Western, urban, soggy-pants birding
I spent this past week in Salt Lake City - attending a big agronomy/soil science conference. I'd never been to SLC before, or to Utah for that matter, and found the city to be a pretty nice place - bustling but friendly, lots of old interesting architecture, clean, relatively safe-feeling, quaint sections, with obvious pockets of hippie-intellectual influence. And then there's the gigantic Mormon presence. This was not so much evident from inter-personal observations mind you, but instead from the magnitude of concrete, steel and acreage owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints. Holy cow. There must be at least 3 whole city blocks of LDS real estate. Across the street from my hotel, there was a 10-acre walled 'compound', for lack of a better word, called Temple Square that houses the Salt Lake Temple, the infamous Tabernacle, a couple of visitor centers, many gardens, displays, statues and fountains. The first two days I was there, I thought it was just a special park of some kind. Then I started to notice that it was much more than that. It is obviously a 'focused-culture' center; nearly all the men wandering around are clad in black suits and ties, and the women are mostly wearing long skirts. Many wore name tags. The 'tour guides' stationed at the gates are international and multilingual and apparently love their mission.
The adjacent city blocks, outside the gates of Temple Square, are also owned by the LDS Church. The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is huge. I don't know what facet of LDS activities go on there; it could be a housing or dormitory-type of facility. Just north of Temple Square, there's an enormous Conference Center with a 21,000 seat auditorium(!). The main business building, the Church Office Building is the LDS Worldwide HQ. This ominous building is 28 stories high and occupies half a city block. It's technically the 2nd tallest building in SLC, but it's on a hill, so it's functionally the tallest in the city. This giant concrete obelisk, with 30-foot globes chiseled into its facade, looks like it could house the nerve center of the Interplanetary Postal Service or the Martian CIA.
Anyhoo... The conference was pretty good. The weather was gray and cloudy - rain and snow were forecast but never quite materialized. On Tuesday afternoon I had a chance to skip out of the meetings for a couple hours of outdoor exploration - I headed for City Creek Canyon. I had researched some urban birding locations in the city and this one seemed like the best bet for the automobile-deficient birder. I hiked north, uphill until I couldn't take it any longer, then I skidded down into the canyon only to discover that I could have taken a lower, easier route to arrive at the same point. Nice. A small freestone creek runs down through the canyon and into the city. There's a narrow riparian park area along the length of the creek, which ultimately widens into a larger, less manicured green park area and ultimately into City Creek Canyon Refuge further out of town. It was worth the unnecessarily steep hike however; the views of the snow-peaked mountains and surrounding brushy landscapes are something I don't get to see very often living in the Midwest. These pictures would be a lot more beautiful if the sun had been out; these are beautiful landscapes.
I stayed on the roadways until I could skid down to the creek without injury and was immediately joined by a packet of roiling black-capped chickadees madly scavenging the trees for some kind of seeds. I hoped perhaps to find a more exotic bird or two of another species mixed in with them but did not. I followed a narrow footpath up and down the steep bank, hoping against a misstep in the loose leaves that might put me in the creek with a broken wrist and a bump on my head. I came to a point where the steepness of the bank no longer looked like a smart option, so I decided to hop across the creek to the more accommodating side. The creek is only a foot or two deep, and there were several stones above or near the surface, but it turns out they were pretty slippery. My cat-like balance failed me and I ended up wading across really fast. I was quick enough that I never got any actual water inside my boots thankfully. The boots lived up to their waterproof claims once again. It is kind of amazing how panicky-fast reactions make you more water-resistant. Now, I just felt a little stupid wandering against the light flow of mountain bikers and joggers with my binoculars and wet pant legs.
Before walking very far on the more civilized side of the creek, I stopped a couple of times to listen and scan the brush for little birds. It was quite windy, so I had a hard time hearing bird calls over the wind and the rushing creek. Instead of little birds however, I noticed a rotund Northern Flicker on a dead snag right in front of me. He was very bold, maintaining his perch while I photographed and binocularized him for several minutes. I was able to get a close-up photo by digiscoping through my 8x42 binoculars. This photo was my best one, but I did crop some vignetting out of the lower left corner. Mindful of the time, I continued on down the path looking for western birds I don't get the chance to see often. I scared up a small flock of dark-eyed juncos and was initially disappointed that they were another common species for me. Then I noticed that they were lighter and browner than the juncos at home - perhaps the western Oregon form. Further through the park, I found a mixed flock of American goldfinches, in their drab winter colors, and house finches gleaning while hanging upside down on tree branches. I scanned the little creek for fish everywhere I stopped but saw none.
I was nearly back to my hotel when I spotted the bird of the day, a peregrine falcon. Another life-list addition for me I think. I'm pretty sure I've never found one birding by myself before and I'm not sure I've seen one at all. He was perched atop a spire on the Salt Lake Temple, inside the Temple Square walls. I camped out in the fountain and garden area below and watched for about 30 minutes. I had hoped he'd move enough for me to get a better look and confirm my identification. He was content to stay where he was, so I walked around the building, binocularizing from all directions until I collected enough details to come back to the hotel and consult my bird guide. His moustache marks, long wings and streaked breast and legs added up to peregrine for me. So, back at my hotel room, I googled the topic and found that a pair of peregrines nested in the city this year. Sweet! In fact, young peregrines have fledged from nests on the adjacent Joseph Smith Memorial Building several times, and on other nearby buildings as well, since the mid-1990s. Very cool! I was quite self-satisfied. The hike was well worth the wet pants and odd stares from joggers. And I had bagged two life-list additions in one week!
On Thursday afternoon, I unexpectedly ended up with a couple of hours to kill before flying home, so I quickly headed back to the furthest point I'd investigated on Tuesday, then continued further north and quickly reached City Creek Canyon Refuge. I think I saw a Steller's Jay within the city limits, but he disappeared so quickly I didn't get a good view. I first noticed his voice, which sounded very jay-like to me. At the Canyon Refuge, I followed narrow footpaths along and across the creek and up and down the steep, wooded banks. Just inside the park, I spotted a small, warbly-looking specimen flitting among nearby brush. He sat still for a few seconds of binocular-viewing, but I am really not sure who I was looking at. A drab, winter-colored yellow warbler? He was a smooth yellow-olive color with darker wings. I didn't notice any eye stripes or rings or any pronounced streakiness. I hadn't carried my guide with me, but later perusal still didn't help to confirm an ID for sure. UPDATE: In comments, Nuthatch suggests my warbler may have been an orange-crowned. I suspect she's right.
Immediately upon crossing the boundary into the refuge, I noticed a lot more fish in the creek. All fish sightings appeared to fit into one of two groups: silvery rainbows or cutthroats (Genus Oncorhynchus) and darker brook or bull trout (Genus Salvelinus). Lots of them. Each time I poked my head through the brush over the bank, several shadowy slivers zipped from the bright, well-lit water into the darker hiding places. A lot of the time they're not that easy to see until you catch them darting through your peripheral vision. They're sneaky that way. These fish often seemed pretty large - 9-11" - for such a small stream. I heard lots of chickadees, juncos and nuthatches, but wasn't always able to find them with my binoculars.
On my return trip back to the hotel, I spotted a noisy black-billed magpie. His identificaton was a bit more straightforward than the warbler's.
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