big foot

A common sight in the marsh:  herons and egrets stalking their prey.

great egret and wood ducklings

the stalker creeps along in the marsh behind a family of wood ducks

This part of the marsh is flooded from all the recent rain, and the foraging area is congested with once weedy vegetation that has since died.  This might be fine for foraging on critters hiding in the mucky bottom, but it makes flying to an observation perch challenging when the bird tries to navigate through the dead sticks.

great egret-

Sometimes the bird’s wings get caught up on a branch.

great egret-

And then there’s the problem of finding a suitable perch.  There’s not much to hang onto among the skinny little branchlets.

great egret-feet

In fact, how does a bird with such long toes get a grasp on a thin little branch?

great egret-

Finally perched, the egret continues its hunt.

great egret-feet

Toes are finally wrapped around the perch, but they can’t really close tight enough to enable a firm grasp of it.  

These big feet are meant for something else entirely — wading.  Long toes that distribute the bird’s weight evenly on an enlarged surface area prevent herons and egrets from sinking into the muck, as they stride along the marsh looking for anything moving.

Great Blue Heron feet-TexasEagle-flickr

Great Blue Herons have an additional advantage in wading — some webbing between the toes that further spread out the surface area of the feet.

So, big feet may be disadvantageous in perching on small stems, but of great advantage in wading along mucky marsh beds.

here’s looking at you

A blackish oblong shape moved slowly across the road toward my front lawn the other day.  I had no idea what it was until it got much closer.

snapping turtle-

A rather large snapping turtle was moving from the lake across the street from my front yard to the ponds beyond my backyard.

snapping turtle-

Large, widely spaced eyes help them see a wide range of view, but not when their head is pulled back into their shell.  

snapping turtle-

snapping turtle mimicking a cobra?

snapping turtle-

Is this how it sees what’s ahead?

snapping turtle-

finally on the move again….

Snapping Turtles are fearsome predators, with powerful jaw muscles that can close the mouth with such force and velocity they can bite a small pineapple in half, or amputate human fingers.  Needless to say, I left this one alone.  They are at or near the top of the aquatic food chain as adults, but take 15-20 years to mature to reproductive age.  Few snapping turtle hatchlings survive to adulthood, but adults are very long-lived.

following Mom

A common sight in lakes and ponds this time of year is a brood of little ducklings paddling very close to their mother.

mallard hen and ducklings

A mallard hen escorts her newly hatched brood across the pond to better foraging habitat.

wood duck hen and brood

Wood duck hatchlings have to paddle fast to keep up with their mom.

Mother Duck’s large body moving around the nest was the first thing the newly hatched ducklings saw, and within a day’s time, they imprinted on her, meaning their brains became wired to follow that object faithfully until they mature to full independence.

wood duck hen and brood

Whatever mom does, the ducklings do. When it’s time to rest after hunting for bugs, the ducklings take a break with their mom.

There is a critical period for this type of “filial imprinting” to occur — usually within 24-48 hours of hatching.  Whatever large, mobile object the hatchling sees, it follows — even if it is a human.  This type of imprinting is of obvious survival value to precocial birds, those that are mobile immediately after hatching, as they learn survival skills and are protected by at least one parent.

Konrad Lorenz and imprinted geese

Konrad Lorenz, an early 20th century behavioral biologist, studied imprinting in Greylag Geese by attending to them immediately after hatching.  From then on, they followed him faithfully wherever he went.

You might wonder if imprinting only occurs in birds.  The answer is NO, but there are different types of imprinting, even in birds.  Social and sexual imprinting are key to making sure an individual associates with members of its own species.  Keith Kendrick* cross-fostered sheep and goats immediately after birth (i.e., goats mothered the lambs and sheep mothered the kids), and found that male offspring (but not females) were subsequently irreversibly attracted both socially and sexually to their foster mom’s species more than their own.

animal-imprinting-in sheep and goat (Kendrick, 1995)

Sheep and goat buddies.  From How Stuff Works.

