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NATURE HAPPENINGS - July 2008

Summertime

by Damian Fagan

Every year, about the beginning of June, I hum a few bars of the song “Summertime.” Summertime and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the water is high. I think the song got stuck in my head back in 1977 – the year I graduated from high school and departed from the East, for good. Maybe it is also because the song is one of the most covered popular tunes next to the Beatles “Yesterday.” Then again, it could be due to this time of year – summer.

Though it has been a cool spring and a late start to summer this year, don’t get your hopes up for a heat-less summer season. Seems like just when things start to feel good, the mercury climbs and the shade seems too brief. Of course, there are many Moabites who relish the summer heat, basking in it like a collared lizard. No, I take that back. Collared lizards seek shade at some point.

For me, relief is spelled: L-A-S-A-L-S. A change in elevation does wonders as the temperature drops about 3 degrees Fahrenheit for every thousand feet I climb. This helps to take the edge of the daytime high and makes the night feel cool, almost chilly. Well, almost.

In addition to a little temperature change, there is the added benefit of being in some different habitats that don’t exist at lower elevations. By this I mean the mountain brush, ponderosa pine, spruce-fir and sub-alpine haunts.

Though these habitats, especially the higher elevation ones, seem better suited for more northern climates, consider this – for every 2,500 feet in elevation one gains, this equals a change of 400 miles in latitude. Thus, these forest types that are more typical of northern latitudes can exist within these desert sky islands. And correspondingly, one can find certain wildlife species suited for life in these habitats that are missing from the canyons below.

Certain “foothill” habitats, like the pinyon-juniper forest or the sagebrush-grasslands, flirt with and around the Gambel’s oak-mountain mahogany zone. Aspect and terrain can either maintain these habitats to somewhere around 5,500 to 7,000 feet in elevation, or let the sagebrush-grasslands interfinger upwards into the aspens at higher elevations . Pinyons seem to max out about 8,500 feet, even on south facing slopes.

The mountain brush zone seems like a just a skip above the desert floor, but this is a great zone to get to know. In addition to the pinyons that grow intermixed here, there is mountain mahogany, serviceberry and Gambel’s oak with its gnarly limbs and fat acorns that entice a number of wildlife species into their haunts. Steller’s and scrub jays, Clark’s nutcrackers, rock squirrels, chipmunks, mule deer, wild turkey, and black bears seem to be regulars here feasting on the acorns. All that leaf matter also attracts a number of birds like Virginia’s and orange-crowned warblers, warbling vireos, and dusky flycatchers. These birds prefer the insects that feed on the oaks, and utilize the dense cover of the “trees” to provide protection for their nest sites.

Farther upslope, the mountain brush gives way to ponderosas on the north and east side of the mountains, and aspens in other locations. Though ponderosas are one of my favorite trees, I think the aspens come a close second. There is something about their clown-white bark and shimmering leaves that shout “SUMMER” to me. For when the coolness of autumn settles into these peaks, the aspen respond with a riot of color before shutting down for winter. Maybe it is the response of these trees to summer, where greening leaves provide a stark contrast to the undramatic plod of their neighbors, the conifers.

But make no mistake. It is worth getting into these darker forests of Engelmann spruce, Douglas fir, white fir, subalpine fir, and, to a limited extent, limber pine. Seemingly unchanged between the seasons, you just need to listen for the drumming of black-backed woodpeckers or sharp “peek!” of a pika or the scolding chatter of red squirrels to know you’re in the high country with only the peaks and cloud tops above you. Or maybe it is the intense gaze of a goshawk watching you the trees.

But it only happens high up in these mountains, once named Sierra de la Sal by early Spanish explorers. They offer a refuge from the summertime heat and a “cool” place to explore when the livin’ is easy. Ah, summertime.
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