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NATURE HAPPENINGS - JULY 2001

INTO THE SPRUCE FIR
by Damian Fagan

Elevation and temperature drives the balance of summer. When the mercury starts bubbling in July here in the hamlet of Moab, it’s time to reevaluate that bumper sticker “Get high in the mountains.” Not consciously-challenged, but get up there in elevation to some cooler spot like the spruce-fir zone.

Like a green shawl draped around the mountain’s shoulders, the spruce-fir zone is the high elevation conifer belt. Where the aspen, Douglas fir and ponderosa fail to dwell, one can easily find thickets of Engelmann’s spruce or subalpine fir.

Though both are members of the Pine Family, you only have to feel their needles to tell the two apart. The spruce needles are stiff and sharp, pointed at the end like a cat’s claw and square at the base. The fir needles are softer and not so stiff. If you can find their cones, the pendulous spruce cone has numerous wavy scales and the upright fir cone is purplish-green. Both cones are quite different from their near relative, and lower elevation cousin, the Douglas fir.

The story goes that a long time ago (as most stories start) there were many mice that lived in a forest of fir trees. In this forest there were some very large trees with thick bark covering their trunks. One day a huge fire started in a meadow and raced through the forest. The mice, afraid that they would be burned, climbed up the large trees and hid beneath the cone’s scales and escaped the fire. Well, almost hid. Their tails and two hind legs were exposed, as they are today. So the story goes.

But back up in elevation, some white fir and blue spruce mix in with their higher elevation relatives. Quite a pinny convention here above 9,500' where the stature of the spruces and firs betray the weather conditions at this higher elevation. Tall and thin, with upturned limbs, these trees are built to shed the snow. Their tight clusters also protect individuals from harsh mountain winds and freezing temperatures. Tough to find a deciduous tree like an aspen or lanceleaf cottonwood in these areas.

But what you may find up in this lush zone is a different association of wildlife species. Clark’s nutcrack-ers with their grating calls, fly from tree to tree in search of ripe cones. Once known as whisk-ey-jacks, these birds will take advantage of an unattended campsite. Just remember to screw that cap on tight.
Red crossbills, finches with a wicked over-bite, fly in chattering flocks as they too search for the good cones. The crossbills displace the ruby-crowned kinglets and pine siskins, smaller birds that search for insects and seeds in these mountain halls.

These smaller birds fall prey to sharp-shinned hawks. One of the smallest accipiters in North America, the sharpie is a bundle of tenacious energy. The unaware kinglet or siskin may not get a chance to think twice about its plight.

Like each belt of vegetation that encircles the La Sals, the spruce-fir one is most easily traversed in summer. The snows of winter drive many of its wild inhabitants southward, or at least to lower elevations. Some hardy individuals remain, and I wonder if they count the days remaining until the warmth of summer once again descends upon this montane world.

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