Sort of makes you wonder about Tarzan being raised by apes…

*Kendrick et al. 1995. Mothers determine sexual preferences.  Nature 395: 229-230.

fabulous fiery fourth

I’ve been wanting to try some night photography.  What a great time to get started…with the fabulous color displays of tonight’s fireworks.  I think the colors and patterns are actually more vivid when captured in a 1 second exposure than when they are viewed in real time.

fireworks-

that’s the moon on the far right of the image

fireworks-

fireworks-

Viewed live, I hadn’t appreciated so many of the color bursts were red, white, and blue

fireworks-

Camera settings, for those that are interested: ISO 200, f8, 1-1.5 sec, using a remote release and manual focus.

a foxy morning

What a delight to see my favorite canids lounging in my Minnesota backyard this morning.

red fox-

In addition to brief, one minute naps, there was quite a lot of scratching and grooming going on.

red fox-

And when they stopped digging at their own fleas or whatever was itchy, they groomed each other.

red fox-

red fox-

must be some good stuff inside the other fox’s ear…

I watched these two foxes for several minutes, but can’t figure out if they are a male-female pair, or two youngsters, or what.  Male foxes are usually noticeably bigger then females, and these two seem to be identical in size. They do seem a bit small and skinny, so maybe they are younger, but this year’s kits would not be this big yet, having been born in late March, and just out of their den in early May.  It’s a mystery.

red fox-

Shot through the not very clean porch window at 500 mm —

Midsommer in Sweden’s archipelago

More than 44,000 islands make up the archipelago off Sweden’s east coast, and they are a popular destination, especially during Midsommer festivities. A ferry trip to one of the most distant islands, Üto — site of one of Sweden’s oldest iron mines — was a great way to end our European tour.  Some of the sights included:

Sweden archipelago islands

View from the ferry to Üto island, pronounced nothing like it is spelled.

Sweden archipelago islands

The best way to get around the island from the ferry landing, on bikes.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Sailing and swimming are top priorities on a warmish weekend in midsummer.

Sweden archipelago islands

Sweden archipelago islands

We pass cute farm houses…

Poppies, Sweden archipelago islands

And flowers (red poppies)

Bell flower, Sweden archipelago islands

And bell flowers…

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

And lupines…

Sweden archipelago islands

And something I don’t recognize…

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

And finally come to the beach at the far end of the island.

Uto island, Sweden archipelago islands

Crashing waves and cold water, perfect for swimming, but not for me.

Lupine, Sweden archipelago islands

Good bye Sweden, I hope to return some day.

the top of the world

You probably associate summer solstice with warm, sunny days conducive to lying about on beaches soaking up the sunshine.  Not so here at the northern tip of Sweden, on the road to Narvik, Norway.  Spring hasn’t even made an appearance here yet, and it’s mid-summer!

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park, some lakes still have ice, and the vegetation hasn’t recovered from winter.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Prime beach front just waiting for the defrost…I assume these cottages probably house avid fishermen.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

We think these are reindeer pens, used periodically by the nomadic Sami herders to pen their animals during the spring or fall, in between migrating between summer and winter grazing areas.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

Summer cottages, idyllic havens far from city life. No roads to them, no phone, electricity, water or indoor plumbing, and far away from the neighbors. Plenty of fresh water nearby though.

On the road to Narvik, Norway from Abisko national park

There are some small towns on this long stretch from Abisko to Narvik, Norway. The mountains in the background make this a very scenic drive.

Narvik, Norway

The bus trip ends in Narvik, one of many towns in Norway on a long, deep fjord. On this side of the coastal mountains, there is more rain, milder temperatures due to Gulf stream influence, and much lusher and taller vegetation than we saw on the eastern side of the mountains in Sweden.

Spring poppies, Narvik, Norway

and spring flowers! Poppies, lilacs, flowering trees, tall birches with large leaves, a welcome sight, after all that snow and ice.

