Saturday, December 10, 2011

Mt. Zion National Park

I'm so late in posting this trip and my photos.  The back story:  on October 31st I flew to Salt Lake City to attend a conference and took three days at the front end for vacation.  I arrived on a mild Monday afternoon and drove to Antelope Island State Park.  Originally I had planned to stay around the Salt Lake City area which is in northeast Utah.  But weather predictions for Tuesday, November 1st were calling for 45 degrees and rain mixed with snow and sleet.  Even though this kind of weather had not yet arrived in Michigan, I knew it was right around the corner.  I was not quite ready to face it on a vacation day.  I decided then to take the plunge and do the long drive to southern Utah for their spectacular canyon national parks.  After my Antelope Island visit I drove well south of Salt Lake City and stayed the night in a motel for an early morning departure straight south on I-15 to Mt. Zion National Park.  This was the national park furthest south and the one I had heard the most about.   

I arrived just as the sun was lighting up the tops of the red rock cliffs. There were hardly any cars on the road.  I received a surprise when I arrived at the Mt. Zion park gates.  Typically there is a $25.00 entry fee. I was waved in by a park attendant who was apparently still setting up.  "Just go in?" I asked.  "That's right." and he waved me by him.

The beauty of this kind of landscape, while obvious, is difficult to capture in photos.  Around each curve in the road is a scene more spectacular than the one before.  I drove to the visitor center for a park map and to get an idea of how to spend the day.  The ranger was a birder and knowledgeable.  She highlighted all of the doable hikes for a one day visit. 

My first hike was to the Emerald Pools - a series of three pools each going higher in elevation.  The waterfall in the photo above was between the first and second pools.    

This handsomely posing Western Jay (Aphelocoma californica) popped up and stayed long enough for me to snap three photos - two of the photos were of the bird facing me, but in the photo above you can see the glint in its eye.  In this same location there were also a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets (Regulus calendula), one even singing. But probably the best bird here for me was a Mountain Chickadee (Poecile gambeli).  One was actively feeding very close but moving too quickly for me to get a photo.

The above photo shows the canyon walls around the upper emerald pool. By this time of the day it was sunny, bright and warm.  I shed my sweater and fleece vest as I hiked up.  

This little bluet landed on a sunny rock surface.  As in the east, Familiar Bluet (Enallagma civile) is the most common and widespread, but other bluets are also found in southern Utah.  An expert would need to identify for me.  

A small brown lizard did the same.  This time of year the canyon gets very cold at night.  These small creatures need to warm up to start their day.

The Canyon Wren (Catherpes mexicanus) was my best surprise of the day.  From the park ranger I knew they were present, but I didn't really expect to see one.  There is a backstory here, too.  In 2008 I took a trip to southeast Arizona - my first birding trip to the southwest - with Maryland friends Mark Linardi and Steve Sanford.  We handily saw Cactus, Bewick's and Rock wrens, but the Canyon Wren was a holdout. We heard them all over but never saw one.  Finally, near Patagonia at a roadside pulloff and while looking for Thick-billed Kingbird, we briefly saw a distant Canyon Wren scuttle across a rock surface and disappear into a canyon crevice.  We never did find the Thick-billed Kingbird and that distant and brief view of the Canyon Wren remained our only one for the trip.  I can now finally say I've seen the Canyon Wren well. Along this Mt. Zion trail, and later in the day along another trail, they were handily in view and like any wren they were busy searching for food, calling to each other and popping up to perch every so often.   

Juniper Titmouse (Baeolophus ridgwayi) was another bird seen nicely along the trail.  Unfortunately, the photo above is the best I could get. In this location I heard the ruckus of innumerable small bird notes. Easy to find the spot - at least two or three dozen Ruby-crowned Kinglets were in a tizzy.  Amongst them were a couple of Juniper Titmice and the Canyon Wren even joined in.  They were all buzzing around a yew-like tree and I thought, "there is something in this tree."    

Of course, I was hoping for a western species owl, but I was still pleased to find this Saw-whet (Aegolius acadicus).  The tree was along a steep embankment and my search for the owl took some maneuvering which did then scare away the kinglets - apparently satisfied they had done their job.  Here the owl is awake and looking at me as if to say "thank you."

Moments later it was sleeping.  Ah, how I admire that skill to quick sleep.  Hopefully, it was able to enjoy some peace after all that.

From a distance this squirrel could be mistaken for an ordinary gray squirrel.  Up close this Rock Squirrel (Spermophilus variegatus) has a pretty speckled coat and tail.  

Mule Deer (Odocoileus hemionus) were common throughout the park and quite tame.  

I was hoping to see American Dipper in this beautiful river valley.  No such luck.

With Mt. Zion's massive vertical cliffs, I wondered if I might see some climbers.  These two had attracted a crowd that were glued to their precipitous efforts.  You can tell how high up they are on the rock surface by how small their images are in this photograph.

A Western Bluebird (Sialia mexicana) paused to drink from the river's edge. Several were around with Yellow-rumped (Audubon) warblers (Setophaga coronata).

Mt. Zion was not the birdiest place I've ever been and it would be difficult for me to recommend it for birding, but I did see some good birds - especially given the time of year.  Apparently, though I did not see any, American Dipper is common here.  Of note, I was told of a location where California Condors are now being seen.  Unfortunately, they did not make an appearance for me.   

I have not visited many of our national parks, especially the western parks.  I would recommend Mt. Zion in a New York minute.  It is spectacular beyond words.  Also, my November 1st visit was perfect. There were plenty of other visitors but not the crush of people that would be more typical in summer. Because of my long drive back to Salt Lake City I finally had to tear myself away around 4:00 pm.  It was hard to do.  The sun was just starting to set in the canyon and I could tell I was going to miss something special.