also introduced, swam in shoals in the round pond. Whether Northern Leopard Frogs (Rana pipiens) colonized the ponds on their own, or were transferred by human agency, they were also hugely successful.

In the spring of 1971, I began finding turtles of numerous species: Sliders (Chrysemys spp.), Musk Turtles (Sternotherus odoratus), Mud Turtles (Kinosternon spp.), and even a ten-inch Common Snapper (Chelydra serpentina). The following summer, the mystery of these exotics was solved when I met an older teenage boy who, after a couple of years traveling around the U.S., catching turtles, decided to experiment with introducing them to Utah, ultimately determining that these ponds could not sustain them for more than a couple of years. Somehow, Turtle Boy, who otherwise seemed quite bright, convinced himself that carving an outflow into the berm of the old rink would reduce the filling of the pond with sediment, but when he dug it, the whole thing collapsed. It took a few years for the drained pond to fill in completely with sediment. Today, 20-foot-tall trees grow in the center of the dry depression, which can be seen just above and to the right of the gash in the Google satellite photo.

That gash to the west--the long, narrow pond left by the Bertagnole excavation will be my study site. Although the water table has seen a dropping trend over the past 25 years, there's still quite a bit of water there. Throughout Emigration Canyon, Northern Leopard Frogs vanished quickly between 1972 and '74. The pond's Mosquitofish died out in the early 1990s, but it is still pretty rich with life. More talk of trends after my return. (Thanks to Jeff Carlstrom and Cynthia Furse for Historical data.)
upper: DISCIPLINE--FERRUGINOUS HAWK (1995) acrylic 40" x 30"
lower: Photograph of the Cannon Riding Stables from the Salt Lake County Tax Records.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Seventy years ago today, in the Indonesian town of Cimahi, Carel Jan Hendrik Brest van Kempen was born: mechanical and electrical engineer, geologist, physicist, architect, inventor, jazz musician, all-round Renaissance man, and my dad. Happy Birthday, Pop! Here's a smoke to your health!
Photograph of me and my dad taken by Woodie Ann Brest van Kempen, c. 1958

Sunday, April 01, 2007


I'm devoting today's post to a very unusual arthropod that's rather common in the immediated vicinity of my home, although I've never seen it anywhere else. The Assassin Dock (Lappazoon sarcophagus) displays an extreme sexual dimorphism: the small, flying males live but a few days, fluttering weakly upon the breeze. The much larger females are sessile, saprophagic, plant-like creatures anchored to the soil by their rootlike heads.
Every other year, these females, which can reach over a meter in height, "flower," giving rise to numerous burr-like sexual bodies. Attached weakly to their stalks, the mature sexual bodies break away if snagged on the fur or feathers of a passing animal, and begin growing "feeding tubes," which pierce the skin of the victim, secreting a potent toxin, while extracting nutrients. The injection kills the host in a few days, and the sexual body, after being fertilized, scatters eggs about the corpse. The larval Assassin Docks feed on the flesh of their host, and overwinter as cysts. Most larvae metamorphose into mature males the following summer. Female larvae live in the enriched soil for two seasons before metamorphosing, and "sprouting" from the ground.
illustration: "ASSASSIN DOCK" (2004) watercolor 24" x 18"