Above the treeline

The harsh climate takes its toll on life on mountain slopes at 68 degrees north latitude.  Above the treeline, there is a lot of exposed rock, covered in places with lichen.  A miniature forest about I inch high clings to rock crevices where moisture is greater, and what flowers are present, are tiny miniature copies of lusher vegetation down below.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Exposed rock and patchy vegetative cover on Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The views of the mountains are spectacular as we climb Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Below our feet, a carpet of tiny plants and lichen have colonized the rocky crevices.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The vista is 270 degrees of spectacular, snowy mountains and u-shaped glacial valleys. In today’s perfect sunny weather, we could stay and look out at the horizon forever.

Willow catkins, Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Tiny willow plants send their catkins upward, the tallest plants I found.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Some plants, like the trailing azalea, spread by sending out horizontal branches that cling to the rock surface on Mt. Njulla.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

The flowers buds are minuscule, the open flowers barely measure a couple of mm across. The leaves look almost like succulents, which might be a water conservation strategy in this arid environment. There are no pollinators around yet.

Northern Wheatear, Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

We hiked the mountain hoping to see reindeer foraging on the high slopes. But the only evidence of their presence was some poop.  This Northern Wheatear was the only bird we saw or heard on our hike. They breed in rocky habitat in Northern Europe after migrating from wintering grounds in Africa.

Mt. Njulla, Abisko national park, Sweden

Then, its back to our cozy cabin for dinner after a long day of hiking.

Trekking the far north

We’ve made our way from Stockholm to the far northern limit of Sweden to Abisko national park, where even the pines have dwindled to non-existence and the surviving birch trees are dwarfed.  The mountains still have quite a bit of snow, and spring flowers are just making their appearances.  It’s the time of the summer solstice, with 24 hours of light, and midnight hiking is popular.  The scene outside my cabin at Abisko Turistation looks like this.

Abisko national park

Lake (very long Swedish name) in Abisko national park

Abisko national park

Rushing rivers empty into the lake. This one comes through a tunnel in the rock created for the train track so they wouldn’t have to build a bridge over a waterfall.

Abisko national park

Beautiful hiking trails from our cabin down to the lake through the elfin forest. Birch trees look to be about 12-15 feet tall.

Abisko national park

The bedrock (granite) is very close to the surface, making plant life challenging. The rocks have been colonized by heather, moss, and an unidentifiable shrub, along with horsetails, and lichen.

Abisko national park

A carpet of moss and lichen cover the rocks here. When I press down on it, it feels spongy and moist. This is prime reindeer forage in the winter.

Abisko national park

It’s strange to see 8 inch tall horsetails plants just leafing out. In Minnesota these prehistoric relics grow 3-4 feet tall, and form dense clumps along waterways.

Life is challenging here in the land of the midnight sun at 68 degrees north latitude, where the sun shines all day for about 3 weeks around the time of the summer solstice.

City of contrasts — old and new

Russia!! More specifically, St. Petersburg, what a gorgeous and hospitable city.  A two-day, whirlwind tour of palaces, gardens, city sights, museums, etc., but no biology, unfortunately.  What contrasts from new, modern skyscrapers and malls to old Soviet style offices and huge apartment complexes to 18th century or earlier palace constructions.  It’s definitely spring here, and we hit two of the 9 sunny days they average here each summer.

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Apartment buildings, St. Petersburg, Russia

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg

Church of spilt blood, St. Petersburg , what a contrast after looking at city dwellers residences.  The interior is covered with thousands of square feet of mosaics depicting the life of Christ.

Canals in St Petersburg

Canals in St Petersburg connect the dozens of islands that make up the city.

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg

The Winter Palace, St. Petersburg is one of four museums of art and antiquities that make up the Hermitage. Only 20% of the more than 3million acquisitions are displayed at any one time.

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg

Gardens at Peterhof, St. Petersburg. Summer residence of Peter the Great, on the Gulf of Finland

Catherine's Palace, St. Petersburg

Catherine’s Palace, St. Petersburg, ornate and lavish with its own set of art treasures

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg

T-shirts for sale, St. Petersburg